History of Historical Reenactments
The presence of historical impersonators has been around for many years, dating back to historical reenactments that began occurring many years ago starting with the Romans. These educational and entertaining events “recreate aspects of a historical event or period” . Beginning in the 17th century, the 1638 Christian and Muslim mock battle and the Roundheads’ reenactment of the 1645 Blackheath battle contributed to popularizing military reenactments . Modernizations of this type became most popular in the 1800s, and the public began following these new reenactments in America when veterans of the Civil War participated to honor their fellow men who died in battle and educate the public of war. These Civil War commemorations led to modern reenacting, growing in popularity through the 1980s and 90s . The existence of these reenactments through the years depicts Barbie Zelizer’s processual aspect of memory. As time goes on, the memory of these battles and events is preserved, avoiding distanciation by reliving these modernizations again and again.
Lincoln Impersonators as Living History
Historical impersonators are mostly progressive reenactors, embodying the lives of specific figures from the past in the most authentic way, never breaking character and displaying an extremely bona fide persona; they are participating in “living history” . Unlike military reenactments of battles, this type of activity describes impersonators “bringing history to life for the general public” by recreating past time periods as a certain historical figure . One major example of historical interpreters are Abraham Lincoln impersonators. These interpreters, by assuming “historically accurate impressions” of Lincoln, attempt to educate the public of the character and knowledge of who Abraham Lincoln was . They do this by dressing appropriate to the era, including his classic top hat, using speech and attitude specific to Lincoln, and conveying knowledge of the history of his life and time period.
The most common type of Lincoln interpretation is first person, although second and third person interpretation is also performed as well. These first person interpreters focus on minute details of the president’s life and spend many months studying history in order to prepare . First person impersonators convey their story and history in first-person perspective; they speak and act as if they were actually Lincoln in the appropriate era, without breaking character . This is very useful for audiences because it’s easier for the viewers to believe the impersonator is portraying the character accurately because they can verify the historical figure actually existed . Using documentation and other authentic artifacts from the past contribute to material memory that can preserve the history of the president. By being used in performances, the presence of an authentic, legitimate object “grounds the audience in the time and place being portrayed,” creating material memory . This presence of actual objects from the past also contributes to the audience verification of the memory of Lincoln. Overall, these living history sites also exemplify the usable facet of memory because this activity uses memory mainly for entertainment and education about the past .
Michael Krebs as Abraham Lincoln
The memory of Abraham Lincoln is universal, with hundreds of impersonators portraying this historical figure. These impersonators allow citizens all across the United States to relate to Lincoln’s complex character, contributing to a shared history among an imagined community. This imagined community is created because we are all connected by the memory of Lincoln; we as the American people “view [Lincoln] as the epitome of unity,” according to Ms. Wordell’s post . One specific Lincoln impersonator is Michael Krebs. Krebs is from Freeport, Illinois, and like Lincoln, is 6 feet and 4 inches tall without his boots . He portrays the 16th president for schools and other audiences across the country alongside Debra Ann Miller, who plays Mary Todd Lincoln . The two have been performing together since the mid-nineties . One example of their performances is titled “Visiting the Lincolns” held in Dwight, Illinois . This relatable, genuine performance demonstrates a mixture of comedy and drama. A video of this performance is below:
Some of Michael Krebs’s most notable performances includes the live re-enactment of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Knox College in 1994, as well as part of President Clinton’s address at Carl Sandburg College in 1995. From 1996 to 2005, he worked at Chicago Historical Society, where he was involved in the Voices from History program in many quality exhibits . He was even a part of Mr. Lincoln’s Virtual Library involved with the Library of Congress. Some of his filmed appearances include Lincoln-Douglas Galesburg Debate (TV movie, 1994), Conspiracy? (TV series documentary, 2004), The Transient (Short, 2008), President Lincoln’s Inauguration Re-enactment (TV movie, 2011), and Field of Lost Shoes (2014). He is currently a member of With Lincoln Productions, a company formed in 1994 in Chicago, Illinois .
Another one of his performances includes Lincoln’s re-election speech at Sovereign Challenge VIII in Savannah, Georgia. This videotaped performance can be watched below:
His continued work as an impersonator portrays the history of Lincoln through living memory. By reenacting both formal speeches as the leader of the country as well as intimate interactions with Debra Ann Miller as Mary Todd Lincoln, Krebs allows the audiences to see both dimensions of Lincoln’s life: the presidential and personal. However, this living memory is partial, as most impersonations only focus on one of his roles like “the Great Emancipator,” for example; because these are living performances rather than history books, Lincoln impersonators usually embody one role of Lincoln at a time, which leaves the opportunity to leave out other aspects of his other roles as president. In this way, these live embodiments of Lincoln’s memory, though more interesting than reading the information from a textbook, contribute to selective memory by choosing what information is conveyed in the performance and what is forgotten. Overall, however, Krebs’s narrativization of Lincoln’s memory through his performances is used to maintain the education of the history of the time period and preserve the collective memory of our 16th president.