Military re-enactments widespread, says U of G prof
According to a University of Guelph professor, it’s not surprising that thousands of people took part in the D-Day re-enactments in France last month and that more than 500 re-enactors will stage battles from the War of 1812 over four days in Wasaga Beach, Ont., later this month. Drama professor Alan Filewod has found in a new study that historic battles being restaged by people wearing authentic uniforms and carrying authentic weapons are a worldwide cultural phenomenon.
“Re-enactments are a transcultural, transnational practice that, in some respect, all cultures do,” said Filewod, who’s writing a book on the subject. “There’s no centre to it because it’s everywhere. You can’t categorize it because it’s too huge, it’s too vast. It’s a human practice as widespread as music or art. I think everybody knows somebody who has something to do with re-enactments.”
Filewod has found more than 1,000 military re-enactment groups that have websites in the English-speaking world. “People start out as collectors. They get an authentic World War II uniform, and then they find out how they can join a World War II re-enactment chapter. Tens of thousands of people belong to the American Civil War chapters.”
Chapter members get together to train and to elect officers. In private, they have more liberty to perform the re-enactments more authentically since they don’t have to comply with liability and insurance issues, said Filewod. They become so familiar with the role their character played that when it comes time to perform a re-enactment, they don’t really have to rehearse, he says. “For ‘hardcore’ re-enactors the ideal is when in uniform, they don’t even think a thought that could have been created before the time period they’re portraying.”
Filewod says the value of re-enactments is that they allow people to see how things would have happened in the past. “If you’re wearing the same uniform and covering the same terrain at the same time of year, it allows you to work out what would have happened in the actual conditions.”
Although he has found that people who take part in military re-enactments see themselves as personas rather than actors and believe they’re giving an impression rather than a performance, Filewod believes that the theatre and the army are closely related. “They’re both professional estates that have responsibilities to preserve and commemorate the nation and are based historically in male social displays. In a way, theatres are armies that don’t kill and armies are theatres that do. Every military has some kind of unit in it that does this. People who perform military re-enactments aren’t really in the army and they’re not really in the theatre, but they’re at that point where the theatre and the army intersect.”
It is no accident that the military and the theatre use a lot of the same terminology, such as “armies deploying in theatres of operation” and “staging invasions,” said Filewod. Much like in the military, directors or drama professors are given extraordinary power over the actors, he said. “In a regular class, if I said ‘Stand on your head,’ people would look at me like I was crazy, but in a theatre class or the army, they would stand on their heads.”
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