Glenn Uminowicz - February 2007

The Play Was the Thing


Glenn Uminowicz

Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County

The pageant is not steeped in the carnival spirit; its essence is designed for the Puritan more than for the Bacchanalian or Bohemian; it does not cater to the Great Broad Grin. A pageant should be characterized by that attentive hush which falls in the hour of spiritual communion.
– Ralph Davol, A Handbook of American Pageantry (1914)

   In the early 20th century, the staging of historical pageants increasingly became the purview of professional organizers like Ralph Davol. As the above quotation indicates, Davol was interested in more than the “Technique of Pageantry.” His handbook contained chapters on pageantry as an “Educational Factor,” a “Nursery of Patriotism,” and a “Moral Agent.”
    In 1955, Baltimore newspaperman J. William Joynes brought a similar wide-ranging approach to pageantry to bear on a theatrical production. On September 17th, one thousand people jammed into the Easton High School Auditorium to enjoy the premier of Talbot Tales: A Historical Drama of the Eastern Shore. Sponsored by the Historical Society of Talbot County, the production featured many prominent local citizens.
    The opening of the play demonstrated that Joynes well understood that pageantry should be characterized by that “attentive hush which falls in the hour of spiritual communion.” His stage directions read, “The audience is gathering. Soft and low, some music is playing—nothing martial—but a hymn of praise to Almighty God to set the mood.”
    As the singing dies away, a single spotlight placed a minister center stage. With head raised heavenward, he addressed a prayer out over the audience.

Almighty and most gracious God
In whom men through the ages past have put their hopes,
their dreams, their trust, their aspirations.
Fashion within our hearts and minds those qualities
which led them to these shores.
We ask that we might understand those things that brought
them to this land to build a new nation
And a heritage which we should inherit and give in all
faith to our children yet unborn
We ask that by Thy boundless grace we may never lose sight
of those deeds which made this land possible for us.

   After the invocation, the minister addressed the audience directly, alluding to the adventurers and settlers that came to Delmarva in the colonial era. He then observed, “History is long and memories short. Like the words of some half-forgotten tune, their deeds are clouded in the mists of time. Now to the historian and the poet we leave the story of their lives.”
    In his handbook, Davol noted, “A well-regulated pageant should consist of three phases—realism, symbolism, idealism.” As Joynes put it, the stories of early Talbot Countians should be left to the “historian and the poet.” Like modern directors of docudramas, pageant organizers and playwrights experienced a constant tension between sticking to the facts and the need for theatricality. In Talbot Tales, Act I, Scene I illustrated how that tension was too often resolved.
    In the play, a “Storyteller” carried the narrative that linked the various historical vignettes. His first lines read, “Where legend ends and truth begins there is a fine, unseen line of separation, obscured like the feelings of the heart.”
    The first scene begins in an Indian village on the Tred Avon River at a “legendary time.” There follows the story of a young English sailor, who chooses to live with the Native Americans, and the Indian maiden Lalaree. Her father offers the sailor her hand in marriage, but his heart belongs to a girl left behind in England. Lalaree informs the sailor of an old Indian legend about a wrecked ship filled with gold and guarded only by the bones of dead sailors. So that he may return to England a wealthy man, heartbroken Lalaree leads the sailor to the treasure ship of Ocean City.
    Beginning with Scene II, Joynes crossed back over the line between truth and legend, focusing on events in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Talbot Tales included the importance of merchant Robert Morris, Sr. to the commercial development of Oxford, the approval of the Talbot Resolves against the Stamp Act, and the ride of Tench Tilghman to inform the Continental Congress of the British Defeat at Yorktown. The tales also featured the laying out of the Town of Easton in 1805 and the Battle of St. Michaels during the War of 1812.
    The last vignette included some comic relief, a device rarely found in pageantry. In 1813, with the British fleet in the Chesapeake, nerves were ragged in Talbot County. St. Michaels residents, in particular, worried about an attack. More than one Talbot County historian has recounted the tale of local planter Jacob Gibson returning by barge from a successful attempt to get paid by the British for requisitioned supplies. In one account, as Gibson’s craft approached St. Michaels, he beat an empty rum keg like a drum and hoisted his bandana like a red flag on a masthead. A lookout alerted the town that the British had been spotted. Women and children rushed for safety inland and the militia prepared for action, only to discover that the perceived threat was only “Old Man Gibson.”
    Joynes included this delightful tale in his production, despite the fact that it lacked the usual booster content found in most pageants. After all, the story centers on the frazzled citizens of St. Michaels deceiving themselves into thinking that Old Man Gibson was the British Fleet. One could not take that story, for example, and use it on a sign that read, “Welcome to St. Michaels. The town that fooled itself.” Joynes did also include the better know story of town residents hanging lanterns in the trees to make British gunners overshoot their houses at night. Ah, that fine unseen line between truth and legend.
    While covering Talbot Tales, a reporter noted, “Interest in the past is increasing by leaps and bounds all over the country.” In The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! Pageantry and Patriotism in Cold-War America (1998), historian Richard M. Fried documents how Americans expressed that historic interest. In the 1950s, “patriotic activists” sought to root Americans in their past. Fried concluded, “They stressed less history’s pragmatic lessons than the inspiration to be derived from early heroes, less tested solutions than ancient values. On frequent occasions little analyzed by historians, Cold-War America paid homage to a variety of hallowed places and olden times.”
    In 1955, the performance of Talbot Tales was one of those frequent occasions. At the beginning of the play, the minister makes clear the intent to draw inspiration from early heroes. They included military figures like Tench Tilghman, aide-de-camp to George Washington, and prominent plantation owners like Edward Lloyd. Examples were also drawn from the business world, such as Nicholas Hammond who served as first president of the Farmers’ Bank.
    Fried notes that an interest in historic preservation often coincided with an enthusiasm for pageantry. Colonial Williamsburg, for example, frequently served as the ceremonial backdrop for important anniversaries and state occasions. In 1957, for example, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were received at Williamsburg while attending the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. Their visit served as a symbol of the Cold War alliance between Britain and the United States.
    In 1954, Eastern Shore historian and architect H. Chandlee Forman encouraged the preservation and rehabilitation of Easton’s historic architecture around the County Courthouse Square. He noted that the town could become “Colonial Williamsburg in miniature.” Business and civic leaders swiftly set up a Committee for the Colonialization of Easton. The name was apt because the town actually has precious few colonial era buildings. They were, in fact, creating a “colonialized” downtown. It was as if Easton’s citizens had determined to build a gigantic stage set for Talbot Tales.
    During the Cold War, Fried concluded, “The past anchored a stormy present, and remembrances nerved Americans for a stressful new global role.” The historic built environment from that era includes a colonialized Easton that still reinforces remembrance every day.