A small group came marching down the Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg: a couple of colonial militiamen, followed by a fife and drum, followed by a civilian. The group made their way to the front of the courthouse. The soldiers and musicians waited below as the civilian climbed the steps. He had a message for us, the good citizens of Williamsburg, from our governor, Patrick Henry.
Through the summer and fall, Colonial Williamsburg – the 103 acre restoration and recreation of Virginia’s 18th century capital – runs a street theater program called The Revolutionary City. At various points in the day at various places around town, costumed actors engage each other and visitors in scripted scenes about the lives of the people of Williamsburg during the Revolutionary War. I had wandered into the middle of a segment called The War Comes Home, the British Invade Virginia. It was May 1779 and the townspeople were discussing the British invasion of Portsmouth, about 50 miles to the south. Will they come to Williamsburg? What should we do if they do? The governor says, the town crier told us over his wireless face mike, that we should be prepared.
The objective of The Revolutionary City is to give tourists a You-Are-There experience. But the realities of modern entertainment impede the vision: headsets are clearly visible and there’s an odd Japanese-Godzilla-movie effect to the sound delay from the speakers. The I-Am-There experience that I had was not that I was in Williamsburg in the middle of the American Revolution, but that I was in an episode of a science fiction television show — one of those that drops the cast on a planet populated with creatures who have adopted 18th century American sets and attire, but with 21st century technology.
The other tourists seemed unsure of the situation as well. Let’s hear it for General Washington: huzzah? Colonial militia victory: huzzah? Patrick Henry: huzzah?
Each segment takes about 15 minutes, and I wanted to avoid the mass migration that was bound to occur when The War Comes Home ended. So I left while the crier was still trying to get a huzzah out of the crowd and walked a few hundred feet east to Raleigh Tavern, where the schedule said that the next event would take place. Sure enough, a few minutes later, actors were leading the mob down the road and through time, to July 1779.
There was a wooden stage built in front of Raleigh Tavern, but the actors mounted the porch of the King’s Arms Tavern, across the street, instead. This segment, called The Cost of Freedom, had townspeople complaining about inflation. As Phil Collins sings: some things will never change. The audience gave the actors a wide berth and Williamsburg crowd control tried to push us closer. I think they were trying to get people to feel more a part of the scene but it was a steamy morning, with that closed-in feeling that still, humid air gives, and no one was about to press into a crowd.
I’d had enough of rabble rousing anyway, so I made my escape to the location of the next scene. It starred Benedict Arnold and I was hoping that the bad guys would be more fun than the righteously indignant, speechifying patriots.
Arnold was the baddest of the Revolutionary War bad guys. He had been one of America’s most brilliant strategists and the hero of several Revolutionary War battles but, feeling unappreciated and unloved, had gone over to the enemy. For £20,000 and the rank of brigadier general, he sold the plans of the U.S. military fort at West Point to the British and made his name synonymous with “traitor” in popular American culture forevermore.
By the time the mob reached Benedict Arnold at the Capitol building on the east end of the Duke of Gloucester Street, it was July 4, 1781. Williamsburg has been captured by the British and Arnold was there to deliver the terms of occupation. An Arnold flunky riled up the crowd. “People of Williamsburg, the insurrection is over for Williamsburg and Virginia. Peace is at hand. You will now pay your respects to General Benedict Arnold. ”
The mob was better at booing than huzzahing.
“Traitor,” called an actor in the crowd.
“Are you calling me a traitor, Madam?” asked Arnold.
“Yes I do. “ Into the stocks with her!
No. Williamsburg’s Arnold is more a politician. He tells her that in 1777, during the misery that was Valley Forge, Congress decided to hold a sumptuous end-of-year feast for themselves. “And what was it that they gave your boys? … Each and every man was given a half a cup of rice and a tablespoon of vinegar. Who is your traitor? It is Congress.”
I was disappointed that Arnold seemed so reasonable. Where was the drama?
It came in the form of a man in a hat, a hat that turned Arnold more into his reputed ego-driven self. “How dare you remain covered in the presence of a general?” he shouted at the man. “Uncover, Sir!”
The man uncovered but when Arnold and his horse returned after a trip around the cul-de-sac, he had put his hat back on. Arnold turned purple. “I SAID UNCOVER, SIR!”
Flog him! No? Darn.
Arnold turned toward the Capitol building behind him. “Raise the King’s flag.” The Union Jack went up above the Capitol building.
Arrest them all!
I’m usually not so violent but I was tired of all the talking. Colonials are a wordy bunch. Was a little tar and feather action too much to ask? It was. The segment ended with no more than a final booooo as Arnold rode away.
The Revolutionary City plays through November 4th, then starts up again in spring.