Ron Carnegie knows a thing or two about George Washington.
The nationally acclaimed historical interpreter’s full-time job is playing the military leader and president at Colonial Williamsburg. This weekend, he’ll portray the man known as “The Father of His Country” at Greenville’s Winter Chautauqua.
Chautauqua has been described as “history that can’t stay in a book.”
Historical figures are portrayed through a part-actor, part-scholar in costume. After the actor performs a monologue, the floor is opened to audience questions. Because of that, Chautauqua is not just an actor working from a script. In order to be able to answer the questions, the performers immerse themselves into the lives of the figures by reading biographies and historical writings.
Chautauqua originated as an adult-education program for Sunday school teachers at a campsite on Chautauqua Lake in Upstate New York. Tent Chautauquas toured the United States until the Great Depression. One stopped regularly in Greenville. Chautauqua was revived in the 1970s as a way to promote humanities education. Greenville’s Chautauqua started in 1999.
This year’s Greenville Chautauqua theme is courage. Winter Chautauqua will feature Carnegie as George Washington. The June History Alive Festival will feature Francis Marion, Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Alice Paul, and Winston Churchill. George Washington will not appear at the June Festival.
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Carnegie says Washington can provide a number of lessons that are relevant to today’s political climate.
“Washington tried very hard to develop and maintain a reputation for public virtue, and in the end, he mostly succeeded in this. He tried through most of his public life to do the correct thing, often making very difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions,” Carnegie said. “He had the trust of much of the nation because he had earned it. His example is a good example for anyone to follow, more especially anyone in public office.”
Carnegie said many of the maxims Washington gave in his farewell address — that political parties would tear the union apart; that a system of checks and balances was needed, because they will cause divisive factions; that permanent alliances with foreign countries should be avoided; and that taxes were a necessary evil — are just as applicable today as they were at the end of his presidency.
“Most of them were forgotten almost as soon as he had said them,” Carnegie said.
Carnegie, who has been a historical interpreter since 1979, said it is difficult for him to say what he finds most interesting about Washington. “I suppose it is the great things he achieved all the while being wracked by some serious self-doubt, and his incredible self-control that enabled him to recreate himself in his preferred image,” he said.
When Carnegie is portraying Washington, he often has to debunk many myths, including the story about him cutting his father’s cherry tree with a hatchet and when confronted saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” The cherry tree myth is the most well-known and longest enduring legend about Washington. It was also invented by one of his first biographers.
Next to the cherry tree tale, the story that Washington had wooden teeth is arguably the next most widespread and enduring myth. Washington did have dental problems and had multiple sets of dentures made of a variety of materials, including ivory, gold, and lead. But wood was not used in Washington’s dentures, nor was it commonly used by dentists of his era.
Carnegie started his career as a historical interpreter at California’s Living History Center portraying various people of Elizabethan England. He also worked for various museums and sites in California as an independent contractor. Some of those sites include Fort Tejon State Park, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, and Pío Pico Adobe.
He has portrayed Washington at Colonial Williamsburg for about 12 years.
Winter Chautauqua, “George Washington, Courage”
When: Saturday, Feb. 3, and Sunday, Feb. 4, 2 p.m. (Sunday’s performance will be sign language interpreted)
Where: Wade Hampton High Auditorium, 100 Pine Knoll Drive