Thursday, February 11, 2016

Being Samuel Gray: Interpreting a Central Figure from the Boston Massacre (Part I)

"Building an event, even one that recreates an actual moment in the past, is as much as work of theatre or fiction as it is of fact: character development, motivations, costuming, setting, all of those combine with the documented words to create a scene that conveys an interpretive point for the public. It’s similar to a museum exhibition– it’s interpreted."  
                                                                                                         - "Kitty Calash"

I am fortunate to have been offered the chance to depict Samuel Gray during next month's annual reenactment of the Boston Massacre.  Meticulous scholarship on the part of the organizers - a true labor of love - has gone into making this annual interpretive event a faithful and authentic representation of the actual participants and their actions on March 5th, 1770. 

Samuel Gray was one of the members of the crowd, gathering on King-street that night, who was subsequently killed when soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot opened fire.  As such, he became a central actor in the story of the Massacre and its retelling, to be upheld by contemporary patriots as an early martyr to the cause of American liberty.

Boston Gazette and Country Journal, Monday March 12, 1770
Along with Gray, two other men were killed outright and eight more wounded (two of them mortally). Chances are, unless you have made a particular study of it, the one name that is familiar to you is Crispus Attucks, whose memory as an historic figure of African (and Natick Native American) descent would have particular relevance and significance for later generations. Gray and the other casualties, though, have generally faded from modern memory.

His part in the script is simple enough. Gray arrives on the scene just minutes before the soldiers fire, speaks a few words to one of the Town watchmen, folds his arms to warm his hands, and is shot in the head at close range when the first muskets go off. There is good evidence to support this narrative trajectory and the organizers have made a defensible interpretive choice.  Yet there could have been alternative interpretations based on other conflicting accounts.  

Detail from a Jonathan Mulliken engraving, after Revere
Because Samuel Gray was slain that night, there is a considerable amount of near-contemporaneous documentation - largely in the form of depositions and transcripts of sworn trial testimony - that concerns him personally. The murder charge brought against the soldiers of the guard hinged, in part, on whether Gray was targeted deliberately and also whether he offered sufficient provocation for their actions to constitute self defense. Not surprisingly, the evidence on these points offered by witnesses for the prosecution is contradicted by other witnesses for the defense.

Such accounts require critical assessment and have implications for historical interpretation.  Often it is a question of understanding what the surviving documentation helps to clarify and when additional confirmation is needed before a fact can be asserted with confidence.  Regarding the earliest published images of the Massacre, one of the organizers of the event advised me in a personal communication;

"Pelham and Revere shouldn't be taken as an exact representation. But I do very strongly believe that they can both be counted on for what clothing looked like in 1770."

Next month's Boston Massacre reenactment is not "The Samuel Gray Show".   Be that as it may, the actor in me needs to understand the motivation and backstory of my character, while  the historian in me cannot resist digging deeper into the evidence.  To do my part with fidelity and to remain in character when interpreting for the public, there are some questions about Samuel Gray's background, what he may have worn, and his activities both prior to March 5th and also on the night that he lost his life that need to be considered.  We will discuss and evaluate the available evidence that may help provide some answers in subsequent posts.

No comments:

Post a Comment