In the course of my long strange trip through life I have had the chance to do some really satisfying things. One of my favorites is to do a varied series of public presentations in a short space of time. Next week at the Outer Banks in North Carolina, I get to:
perform as Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition;
perform as Sir Walter Raleigh, the “last of the Elizabethans”;
host a dinner party as Thomas Jefferson;
do my one-man Shakespeare program.
I’d do more if they would let me: J. Robert Oppenheimer; Theodore Roosevelt; John Steinbeck; and John Wesley Powell. But four is perhaps enough for a long week of lost personal identity!
Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) was actually my first character, so long ago now that I hardly remember its origins. I got interested in Lewis when I read, in the mid-80s, that he committed suicide. I was so struck by that that I determined to figure out why a successful explorer, friend to the president, and national hero would kill himself. I am still trying to make sense of that forty years later, even though I have performed as Lewis countless times, written two (maybe three) books about him, and debated virtually everyone who has something to say about this sad subject. It is possible, but exceedingly unlikely, that Lewis was murdered. I get to wear buckskins. I get to talk about grizzly bears, sources of rivers, raw encounters with native peoples, and Sacagawea. Now that I’m the editor of the Lewis & Clark journal We Proceeded On, I find myself learning new things about the expedition every week. This is the easiest of the performances I will be giving in North Carolina.
I was “tricked” into taking on Sir Walter Raleigh by my friend John Tucker. Not that I am sorry. Just before writing this today I finished reading the new biography of Raleigh by Anna Beer, Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh [sic]. That’s a poor title. He was branded a traitor by King James I of England, but the evidence was appallingly thin. Nor was Raleigh allowed to confront his accuser, who had already recanted his accusations. James I distrusted and disliked Raleigh for no adequate reason. Perhaps it was because Raleigh had been a great favorite of Queen Elizabeth. James may have felt that Raleigh, as the “last of the Elizabethans,” was a living mirror of a greater era in British history. When I was in the Outer Banks six or seven years ago, I had the chance to hold in my hand Raleigh’s History of the World, which he wrote while on death row in the Tower of London after 1603. It’s one of the great books of the English renaissance and it contains some of the finest renaissance English prose, worthy of comparison with the King James Bible of 1611. Raleigh never stepped foot in North America, but he sponsored the Roanoke expeditions and sought repeatedly to send relief missions and, later, to determine what happened to the Lost Colony.
The renaissance was my first love in the humanities, thanks to my mentor Thomas Clayton, now emeritus professor of English and classics at the University of Minnesota. There was a time when I knew as much about John Donne, John Milton, and Shakespeare as I now know about Thomas Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt. John Donne is my poet. He and Raleigh knew each other. Just what Donne thought about Raleigh is hard to determine, since as the most important Anglican preacher of his era, Donne had to echo the official policies of the reign of James I. I intend to re-read many of the sermons of Donne to see if I can tease out some clues.
For the past two weeks I have done little else than read about Raleigh, take extensive notes, and fret about my performance. In a sense, the Lost Colony of Roanoke is one of the less interesting episodes of his life, but you don’t go to Roanoke Island without attending to that story. I’m more interested in his life in the court of Elizabeth, his poetry, his two journeys to today’s Venezuela, and the Jacobean show trials that first put him on death row in the Tower of London and then ended his life, at the end of October 1618 in the Old Yard at Westminster Hall.
The Jefferson dinner at the restaurant Coastal Provisions will be pure joy. My friend Daniel Lewis serves the best crab cakes I have ever tasted, but his meal will be straight out of Jefferson’s playbook, with considerable help from another of my dearest friends, Pat Brodowski of Monticello. She is providing fresh vegetables. We’ll record a special “live” edition of the Thomas Jefferson Hour that night. We’ve done this twice before. Sometimes we talk about food. This time I intend to talk about Jefferson in France. I’m not a great fan of oysters, but Dan Lewis in Washington, DC, taught me everything I know about that subject. He’s a superb chef, a good friend, and a man who loves the good life.
And then Shakespeare. I just did my second annual Shakespeare humanities retreat out at Lochsa Lodge west of Missoula, four plays in four days, plus a detailed study of various film version of the “To Be or Not To Be” speech from Hamlet. Spoiler alert: the 20 participants determined they admired Mel Gibson’s version even more than Lord Olivier’s. Heresy.
I’ll recite lines from various plays, with an emphasis on Hamlet. My purpose is to show audiences (I do this all over the place) that Shakespeare is not nearly so difficult as he sometimes seems and that the resources now available for Shakespeare studies (outstanding film adaptations, side-by-side “translations” of the renaissance English, websites about every aspect of Shakespeare’s life and work, the new Globe Theater in London) make this possibly the best time ever for enjoying William Shakespeare.
I’ll be joined on the stage by my friend Paul Lasakow of the Roper Theater in Norfolk. We have a stage version of the graveyard scene from Act V of Hamlet that has been a great joy to me. All of my life I have dreamed of performing as Hamlet. This is as close as I am likely to get. Paul is a superb comic actor (among other things). He designed the set.
So, my kitchen table is filled with notes on four historical characters from two historical eras: the Elizabethan/Jacobean world (1564-1620) and the Age of Jefferson (1743-1826). Three of the four characters involved are among the supreme masters of the English language and Meriwether Lewis is no slouch, either, when he can be bothered to write.
For the last five nights I have awakened at some point deep in the night and the line that keeps rolling off my tongue is: Trust not in princes. I have learned the hard way, locally, nationally, and globally that this is sage advice. At least Jefferson had the grace to underplay his power and social status, and to remember that in a republic the people govern themselves and their representatives “represent” their will in the public square.
How I ever fell into this strange career I know not. I never expected to spend a third of my life in tights, and I certainly did not expect to sport a codpiece. But what man doesn’t want a codpiece?? I have a closet of daggers, dirks, bodkins, wigs, beards, peace pipes, buckled shoes, ruffles, and a renaissance skull.
I’m eager to get on that plane, if I can get all those costumes past TSA.