Living History, Sort Of…

Way back in the 1970s there was a television show on PBS called ‘Meeting of the Minds’. The format was the same for every program. Steve Allen, the program creator, was the host and he would usually have three guests join him around a table for an interesting discussion. It was a talk show of sorts except that the guests were historical figures. The guests — actors portraying historical figures — were usually from different periods of history — not contemporaries. The guests might be Leonardo da Vinci, Ulysses S. Grant and Cleopatra, for example. The actress, Jayne Meadows, Steve Allen’s wife — and I suspect partially responsible for the program, often played the role for whatever female guest was appearing on the program. This was a carefully researched and scripted program and not an improvisational or ad lib performance. Often the discussions were related to themes or issues that post-dated the lives of the historical figures but were still relevant to their role in history. The program assumed that the viewer and studio audience had some exposure or notion of history. There are only a couple short video clips on YouTube of parts of two broadcasts. In one, Oliver Cromwell goes off on a rant about royalty and religion. Niccolo Paganini discusses and demonstrates his innovations on the violin in the other clip. These are only fragments and only give a brief idea of the format and type of performance. It was short-lived…only twelve two-part programs from 1977 to 1981. This show would never be attempted today in the era of reality TV shows and dumbed-down sit-coms. It wouldn’t even be attempted on PBS. The TV viewers would have no idea who Cromwell was or Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Paine or maybe even Karl Marx.

This was play-acting at history but these were real actors with a researched script. I’m a historian — at least trained in history and with some experience in historical research. I enjoy being immersed in historical archives. There is something about unfolding a civil war muster roll that was carried in a soldier’s backpack at the Battle of Vicksburg that gets me excited. At the same time, I have no interest in putting on a Civil War uniform and marching around or pretending to be a soldier or a casualty in a mock battle. A lot of people enjoy being reenactors but that is a sanitized and falsely romanticized version of history. 

The National Park Service has trained employees at various sites whose job it is to portray period characters for the benefit of visitors. These people are usually well informed and stay in character and try to offer context to what the visitor is seeing and asking about. I recall witnessing a conversation during a visit to Monticello between a park employee docent portraying a slave on Jefferson’s plantation and a visitor who was an Amish farmer. They were discussing farming methods and harvesting crops with horses and it was clear that the slave/docent was fully knowledgeable of how to run a farm using only horse and man power — not just a guy in a costume. 

On one of my several road trips across the Great Plains between New Mexico and Missouri I was starting to succumb to prairie madness and turned on the car radio. Usually I find right-wing talk radio (which I quickly turn off) or some old time western swing music (which I usually enjoy). On this one occasion I found The Thomas Jefferson Hour on High Plains Public Radio. I didn’t know Thomas Jefferson had a radio show but he does…or at least someone who portrays Jefferson does. That someone is Clay Jenkinson, a college lecturer and humanities scholar.

On this segment, Jefferson was interviewing a vintner who operated a winery and vineyards and was very informative on grape varieties and wine making. Jefferson went on to relate how he toured the various French wine regions while he was serving as US Minister to France (1784-89). They had an interesting hour long discussion and I managed to survive my trip across Kansas and into Oklahoma. I have sought out the Thomas Jefferson Hour a few times since and I recommend it. Sometimes Jefferson isn’t there but Jenkinson will cover for him. On one occasion he was replaced by Meriwether Lewis.  It’s a radio show but is also on the internet at http://www.jeffersonhour.com/index.html. You might enjoy it.

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