My title does not refer to the made-up medieval era but rather to the first decades of the twentieth century–when civic pageants reigned on both sides of the Atlantic! Datewise, we’re right in the midst of the anniversaries of Salem’s two great historical pageants: on this day in 1930 a replica of the seventeenth-century ship Arbella docked at the newly-constructed Pioneer Village with “Governor Winthrop” and his entourage on board, and seventeen years earlier tomorrow an equally elaborate pageant began its first performance at the gothic Kernwood estate in North Salem: the “Pageant of Salem” to benefit the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association. Both events represent a significant investment of time, money, energy and resources by enthusiastic Salemites: while the 1930 event had the imprimatur of the Massachusetts Tercentenary Commission, the 1913 Pageant was organized by an executive board comprised of members of the relatively new Gables Board of Directors (including Gables founder Caroline Emmerton of course) which managed to draw in anyone and everyone: Sidney Perley served as “Historical Censor”, Jean Missud conducted the band, and well-known Salem artists Frank Benson, Philip Little and Ross Turner provided illustrations for the program.
While the impact of the Tercentenary Pageant was more lasting, as its set, Pioneer Village, became the first “living history” museum in the United States and remains open today, the 1913 Pageant of Salem seems somehow more creative to me–or at least its program presents it as such. It certainly had a longer story to tell: from Naumkeag to “The Salem of the Present reviews the Past and looks forward to The Future”. Yet both extravaganzas shared many similar features, as the format for historical pageants seems to have been quite standardized by this time: a quick review of David Glassberg’s American Historical Pageantry opened up a world of comparative context for me in which professional associations, journals, and guidebooks devoted to pageantry literally set the stage. Pageants had elaborate staging and costumes, a succession of “episodes” to move the story forward, attempts to personalize the “spirit” of the time and place and symbolize major themes and lessons, and audience participation–or at least the request thereof. Both Salem pageants featured all these general attributes, and more Salem-specific ones: the Native Americans are just waiting, waiting and waiting for the Europeans to come, gazing off into the water: all is well once the latter arrive, of course. For Salem, 1630 it’s all about the world in which Winthrop arrives with the Massachusetts Bay Charter in hand; while the 1913 Pageant of Salem has to transport its audience from the misty and superstitious days of the seventeenth century all the way up to the dawn of the twentieth—through the very romantic nineteenth. This must have been quite a performance (or four): I would especially have liked to have seen prominent businessmen “Knights” bearing inscriptions of the virtues of an ideal Salem, while the very peaceful personification of the City also took the stage.
Leslie Jones photograph of Arbella “arrivals” on June 12, 1930, Boston Public Library; with the Winthrop Charter in hand, a “Charter Cavalcade” en route from Salem to Boston in 1930, Dionne Collection, Salem State University Archives & Special Collections; Scenes from the 1913 Official Pageant of Salem Program.