The Challenges of Portraying a Famous Person

Library of Congress

I have the great honor to portray George Washington at Colonial Williamsburg. Washington was already being hoisted onto his pedestal while he was still alive—a circumstance that I am sure made him a little uncomfortable.

To me, the truth is so much more interesting than the myth. Certainly, he was a remarkable man, but he was still a man—a man who had no more ability to predetermine the future than any of the rest of us, and who, uncertain of success, risked everything for what he thought was right.

His Faith

The greatest minefield regarding portraying Washington is his faith. Today there exists a cultural war between fundamentalist Christians and secular humanists, each trying to claim George Washington as their own.

Washington’s religion is of great interest to me, and I have read many of the arguments that both sides have made. I don’t intend to get involved in the debate here. I bring it up instead as an example of Washington’s opinions regarding the private and public. This modern controversy exists because Washington didn’t believe that his personal faith was anyone’s business save his and his Creator’s.

Freeman Tilden reminds us that our job is NOT to teach; it is rather to provoke. Besides, what is the more important answer? Certainly if someone asks a character to identify his faith, and he states Church of England, an answer has been given and the visitor has been taught. I think, however, that it is far more powerful if that character instead speaks of his reluctance to answer such a personal question, or speaks to his support for the freedom of conscience. In either version, the visitor has been taught, but the second approach is far more thought-provoking.

Library of Congress

Must. Not. Smile.

Another challenge to portraying Washington is his stoic and aloof nature. Many historians blame his poorly-fitting dentures for his apparent lack of humor. His own writing, however, suggests that it had more to do with his study of Seneca, who taught that men in public life should avoid displays of humor and frivolousness. Regardless of the reason, it does take away one of the most common and useful tools that any interpreter relies upon to help make the visitor feel welcome and at ease: the simple smile.

This is another occasion where loyalty to character, whether myth or reality, can be a dangerous challenge. In fact, I consider this my greatest weakness. It is important to me that I preserve this stoic nature in my interpretation. I know that it is important to some of my visitors as well. I have received a letter complaining that I smiled as Washington! Still, a serious and aloof nature can often appear to the visitor as the interpreter being rude, arrogant or mean. In fact, some people made all of these complaints regarding Washington as well, though I believe as the interpreter, that this was a misunderstanding of his nature.

Author Ron Carnegie as George Washington

So… How Do You Do It?

In presenting Washington, I try to reach a balance. Mostly, this is between his public and private personas. Understanding that he maintained a strong divide between these realms is very important in understanding what sort of man Washington really was. I do not treat my audience as close confidants. Washington had very few, and I like people to understand that. I state clearly that I won’t take questions regarding private or personal matters. I do, however, take them more into my confidence than Washington probably would.

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Ron Carnegie, “The Dictates of Conscience: Loyalty to Character in First Person Interpretation” in Diane L. Gallinger, ed., Proceedings of the 2008 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 187-190.

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