Report from a Re-Enactment I: The Theatre of War in Four Acts

The Niagara River in its brightest season. October 2012.

Welcome to 1812

Reasoning that it qualified as dissertation-research (for me, that is), D and I drove down to the Niagara Peninsula last weekend to watch the re-enactment of the Battle of Queenston Heights. This event was part of a huge, national project to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, with events planned all around Ontario and Quebec for the next two years.  There will be fancy-dress armies, historically-accurate food, tall ships, sea-battles, red-coats, poke bonnets. Laura Secord. Tecumseh. General Isaac Brock. The events are spectacular, and expensive, equal parts educational opportunity and vacation plan.

This event drew nearly a thousand re-enactors, many of them men who double as combatants in the Seven Years War, or the American Civil War. It lasted all weekend, with Saturday devoted to the battle, and Sunday to “Brock”‘s funeral, and a slow march in costume through Niagara-on-the-Lake.

They had 15 000 visitors. That’s far, far more than were involved in the original battle, and thousands more than the first centenary in 1912.

You can see from the pictures that the weather was suitably muted and contemplative for the event, as though nature itself had taken the time to properly honour our military history. The sky was grey, occasionally a pale, autumnal blue over the battle, but it darkened into rain by late afternoon, when the day’s events ended with a simulacrum of Brock’s body carried off the heights to the accompaniment of a fife-and-drum lament.

It’s Strange to be the Audience for a Battle (even if it’s a re-enactment)

Often as we were walking through the crowd I’d see, in the corner of my eye, some woman in a bonnet, with a long cloak, or a man in a red coat, carrying a gun, or a “Mohawk Warrior” in red and black paint. There were white canvas tents full of souvenirs and, as I was talking to an artist whose work was on display at the Brock Memorial, I heard canons in the distance.

The Fog of War on Queenston Heights. 2012. It’s hard to avoid taking pictures of the backs of people’s heads when I’m at these things. I also end up taking a lot pictures of people taking pictures.  It’s pretty meta.

The battle began at three o’clock.  The field was cordoned off by yellow tape, and the crowd pressed up against it, holding their cameras over their heads to catch a glimpse of the red-coats who hid in the trees. The woman who narrated the re-enactment started by telling us to imagine that the playing-field before us as the whole stretch of land from the Niagara River to the top of the Heights. She told us the story of the battle in four acts, re-setting the stage with each phase, framing the events not as history, but as theatre.

The gentlemen on the left, in the blue coats and white trousers, are American.

Like a lot of civic performances I’ve attended, it was a hybrid, half ceremony, half art. It possessed both the authority of public history and verified fact– this was true, after all, and re-enacted on the very day and the very site of the original events– and the appeal of history as spectacle, as story. The narrator plotted each event for us with the high, excessive language of melodrama, from the first nefarious attack on the Niagara frontier, to the darkest hour of Brock’s death, and ending with the final, hard-won victory against tyranny and invasion. From us it demanded a shared act of imagination, as we were called to synthesize these elements– the costumes, the site, the narrative– into something meaningful, into something that unified us, for a while, in patriotic sentiment.

And we, the audience for this mock battle, responded to its theatricality. We booed the American advances, as we booed Brock’s death. We clapped when John Norton’s Mohawks (referred to throughout as “our First Nations Allies”) crept around to surprise the Americans from the rear. We cheered when British forces surrounded and defeated the invaders. It was a lot like a hockey game.  Or Henry V.  Or Braveheart.

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