Written by WWW Member Susan D. Matley
This May I went “live” with a new project, portraying Matilda Sager Delaney for Fort Walla Walla Museum’s Living History program. The project incorporates many of my loves- -history, research, writing and performing.
There are probably as many formats of historic reenactment as there are historical museums and societies. At Fort Walla Walla, Living History presentations are made by individuals who portray a person from Walla Walla’s past. A major historical event in the Walla Walla Valley is the Whitman Massacre, November 29, 1847. At age eight, Matilda Sager witnessed horrendous carnage perpetrated by a handful of Cayuse warriors, including the murder of her two brothers and her foster mother, the missionary Narcissa Whitman.
I could go on for pages about the Whitman Massacre, but what I’ve been invited to write about is the experience of portraying a real person for Living History.
First, it’s required time and effort. I’d come to know Matilda through research for a novel-in-progress but additional research was required to create the presentation. The Whitman Massacre is a well-known incident and chances are good that someone in any given Living History audience has studied it in detail. In addition to sharing Matilda’s life and experiences, I needed to develop a concise explanation of the events leading up to the killings and know the history of any person I named.
The Whitman College archives has a major collection covering the Whitman Massacre, up to and including contemporary news articles about the semi-centennial commemoration in 1897. I chose 1898 for my presentation year for two reasons: Matilda could relate the very interesting details of the semi-centennial and she’d be nearly my age. Letters written by Matilda, interviews, and her autobiography helped me capture her voice.
In addition to archival research, I read books covering everything from the Whitmans, themselves, to the dubious trial of the five Cayuse men who were brought to Oregon City for judgment in 1850. Though I use only a fraction of what I’ve learned in my presentation, knowing more helps me understand how Matilda’s story fits into larger events. It’s also helpful during the Q & A session. I know the political maneuvering behind the semi-centennial commemoration. I know the lamentable history of Matilda’s youngest sister, Henrietta.
Shaping the presentation was challenging. I worked through many drafts, tweaking the release of historic fact for the greatest effect. It’s an ongoing process, honing a concise version of what, when, where, who, how and why. Matilda’s life after the massacre was filled with hardship and incident. Having already survived the death of her parents on the Oregon Trail and the Whitman Massacre, she was placed with a brutal foster family from ages eight to fifteen. Matilda married three times and gave birth to eight children. She proudly owned and operated the Pioneer House hotel in Farmington, Washington, until it burned to the ground in 1897. Matilda suffered terribly from rheumatism the last three decades of her life. She died at eighty-eight.
I strive to layer my life experiences underneath Matilda’s and attach real emotions to the words I’ve created for her, a kind of method acting. Side benefit: talking about the death of Matilda’s first husband gives me a conduit for my own feelings of recently being widowed.
During the month leading up to the first presentation I rehearsed every day, alternating between reading directly from the script and working “off book” to see if I could keep the story moving in a straight line without dropping relevant details. Since Matilda’s launch I review my script at least once a week, and more often when nearing a presentation date.
As writers, I believe we have an advantage in portraying real people from history. We know how to balance research and plot, and understand the importance of pacing. If you enjoy both writing and performing, creating a living, breathing character from history may be an excellent project for you.
Susan comes to writing from a background as an actress, musician, and accountant. She writes historical westerns and sci-fi/fantasy from her home in Washington State, which she shares with her many four-legged children.