Teaching Innovations

The Historian as Performer: Bringing Historical Characters to Life in the Classroom

W. Gregory Monahan, December 1994

Contributing Editor's Note: As the editor of the Teaching Innovations column, I do not ordinarily write introductions for the articles presented each month. I work closely with authors to help create papers that will be useful to a broad range of teaching historians, and I believe such papers need no introduction. An exception is being made this month, both because of what Greg Monahan has written and because of the timing of this issue of Perspectives on the eve of the annual meeting in Chicago. Monahan's paper emerged from a presentation at the 1992 annual meeting. He appeared at a session, in costume, as Columbus; he addressed the audience in character, and then, later, as himself. I was impressed and saw potential for a larger reading audience. At my request, he prepared the article you are about to read. Many of us who teach perform before our classes; we may not go to the same lengths as Monahan, but the actor in us occasionally rears its ego-centered head. What Monahan also demonstrates is the scholarship behind the acting, that the performance is a means to an educational end, not an end in itself. It is this link, between teaching and scholarship, that should be appreciated and cultivated as a way to promote historical thinking and learning. And it is from such a perspective that your attention is called to the sidebar in this issue that highlights the several teaching sessions and concerns that will be addressed at the 1995 annual meeting. —Robert Blackey

Every teacher performs. Whether we are lecturing from notes behind a podium, leading a discussion, or organizing and supervising a complex and creative historical simulation, we are before an audience. We interpret the past much as actors interpret a play, by searching for the author's meanings and the nuances of the plot. Naturally, our discipline imposes specific restraints on us that actors need not obey. While we might exaggerate an analogy in our effort to make a point or give an answer about which we later feel uneasy, we are honor bound to remain true to our sources and conform as closely as possible to an accurate account of the past.

Still, we perform. We read to our classes an article from Hammurabi's law code, a letter from a Civil War soldier, a telling passage from Mein Kampf. We use stories and anecdotes to illustrate important themes or to answer vital questions. If we are effective, we communicate not only the importance and relevance of history, but its excitement, its pageantry, and its pathos. Naturally, we take advantage of the benefits of hindsight, and thus our teaching methodologies usually embody our personal distance from the past we are interpreting. That distance is important for the perspective it offers, but it can also be a hindrance to our efforts to make students see the choices and alternatives faced by people in the past.

Many good teachers at all levels have attempted to bridge that distance by organizing historical role-playing and simulations by their students. (Several accounts have appeared in these pages and in those of the History Teacher. (See, for only two examples among many, Eve Kornfeld, "Representations of History: Role-Playing Debates in College History Courses" [Perspectives, September 1990, pp. 25–26]; and Charles Hart, "Teaching the Enlightenment with a Student Salon" [Perspectives, May/June 1989, pp. 15–16]). A few hardy souls have dared raise their voices in song in the classroom. (See Roderic Davison, "Teaching History with Song and Doggerel" [Perspectives, November 1990, pp. 16–18]; and John A. Scott, "Historical Literature and Democratic Education" [History Teacher, February 1992, pp. 152–73]). All of these methods have benefits that have been thoroughly discussed in the literature. I have tried most of them and continue also to find value in more traditional lectures with slides, films, and maps. Yet, in the case of simulations and role-playing exercises, it is students who recreate the past and who wear costumes, write charters, debate issues, and enforce laws. This effort to engage students in understanding the alternatives and choices of historical characters is laudable, useful, and often highly successful, but there is no reason why teachers cannot occasionally reverse roles and enact a character themselves. Teachers, after all, know more about the historical periods and are therefore better equipped to play a role with real expertise.

A Tentative Experiment

Some years ago, I attempted to recreate a bit of the past. My first effort was, to say the least, modest. I had read Steven Runciman's wonderful narrative, The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1965) and thought a creative telling of that story might be a welcome break for the students in my Western civilization course after an arduous examination. I decided it would be challenging to write the lecture as if it were an account of the siege by a participant. I reasoned that students might understand the siege better (and enjoy the lecture more) if they felt as if they were experiencing it. I presented this talk dressed in my standard "professor costume" (sport coat and tie), and my reasoning proved correct. My students did enjoy it, but I felt uncomfortable. It seemed silly to talk as if I were a 15th-century man when I was dressed for the late 20th century. Yet, I saw potential for the idea. I knew that stories such as the siege and fall of Constantinople were often told as cautionary moral tales throughout Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, and that it might be useful for my students to hear and see how it was done.

The next year I rented a monk's habit (an awful Halloween costume) and used some candles to enhance the atmosphere, but also to hide the poor quality of the outfit. I wore a fake beard and, shrouded in the semi-darkness of the candlelight, effected the voice of an old and ornery man. I required the students to sit on the floor, and I put some anger and excitement into my retelling of the siege. Students were transfixed, testifying afterward that they felt as if they themselves had been on the ramparts watching and hearing the battle. I was happier with the method, and it seemed sufficiently successful to warrant a better outfit, so I procured a pattern for a monk's habit and sewed it myself.

This first effort at historical performance in the classroom was an enlightening experiment. It excited students so much that I soon discovered, somewhat to my chagrin, that they remembered details about the fall of Constantinople long after they had forgotten related issues that I deemed to be more important. It seemed that a bit of storytelling to a passive audience could elicit extraordinarily vivid recall, and more important, an added appreciation for the immediacy of the past. Thus, while the technique was not yet especially conducive to promoting historical thinking, it seemed to hold potential. Adopting the character of Brother John Paleologus, the name I gave to my siege participant, was really only a more dramatic and theatrical approach to a traditional lecture method, but it was a successful one. I deduced that greater student involvement and interaction with a historical character might enhance the quality of learning.

Interacting with Historical Characters

When one is tentative about a method, experimentation with it should remain close to one's area of expertise. As a historian of Bourbon France, I decided to resurrect an Old Regime nobleman from around 1785, a time far enough in advance of the French Revolution for him not to have seen it coming. My familiarity with the literature of the period proved useful, but I was especially attracted to Robert Forster's splendid book, The House of Saulx-Tavanes (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1971), because it offered a specific family history from which to draw details for a character. This time, however, I was determined to make the 25 students in my French Revolution class active participants.

They were told in the course syllabus that a duke from the 18th-century court aristocracy would be visiting the classroom, and they were assigned a variety of readings on the topic, abstracts of which they would be required to prepare and bring to class along with two questions for the visiting duke. (Examples of the required readings included John McManners' essay on the French nobility, an 18th-century essay by the Comte de Boulainvilliers, and a remonstrance of the parlement of Bordeaux.) This time, a simple costume would not do; my colleagues in the theater department came to my rescue, however, and graciously supplied me with suitable garments. I supplemented them with other items, such as lace and ribbons, and used the most basic of makeup, a pasty white foundation and an eyebrow pencil, with which I affixed a beauty mark on my cheek. I added some strong perfume, with which I also drenched a lace handkerchief. In that way, students could smell the period as well as see it, and we could later discuss the problem of personal hygiene during the old regime.

Thus adorned, I made my haughty appearance and outlined the history of my family, my titles, my incomes, and a few of my patron-client relationships in order to establish at the outset the priorities of a late 18th-century court aristocrat. I spent no more than 10 minutes at this before agreeing, with considerable condescension, to answer questions. Students were ready: Could there ever be a revolution in France as there had been in England? Of course not, I answered; France was stable, well governed, and civilized. What did I think of the peasants? They had their place in society, were useful on my estates, but beyond that I didn't think of them at all. What plans did I have for my children? I had many, and I detailed them, demonstrating how carefully 18th-century nobles managed and coordinated marriages and the acquisition of offices and titles. So it continued. At last, I had to cut off questions and make my exit, though not before taking one student to task for wearing a hat in my presence—a reminder of the gulf that separated my character from the unprivileged, smelly peasants whom I had deigned to address.

The next day, we discussed the experience. What had the duke known or not known? Had he lied? What did students learn from him? I explained to them my own sources for the performance, and we evaluated the duke's appearance critically. There was, frankly, very little criticism, not because I was a professor whom they dared not criticize (they had seldom hesitated), but because they genuinely enjoyed and profited from the experience. Comments were spontaneous: "It made the readings really come alive." "It helped me to understand the nobles' point of view." "His perfume was overpowering!"

Interacting with students in character proved far more educational and exciting than telling them stories. Students studied the readings (especially the documents: the essay by Boulainvilliers and the remonstrance of the parlement of Bordeaux) more closely than they had before in order to arm themselves with information for questions, and the scope and variety of their questions enabled us to cover more issues from a greater variety of angles than straight lecture, discussion, or storytelling could accomplish. The position and opinions of the pre-Revolutionary French nobility were crystallized wonderfully in their minds, making subsequent course themes that much easier to comprehend.

Alas, appearing as the duc de Saulx-Tavanes endowed me with a certain notoriety, and students afterward expected to see a character in every class. They had to be disappointed for a time. While I remain convinced of the efficacy of the method, it cannot be allowed to govern the themes and issues one explores in a course. Those reading this piece might see a host of characters they could do immediately. If so, I envy them. I have added more characters gradually, in part because of my weak sewing talents, but largely because appearing in character generates extraordinary motivation among students. They tend to focus intently on the themes characters create and on the related documents I assign. Consequently, I like to think through very carefully which course themes might best benefit from that kind of valuable student motivation. That said, I can outline below how performances have been organized for the classroom as well as a few precautions which the intrepid teacher might wish to observe.

Types of Characters

There are three types of historical characters one can undertake in the classroom. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

1. Famous people are the most difficult to do. I decided for a course on Latin American history to perform Christopher Columbus, but discovered that this choice required a great deal more specific reading in Columbus biographies, journals, and letters than I had originally intended. In addition, there is much we simply do not know about Columbus, as there often is with other "real" people. Thus, if he is asked when he was born, a fact one might presume he would know, he is forced to prevaricate a little ("I celebrate my day on Saint Christopher's day," or "I was born in the time of Pope Nicholas V"), because we do not know his precise date of birth. In like cases where historical knowledge is inadequate, one has to be creative in answering questions, but one should make it a rule to use the answer as a way of teaching something about contemporary attitudes—such as Columbus's religiosity and his perceived mission. Finally, one must be prepared to part slightly from the reality of a character. Based on what we know about Columbus, we can judge it likely that he would refuse to answer any questions at all. Yet, he must accept questions if the audience is to learn anything about him. In the "debriefing" that follows the performance, it is important to note such a reality.

These are all formidable difficulties, but the advantages of performing famous people are substantial. Students find it easier to read and think about them because they are at least distantly familiar. Their actions are often famous (or infamous) enough to engage the audience emotionally—as in Columbus' treatment of indigenous peoples—and that makes for a more exciting and valuable classroom experience.

2. People who actually lived but are not well known are much easier to perform than famous characters, but only if one has access to a work of the quality of, for example, Robert Forster's on the Saulx-Tavanes. In this vein, one could perform the medieval knight, William Marshal, or Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaia (famous to us, perhaps, but not to our students), or one of the lesser-known members of the Adams family from the American dynasty of the 19th century. Since there is usually less to read, such characters are easier to prepare and perform, as long as one has sufficient grounding in the literature on the period in which the character lived.

3. Composite characters are the easiest and most attractive, since they can be fashioned around one's reading and do not require the mastery of facts specific to a true individual. Most of the characters I perform are composites whose biographies I have constructed from a general knowledge of a period. As part of a unit on the Holocaust, for example, I have invented a Nazi Sturmbannfuhrer, whom I have named Heinrich Fresse. He was born in German Alsace. His father was a brewer who lost his business to a Jewish family after the French victory in 1918, fell into alcoholism, and died. Such a background establishes a basis for supernationalism and anti-Semitism. Fresse entered the war only at the end (thus frustrated in his military ambitions), then knocked around in the Freikorps and finally landed in the NSDAP. One could, of course, attempt a real Nazi (Reinhard Heydrich comes to mind), but a composite leaves one freer to finesse the finer points of the character's past. Another composite, a Russian commissar from the Civil War period, who appears in a Soviet history class, was born on the floor of a state-owned hemp factory, where he later watched both his parents die. I named this character Ivan Sergeyevich Kropotkin. He joined the Revolution of 1905, lost his job, and went into exile in Siberia before returning in 1917. His is a life like that of many others who joined revolutionary movements in Russia before the Great War. When Fresse or Kropotkin is asked a specific question, I am freer to invent an answer as long as it is consistent with what is known about the period. Likewise, composite characters can be chosen with easy costuming in mind. As long as they are endowed by the performer with a personality, students do not seem to care whether they actually lived. Of course, accuracy about the period is not only essential to an effective performance; it is the very essence of a composite character.

Preparation

Performance is a text, but it is a powerful text. I have found students more than willing to suspend disbelief, but they know nevertheless that it is the professor in front of them, and thus the historical character can easily take on the credibility of the professor. Where the character is malevolent, as is the case with the Nazi SS major, careful preparation and debriefing are vital (especially if any students are Jewish). I make every effort to distance myself from the characters, referring to them as guests and using the third person. I warn students that these guests will be as real as possible, and I tell them that the characters will know nothing about me or about them. Students also read a variety of articles and primary documents before the performance, and I make sure my character occasionally contradicts those documents. It is important to discuss the performance afterward so that I can bring the class around to those contradictions, and make sure once again that I distance myself from the character. For me as a historian, both the primacy of the documents and critical thinking about all texts are central to the experience.

Time-Trapping

Every character appears on a specific date, and I make clear to students in the course syllabus and in the days before the "guest" arrives that he will know nothing factual about what happened after that date. Thus, the SS officer comes to them from January 1, 1939, after the Expropriation Laws, but before the Final Solution and the outbreak of the war. Likewise, in the Soviet history course, the Red Army commissar arrives directly from January 1920, after the Bolshevik Revolution but before NEP and the rise of Stalin. Students are often frustrated at being thus limited in their questions. Their frustration is, however, intensely useful, since it forces them to see the world from the character's point of view and understand the limits of his alternatives and choices.

Nuts and Bolts

Costuming can be problematic and requires creative thinking. Of course, a close association with colleagues and students in the theater department is the best recourse, but even then, the costumes one would like are not always available. Those considering this method should start with something simple—Brother John's monk habit, for example, or perhaps a love child from the sixties (since many of us may have that costume lurking in our closets!). I have found it helpful (and fun) to get together with the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism whose members have access to all manner of exotic costuming. Collectibles stores are also a good source, as is one's local thrift store. (I found a World War II–vintage officer's uniform at a Salvation Army store that I dyed and turned into the uniform of an SS officer.) More adventurous souls will find a wealth of patterns and models in books published to guide theater costumers in their work. (See, for example, François Boucher, Twenty Thousand Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment [H. N. Abrams, 1987].)

As for makeup, many characters require little or none. For both men and women, slicking hair back or darkening eyebrows can be sufficient. A wig of some kind is often useful and not very difficult to procure. Fairly good mustaches and beards are available from theater supply warehouses, the addresses of which any theater department will have. Makeup should be kept simple since too much of it distracts students from what the character is saying. I have learned from directors and costumers some of the rudiments of it, but there are "how-to" books available. (See Herman Buchman, Stage Makeup [Watson-Guptill, 1971].)

Conclusion

The reader might conclude from this discussion that my classes are full of characters. Nothing could be further from the truth. No more than one character ever visits a given course for a number of reasons. First, though exciting to do, characters are draining and require considerable preparation for both teacher and students. Second, enacting too many characters could give the class a circus atmosphere. I want students to enjoy history, but I want that enjoyment wedded to the seriousness of the subject. Indeed, classroom performance is only one of the teaching methods I use. Like many of my colleagues, I prefer methods that enable and require students to interact energetically with articles and documents in understanding the past. Thus, like others who have written so eloquently in these pages, I try to organize a variety of discussions, debates, and simulations in addition to course lectures.

That said, classroom performance remains a powerful and useful tool. It amplifies and clarifies a whole range of important issues, whether they be the position and opinions of the French nobility before the Revolution, the ardent racism and hero worship of the SS, or the earnest if radical vision of an early Bolshevik. Performance enlivens, amplifies, and focuses primary documents, reinforces constructive skepticism and critical thinking, and, perhaps most important of all, brings the instructor closer to students in an educationally productive fashion. My willingness to "bare myself" before my students has, I believe, paid off in unanticipated ways. If I perform for them, they seem more willing to perform for me, more willing to enter with me into the worlds of the past and thereby to become better historians. In addition, at those institutions where many students aspire to become teachers themselves, it is important to demonstrate as many different teaching methods as possible, to make history exciting and interesting for them, so that they will some day make it so for their students. Employed with planning and enthusiasm, the re-creation of historical characters in the classroom can deepen student understanding of historical issues and leave them hungry for more.

—W. Gregory Monahan is associate professor of history at Eastern Oregon State College, in La Grande. His book, Year of Sorrows: The Great Famine of 1709 in Lyon, was published in July 1993 by Ohio State University Press, and he is now at work on a study of the Camisard rebellion against Louis XIV.