Williamsburg By Ear


“The wig sometimes gets hot,” admitted Richard Schumann, who plays Patrick Henry. Schumann and his colleagues have a meeting almost every day to share research, he said, and they joke with one another in the language of the period. Schumann did train as an actor, and to learn how people spoke in the eighteenth century, he read letters, diaries, speeches, newspapers, and plays. Now that he’s read everything there is to read about Patrick Henry, he’s starting to read about Henry’s friends.

“In 1774 we don’t have standardized rules of grammar yet,” Schumann said. “Even gentlemen of great education, like Richard Henry Lee, might write, ‘I were born and raised in Westmorland County,’ or ‘We was going to the city.’ When we pepper our talks with that language, it draws people into the time machine.”

The next day we drove to Carter’s Grove, a plantation six miles from town overlooking the James River, where Colonial Williamsburg most directly addresses the issue of slavery. We walked through the rough cabins in the slave quarters, but the guides there were preparing to address a large school group that arrived just after us, so we moved on to the main house, built in the 175Os and expanded in the 1930s, and to the ongoing archeological excavation of Wolstenholme Towne, a fort and settlement that date from 1620. The metal helmets that have been dug up here looked startlingly medieval, a physical link to the great age of exploration.

That afternoon, back in Colonial Williamsburg, we strolled down Duke of Gloucester Street, checking out what was for lunch at the taverns (bubble and squeak, a potato and cabbage dish named for the sounds it makes on the stove) and sampling the root beer and oatmeal cakes sold from tables set up outside. Our son Dan played “Eleanor Rigby” on a harpsichord in the cabinetmaker’s shop; his brother, Jim, pointed out a child walking around playing a Game Boy: “What a waste of time, right?”

Wandering side streets, we came upon the Tenant House, a modest dwelling furnished to give a sense of working-class life. When we came out the back door, we found a large man hurling an ax at a tree stump. He was competing in an ax-throwing contest on the green later that afternoon, he said, and he was better than anyone at the throw at 12 paces, although he sometimes missed deliberately so that his opponents would wager more against him.

At the appointed hour, hundreds of visitors gathered on the green. A large rectangle of grass was cordoned off and a target wheeled in. Our friend the ax thrower worked the audience at the edge of the ropes, introducing himself as William Moses, a free black Baptist preacher. Sadly, some of the long throws he had practiced so successfully now bounced off the tree stump, and Moses lost to a tavern keeper.

On our last day, while Kevin took the boys to the promised roller coasters, I set out on a deserted yellow gravel road to Jamestown, on the coast, where the first settlers landed in 1607. The Colonial Parkway runs for 23 miles from Yorktown to Jamestown, winding through an unspoiled landscape; in the woods, red-bud and wild dogwood were in bloom.

I had planned to spend a few minutes poking around the brick foundations that remain from that first settlement, but I was swept up into a tour with a woman in colonial dress who introduced herself as Rachel Stanton, an indentured servant. She was holding an exotic species of fowl, and she spoke to her audience as if we were starry-eyed new settlers who needed to be set straight. “Why do ye think the Indians was willing to give over this piece of land? Because it were a swamp!” If you want to get someone’s attention, speak strangely and carry a Poland rooster.

Later I asked Mary Wiseman, who has worked at Colonial Williamsburg for more than 25 years, what it’s like to interpret the colonial world to today’s visitors. Her current role is Martha Washington, whose great-grandfather was the first rector of Bruton Parish Church. Martha spent her honeymoon in Williamsburg and her husband served his first term in the House of Burgesses in 1759.

Martha Washington wrote far less than her male contemporaries; to prepare to play her, Ms. Wiseman walked the grounds where Martha was born, visited her church, read up on life on small plantations, and studied her letters, which the modern-day interpreter calls her “islands of security” as she plays the role of the first First Lady.

Hadn’t Martha burned her letters from George?

“Yes, for privacy reasons. You know, when Nancy Reagan brought out I Love You, Ronnie , my twentieth-century self thought it was good that his letters to her would all be together. My eighteenth-century self was shocked.”

I asked if visitors to Williamsburg had changed over the years.

“Their attention span is shorter now. I have about 15 minutes to reach them; people have that invisible remote in their hand. I find myself teaching about honor and honesty, thinking of the other person. At the Mary Stith House once, I had to almost dislodge some Boy Scouts from their seats to give them to some older ladies.