Certain corners of the internet have been fascinated by a Vox post by Sarah A. Chrisman, a woman who claims that she and her husband live their entire lives in an accurately Victorian fashion. She never explains how they came by a Victorian-era computer for blogging, but she does indeed blog and has written several books detailing how they come by and live with their period-accurate clothes and technology.
There have been a lot of really interesting pieces discussing the family, mostly negatively. Chrisman’s idolization of the Victorian era seems either cheerfully blind to, or disturbingly accepting of the sexist, racist, imperialist aspects of 19th century English culture. She also claims that she and her husband are historians (which they are, somehow) and that their Victorian reenactment is actually a large-scale research project, an experiment which has allowed them more authentic access to the period they study.
Questions about the place of reconstruction and reenactment are continually hovering in the air at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where I worked for the past seven months. The Globe now has two performance spaces: the Globe itself, occasional home to all-male ‘original practices’ (OP) productions; and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, modeled after the indoor theatres of the Jacobean period, and host of the Research in Action series, curated by scholars and intended to explore the interaction between Jacobean scenes and the theatre space.
I’ve always loved history (and dressing up!) and the Victorian couple’s thinking brought to mind my own reasons for wanting to undertake the course of study at the Globe that I’ve just finished. I wrote in my admissions essay how seeing the Globe’s OP Twelfth Night had completely transformed my understanding of the play; I was sure that this transformation was because the production was all-male, in period costume and make-up, using period music and props. I hope it’s a credit to the program itself that I am now convinced it was only the sheen of authenticity that was so seductive (though it was still a great production). The most obvious example is the fact that I didn’t even see Twelfth Night at the Globe, I saw it on Broadway. My ‘authentic’ Jacobean experience was mediated through the 19th century American architecture, designed to facilitate theatrical experiences with goals very different from those of an early modern play.
But even if I had seen it at the Globe, we’d still have to assume that the Globe is a perfectly accurate reconstruction (which we can’t know if it is), and swap out Mark Rylance and Paul Chahidi for boys or young men (and how old or young, exactly, would they be?), and assume that the play had been staged and rehearsed in keeping with early modern rehearsal and staging practices (if we knew for certain what those were).
All of these ‘we just don’t knows’ are what these ‘authentic’ spaces and reenactments tempt us to be able to answer. Chrisman insists she can discover the truth of Victorian experience by wearing a corset and typing by oil lamp. Similarly, one of the many debates about the construction of the Globe has to do with the placement of the onstage pillars. During an interview I conducted, an actor at the Globe half-jokingly noted that he was pretty sure the pillars were in the wrong place: when I pressed him, he said more seriously that they just felt wrong, they didn’t complement his impulses as an actor. In his writings about the discovery of the Rose Playhouse, Sir Ian McKellan somewhat smugly points out that many features make perfect sense to an actor, like an apparent rake in the floor, or the fact that the stage faces the sun— but what about those that don’t, like the truly atrocious sightlines from the side galleries?
But as Slate’s really nice article puts it, ‘The “past” was not made up only of things. Like our own world, it was a web of social ties. These social ties extended into every corner of people’s lives, influencing the way people treated each other in intimate relationships; the way disease was passed and treated; the possibilities open to women, minorities, and the poor; the whirl of expectations, traditions, language, and community that made up everyday lives. Material objects like corsets or kerosene lamps were part of this complex web, but only a part.’ Wearing Victorian clothes and using Victorian furniture does not magically grant you insight into the era itself; to judge by Chrisman, it may well distract you from more critical, complex forms of intellectual engagement-- including questioning how something as broad as the Victorian era (or the Jacobean, or the Elizabethan) could possibly be narrowed down to a single set of opinions and aesthetics.
Similarly, we are not an early modern audience. Thinking that we can watch a scene performed in a reconstructed space and use our opinions and impulses to recreate the way things were really done is to forget the most essential pieces of the puzzle: the culture, the society, the other plays we’d seen that week or in our lifetime, the things we’d read that morning, the gossip around town. The most conspicuous example in the case of early modern performance practice is the boy player: we will always find men playing women to be more unusual than an Elizabethan or Jacobean would have, and even then, we can't really know how realistic or artificial they considered those performances to be.
It’s incredibly tempting to think that the right architecture or the right outfit can offer a shortcut to understanding a time period or a culture that we love. I am a huge fan of living history, and artifacts and reconstructions have immense value. But it’s dangerous (to good history, anyway) to forget that in many essential ways, we are not doing or seeing what Victorians and Elizabethans and Jacobeans did and saw.
(Also, just to be clear, however bad their historiography, nothing justifies some of the abuse and threats that Chisman reports receiving. That's just awful.)