Historical re-enactment to play at Saint-Gaudens National Site

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(Host) This weekend a unique spectacle takes place at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site on the Vermont-New Hampshire border.

It’s a re-enactment of a pageant staged a century ago to honor the founder of the Cornish Artists Colony.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) In a school gym in Cornish, New Hampshire, more than 80 volunteer actors have been trying on winged shoes and satyr’s hooves.

They’re rehearsing a pageant — a masque — in the roles of testy Roman goddesses and lusty gods.

(Voice) Jupiter… Oh, Jupiter!

This weekend, they’ll bring it back to where it was first performed by some of America’s most influential artists — in the lush meadows of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic site.

Back in 1905 these rolling acres with their views of Mount Ascutney were known as the Cornish Colony. It evolved around Augustus St. Gaudens. Saint-Gaudens was an important and charismatic sculptor. When he moved to the country, he was followed by his friends, the cultural gurus of the Gilded Age.

(Meyers) It was sort of an ever-expanding circle. And at the height it was more than artists — there were musicians and writers and even it was the summer white house for three years — under Woodrow Wilson. It was sort of the place to be.

(Keese) Fern Meyers has written a book on the musicians of the Cornish colony. She’s sitting by a gilded fountain outside the historic site’s museum. With her is Saint-Gaudens curator Dr. Henry Duffy.

Duffy says the people at Cornish had an affinity for all things Greek and Roman.

(Duffy) In the end of the 19th century America was growing economically and politically in a way that it has never grown since. It was fueled primarily by the railroad. These people would start off as small shop keepers and, in a period of 30 years, they’d be multi-billionaires. They’d have enormous fortunes, so they turned to Europe to try to buy culture.

(Keese) St. Gaudens and his friends helped fill the mansions of the newly rich with beauty. Their art was rooted in the classics with a lively, modern aspect. Duffy says the masque reflects that.

(Duffy) It’s written like the old odes of Homer, but in a humorous way.

(Keese) The masque portrays a meeting of the gods at Cornish to determine who should succeed Jupiter as king. In the end, Saint-Gaudens, a mortal, is selected and whisked off in a golden chariot.

The original chariot is on display in the Saint-Gaudens Museum.

The original play was written for the colony’s 20th year. In her updated version, Hanover author Clyde Watson hopes the audience will feel the Cornish mystique.

(Watson) I hope they’ll feel like they have drifted back in time a little bit. That they’ll feel some unexplained connection to the people and the past both through the words and the sense of place.

(Keese) Watson’s version includes a narrator — a country neighbor, based on a local carpenter who befriended the Cornish colonists.

He says they’re a little nutty, but definitely worth getting to know.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

(Host) The pageant will be performed Friday night, June 24; and Saturday, June 25, with a matinee on Sunday, June 26.

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