Playing Pretend With History
I have been offering a first-person portrayal of Thomas Jefferson since 1987 and the experience continues to amaze and fascinate me. (Hopefully my audiences share a bit of these feelings.) The founding era of our country has attracted me since I began reading the black silhouetted biographies in third grade with such titles, as best I can recall – George Washington: Boy Leader, Ben Franklin: Boy Printer, Thomas Edison: Boy Inventor, etc. The fact that current electronic and paper headlines still contain stories about that era demonstrates to me the accuracy of William Faulkner’s observation, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Passing history on to the next generation, courtesy of the New York Historical Society
Nevertheless, history seems to be dying. Ask the accountants at Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., or the antique dealers at Sotheby’s; the relative dollars coming in cannot match those of ten or twenty years ago. The Broadway show, Hamilton, has contradicted that trend. However, the blend of 21st century style, a timeless story, and the potency of an explosion of African-American perspective in the current culture make it an attractive anomaly for many, not a trendsetter. Television does present assorted stories of the past, several of them quite compelling, but fewer and fewer kids are drawn to the mythology of our founding.
Logically, this makes perfect sense. That mythology was flawed, therefore academic and popular historians, and the artists who convey history to the coming generations, have worked hard to show that these “Founding Fathers” possessed prejudice, greed, parochialism, and pride that existed within the terms of their enduring accomplishments. The popular phrase is, to demonstrate that “they were human.” And it cannot not be denied that they were, and that we should be aware of their failings so that we do not repeat the same errors.
But we pay a price for this correction, the loss of awe at how our country came to be. Adults who have an interest in such things grasp this contradiction and accept it as part of human nature. Kids do not deal with such subtleties. Those people were good or they were bad, and the stories that we tell them have to reflect that clarity, particularly when they were both good and bad.
Portraying America’s most controversial “Founding Father” to a young audience gives me the opportunity to shape how they will view American history as they mature. Through conversation, stories, and a sense of formality so removed from our contemporary times, kids have an opportunity to play “pretend” and step back into time when the man can speak for himself. They are often better at such games than adults and it is at these moments that history can become a part of their futures. I do not take this responsibility lightly.