As a Chautauqua scholar, becoming a historic personality involves not only accurately learning the dates, events, words, and issues of an era but also being able to replay the subject’s life movements in my mind and respond to them as if they were my own thoughts – living thru the mind of the character. It is an academic exercise of gymnastic porportions similar to actors who lose themselves in their characters (often by filling in blanks in the fictional parts by creating imaginative backstories for the roles).
For the Chautauquan, however, there is no legitimate creative imagining to fill in the subject’s life. The goal is truth of character and accuracy of information.
How can I be truthful when relating events in which I never participated? Which occurred years before my birth? Which happened in times as alien to me as the Eisenhower administration is to my current high school students?
When my subject was a gifted writer such as Ambrose Bierce, I found my truth in his detailed and disturbing descriptive prose. As I lay back reading his tale of Shiloh, he made it easy for me to feel what he felt and see and hear what he experienced. Months later on the Chautauqua stage I had but to relive my own stroll with Bierce to give veracity to understanding the horror of our nation at war with itself.
With a 20th century figure there are other resources: sound recordings, films, and videos. On my first public library dip into the pool of Churchillianism, I discovered a four DVD set documenting the life of Churchill’s Bodyguard.
Now I have seen the streets of Churchill’s London, the faces of protesting Eqyptians storming his train, the estate of Chartwell that meant so much to its owner. I have heard WSC’s voice and those of his contemporaries. I have watched how Churchill gestured, heard the rhythm of his cadence, and his physical bearing in action.
Caveat: When it comes to recreating the truth of history the Chautauquan should be aware that recorded materials are just as interpretive as text. Scene editing, emphasis, scripting are still just seeing a subject through another’s eyes, but, as any English teachers worth their salt will remind young researchers, primary sources are always the best.
Winston, cane and cigar in hand, waving the iconic Victory sign, as if I was standing on the sidewalk and he was signalling me, is a mighty good way to press into my mind a truth of who and what Winston Churchill was.