Reenactors and spectators at the Gettysburg Sesquicentennial

Doing Amateur Time & Investing in Sites of Memories

Amateur performance comes up an awful lot in my research these days: the Grand Army of the Republic productions put on by veterans and locals for charity throughout the late-nineteenth century, the efforts of Charles Sager touring the Midwest and staging his spectacle/pageant The Negro in the late 1890s, and – in more recent developments – the work done by Civil War reenactors. I’ve been thinking more about amateur performance as I’ve prepared for the Mid-America Theatre Conference in Cleveland (where I’m presenting later today). For my MATC paper, I attempt to set up a framework for analyzing performance and consumption at the Gettysburg Sesquicentennial. I hesitate here in this post to begin setting out a framework that encompasses all of the above-mentioned varieties of amateur performance: after all, my work relies on historical contextualization. Claiming that the very different ends of such disparate groups – separated by time, space, political, and social factors – can be explicated deploying one singular approach would be, in my mind, irresponsible.

And yet. There is a common thread here: all of these performers, by taking to the stage, are investing in particular historical narratives. I often return to Pierre Nora when considering how his sites of memory – invested with time, labor, and ideology – can also be used to consider performances of historical memory.  Nora proposed that sites of memory—lieux de mémoire—are places “where memory crystallizes and secretes itself.” 1 Lieux are points where the antagonism between history and memory are manifest: they are commemorations to the loss of memories. 2 The lieux are “material, symbolic, and functional” in Nora’s rendering, and always “coexist” in these sites. As Jay Winter suggests, there is indeed a “business of remembrance,” and Nora’s sites require “money and time to construct or preserve.” 3 Though performances themselves are ephemeral, the materiality of performance – the bodies performing and witnessing, the stage, the environmental conditions – allows performances of historical memory to also be rendered as lieux themselves. The labor of amateur performers in these instances – the time, ideology, and physical investments they bring to producing these lieux needs to be unpacked a bit more.

When I was building a bibliography on war reenactments, my friend and colleague Debra Hilborn, PhD candidate in Theatre at CUNY Graduate Center, suggested Carolyn Dinshaw’s How Soon is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time. Dinshaw begins with the tensions between professionalism and amateur in terms of medieval scholarship, the “opening” of “scholarly research and knowledge…beyond the paradigm of professionalism that has rigorously delimited scholarship from any other more explicitly affective enterprise.” 4 In this sense, Dinshaw’s consideration of amateur reading is more aligned to war reenactments than the productions of GAR veterans and African American performers participating in Sager’s pageant. She sees a  multiplicity of times going on in amateur readings of medieval texts – much as Rebecca Schneider poses in Performing Remains, where she argues that “Time, engaged in time, is always a matter of crossing, or passing, or touching, and perhaps always (at least) double.” 5 Reenactors expressed various relationships to time and history to Schneider during interviews: the “relationship between striking the pose and being the thing so posed (or acting the part and being the part so acted), held for many (participants and observers alike) a fluid or at least indeterminate capacity – a begin in uncertainty a being word booming, or unbecoming.” They all were “deeply excited by their collective investment in a possibility: the possibility of time redoubling, returning in fractured or fugitive moments of affective engagement.” 6 There was a range of motivations offered up to me by spectators and performers at the Gettysburg Sesquicentennial: the war-gasm of the hardcores, the presentation of stories by living historians, the pedagogical intent (both as producer and consumer), the “patriotic” nature of the event, and political incentives to tell particular versions of history.

Along with these instances of multiplying or “redoubling” time, Dinshaw looks at how amateurs do time – a more focused consideration of how amateur time works, in the sense of labor and purpose. She renders professional time as “homogenous and empty….secular,” “clock-bound and calendrical,” and it “share[s] characteristic with money: it is abstract, objective, and countable.” 7 Amateur time, in contrast, “starts and stops at will; tinkerers and dabblers can linger at moments of pleasure when the professionals must soldier duly onward.” 8 Rather than the “‘scientific’ detachment” that professionals must practice, amateur time presents a “constant attachment to the object of attention.” 9 Dinshaw does not wish to have amateurism be “celebrated naively,” as it “may indeed be a kind of ruse of late capitalism,” but she remains – in the field of medieval studies – “deeply and positively impressed by the increasing impact that amateurism is having on sacred professional arenas.” 10 She goes on to consider these amateur readings of medieval texts as queer readers – they are “‘belated’ or ‘underdeveloped’ in relation not only to the profession but also to the reproductive family.” 11 This move towards queering amateur readers is enticing, but I believe the strains of attachment and possible connections with capital are more useful when discussing the amateur performances of war reenactors.

The capitalism surrounding the reenactments I witnessed in Gettysburg was not a ruse. It was an explicit part of the fetishizing and attachment to history. The wares on sale – both for the reenactor seeking authenticity and the spectator seeking souvenirs – were an undeniable part of the landscape. The “tinkerers and dabblers” in reenactments spend an immense amount of money on this hobby (as I observed during my visit to Gettysburg), and the spectators pay highly for the privilege of witnessing these performances as well. Between some of the necessities ($3 bottles of water and overpriced carnival-type food, as no bags were allowed in) and the many souvenirs – not to mention the travel, hotel, and surrounding sites that most tourists probably visited during their stay – it is little wonder that Gettysburg exceeded its estimated $750 million projected profits. Thus, the presentation and consumption of memories on display at the Gettysburg Sesquicentennial was always invested with time and money – this reenactment was not a “ruse” of late capitalism, it was a capitalist enterprise helmed by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, the organizing institution, full-stop.

However, amateur performers are claiming ownership by participating in sites of memories. In her consideration of twentieth-century war reenactors, Jenny Thompson argues that they are part of a “grass roots” movement to “claim power over the stories of the past” and to “make active and personal use of history.” 12 This sense of a “personal” history also extends to spectators: as David Glassberg notes in his discussion of Ken Burns’s documentary series The Civil War, there has been an increasing expectation that “popular history first and foremost must offer the public a dramatic emotional experience, one that simulates the sensation of actually ‘being there.’” 13

In this instance, amateur time and spectator time have been harnessed for profit, accumulating capital from the fetishizing of nineteenth-century life and violence. Can the amateur performances I witnessed, then – the living historians and committed reenactors – and the attending audiences be part of a “grass roots” effort and an attempt to make history “personal” at the Gettysburg Sesquicentennial? Or are the lieux being redeployed and recycled, under the guise of the personal and a seemingly sacred participation in history, into only something profane (i.e., the accumulation of capital)? When does the doubling or multiplying of time collapse under the calendric and capitalist prospects of such amateur performances?


  1. Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 9.
  2. He claims that the need to “create archives, maintain anniversaries, organize celebrations…and “pronounce eulogies…” occurs because there is a “sense” that “such activities no longer occur naturally.” Ibid., 12.
  3. Jay Winter, “Sites of Memory and the Shadow of War,” in A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies, eds. Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning (New York: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2010), 65.
  4. Carolyn Dinshaw, How Soon is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 2012), xii.
  5. Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011), 37.
  6. Ibid., 50.
  7. Dinshaw, How Soon is Now?, 21.
  8. Ibid., 22.
  9. Ibid., 22. Emphasis in original.
  10. Ibid., 23.
  11. Ibid., 31.
  12. Jenny Thompson, War Games: Inside the World of Twentieth-Century War Reenactors (Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2004), xvii.
  13. David Glassberg, Sense of History: the Place of the Past in American Life (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 108.

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