Historical Perspective: The West Tisbury Pageants of 1911 and 1912

Scene V: Parting of the Place by the Wayside from 1912. The boat next to the lake in the background was part of the pageant; Gosnold and his men actually rowed ashore as part of the play.— Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regularly appearing series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

It was said to be a beautiful summer afternoon. Hundreds of spectators gathered to watch their friends, family, and neighbors perform in a celebration of the history of Martha’s Vineyard. The crowd laughed; tears filled their eyes. Hearts swelled as the audience joined the cast in singing “The Star Spangled Banner” for the grand finale.

In late summer of 1911, West Tisbury hosted a well-received pageant on the shores of Luce’s Pond. The ladies of the Benevolent Society of the West Tisbury Congregational Church produced the spectacle. One of the pageant’s many volunteers, Laura Shelby Lee, provided an insider’s look behind the scenes in a reminiscence published in the Dukes County Intelligencer in May 1987.

Today, the word pageant might evoke images of well-coiffed beauties strutting down a runway, but pageants of the past were historical in nature. A way to celebrate important moments in a town’s history, pageants used community members in the production and cast. Supporting turn of the century Progressive Era objectives, reformers used pageants as “civic rites” to encourage a sense of community and patriotism. They reached the height of their nationwide popularity between 1905 and 1925.

“As the church bell in the neighboring town struck the half hour after 2 o’clock… the hands of time blew backward, 1911 became 1600.”

And so began the 1911 pageant as described by a local newspaper. Scenes of “Indian Home Life and the Hunt Dance” launched the first of eleven acts. Despite their relevance to the Island’s history and prominence in the pageant, the Wampanoag tribe was poorly represented by actors in the pageants. Laura Shelby Lee credits a few men from Gay Head for portraying Wampanoag roles, but costumed West Tisbury residents played the majority of these parts.

Actors communicated the main ideas with expressive gestures since there were few speaking parts and no microphones. Even with limited scripts, pageants were complicated affairs. Community members worked on costumes for months before the show. Laura and other volunteers prepared the costumes in the schoolhouse, which they proudly crowned “Pageant Headquarters.” They gave another particularly cramped planning space at her house the less glamorous title of “Pageant Hindquarters.” Laura ordered complicated costume pieces, including armor, during special trips to Boston. Once delivered, she hilariously described the armor as “so small that they couldn’t possibly wear it. The helmets sat on top of their heads like inverted tea pots, instead of coming down to protect their skulls; and the breastplates, supposed to cover the wearer from shoulders to hips, looked about the size of roasting pans, tied on over their stomachs only.”

Much to Laura’s relief and gratification, the pageant of 1911 was a great success. It ran again the following year, and in an effort to increase profits the second year, there were three separate showings. The total attendance topped out at almost 1,500 people. There were a few minor tweaks in the program, but the show was largely intact. Despite great reviews for the second production, the pageant did not return for a third year. Fundraisers directed their efforts and attention elsewhere. The onset of World War I in 1914 may certainly have displaced some of the attention.

The pageant of old has continued to evolve and can be compared to more contemporary theater. In 1991, the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown hosted “Tidebook: A Ballad Opera of Martha’s Vineyard.” There are some striking similarities between Tidebook and the pageants of 1911 and 1912. While the Tisbury pageants focused on historical events between the years of 1600 and 1812, Tidebook examined a later time period in “the ebb and flow of island life from the 1880s to the 1940s.”

Charles E. Banks’s 1911 “History of Martha’s Vineyard” provided the historical basis for the acts in the 1911 and 1912 pageants. The actors took liberties with the stories, which were not entirely accurate to begin with, and added a personal touch of dramatic flair. The theatrical element carried over to 1991. Like each act of a pageant, the musical numbers in Tidebook each focused on a particular theme relevant to Martha’s Vineyard history. Several of Tidebook’s acts focused on the island’s most legendary stories, including Nancy Luce, Laura Jernegan, and Prescott Jernegan, who was featured in last month’s Historical Perspective article in this paper.

In many of the pageants, the actors took on the roles of their ancestors, playing the parts of their grandparents and great-grandparents with gusto. In Tidebook, actor Ryan Malonson performed the role of his grandfather, Wampanoag James Cooper. Cooper heroically rescued passengers from the 1884 shipwreck of the City of Columbus.

Both the pageants and Tidebook were remarkably popular in the short time they ran. Like Tidebook and other historically based productions of today, pageants were culturally important as a way to reinforce history and look forward to the future. Showtime: 100 Years of Theater on Martha’s Vineyard, currently at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, examines theater as an important part of the Island’s history and culture, including how the pageant productions relate to more modern theatrical venues. The exhibit will be up until April 2013.

Lauren Carey, a Martha’s Vineyard Museum intern this summer, is just beginning her graduate studies in art history at the University of Oregon.

The Museum is open Monday through Saturday. Go to mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441.