History lessons with a pulse

Great Basin Chautauqua

Clay Jenkinson brings Teddy Roosevelt to the present to help fill us in on the past in the upcoming Great Basin Chautauqua

Clay Jenkinson brings Teddy Roosevelt to the present to help fill us in on the past in the upcoming Great Basin Chautauqua

Americans know lots of things, but history isn’t one of them. Admit it, you don’t even know all the U.S. presidents, do you? Me neither. History lessons are boring.

But, what if you had lessons outside, on a blanket, with some music, lively conversation, a bottle of wine and some snacks? Well, then you’d have Chautauqua.

The 14th annual Great Basin Chautauqua happens July 17-21. This Northern Nevada event is the largest of its kind in the country, and its popularity seems more on par with a rock concert than a historical discussion. People arrive hours ahead of time, staking out prime spots on the grass with their blankets and chairs, just to hear scholars impersonating great historical characters.

“The fun of it is the audience interaction,” says co-founder and artistic director Clay Jenkinson, who also plays Teddy Roosevelt in this year’s event. Following each performance, audience members engage the characters in a Q&A session. People ask some unexpected questions, and it’s the performers’ job to know the answers.

Everyone, Jenkinson admits, gets stumped occasionally. “They challenge, tease or even rebuke the characters. They’ll say things like, ‘My great-grandfather so-and-so met you one time, do you remember?’ There’s no limit to what they’ll ask.”

This year’s theme of great confrontations features debates about critical issues throughout U.S. history. Jenkinson’s Roosevelt will go head-to-head with J.P. Morgan (Frank Mullen) over the role of big business in the U.S. economy; Harry Truman (Noel Pugach) and Douglas MacArthur (Neal Ferguson) will duke it out over how to wage war; William Jennings Bryan (Fred Krebs) and H.L. Mencken (John “Chuck” Chalberg) will debate religion’s place in public life and education; Frederick Douglass (Charles Pace) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Sally Roesch Wagner) will discuss human rights among historically oppressed groups.

Here, Roosevelt, the “Trust-Buster” president who led a campaign to control big businesses, is pitted against one of America’s greatest tycoons, creator of one of America’s largest conglomerates. In reality, the two rarely spoke, mostly because, as local journalist Frank Mullen, who plays him, points out, Morgan wasn’t a talker.

“He wasn’t articulate, he never gave speeches, and he hated crowds,” Mullen says. He believes Morgan was more intelligent (and less greedy) than people gave him credit for.

“Morgan was the founder of the 20th-century economy. His name is synonymous with great wealth,” says Mullen. “Most people see him as an evil robber baron, but he had a social conscience. He interceded with strikes. He tried to get business owners to give more to workers. He wasn’t a liberal, but he wasn’t totally motivated by money. He just thought a strong economy was good for everyone. And he thought Teddy [Roosevelt] was a spoiled child who didn’t understand the economy.”

Meanwhile, Jenkinson sees Roosevelt as “… probably the most vital president in U.S. history. He’s a marvelous man, and one of the most intellectual presidents we ever had. He’s definitely the ‘readingest’ and ‘writingest’ president, and he’s an unendingly inspired human being. It’s a pleasure to portray someone of his energy and dedication to building a great society.”

So what would Morgan or Roosevelt have thought of today’s economy? Would they have been Republicans or Democrats? How did they like their eggs? Find out these things and more at the Great Basin Chautauqua. “It’s incredibly entertaining, people roar with laughter, and they have a ball,” says Jenkinson.

Now that’s my kind of history lesson.