Part 5 of a five-part series.
When one thinks about a tour, the image of a man or woman dressed in a work uniform, describing each artifact you pass, is probably the first image that comes to mind. The Museum’s Guided Spirit Walks do not fit that mold. Upon your arrival at our program this month, you might be surprised to find that there is no tour guide clad in beige dress clothes and a name tag. You will instead find a solider outfitted head to toe in full service dress. There will be no “Hello. Welcome…” greeting, and in fact no instructions at all as to where to walk or look next. You will be met with poetry.
What is the role of a tour guide? I believe it is to impart as much information as possible unto his or her program participants, while relating this content to the audience’s experiences. The tour guide’s job is to provoke a kind of response in his or her audience, and to encourage them to make their own meaning from the artifacts and information presented. So how does a guide that speaks only in poetry provide this valuable interpretation? In the case of “At War’s End”, he silently leads you from location to location where our actors perform what is as close to a primary source as possible. Each scene is principally a theatrical production of real information: actual words written by the individuals themselves who are buried at each plot, or at least a message to which we’re confident they would have subscribed. The guide’s minimal direction forces the audience to have a genuine interaction with these authentic stories, and to make their own meaning out of it.
In our production, the guide is a character himself. “Guide” not only leads the audience from scene to scene, but is also the embodiment of the poetry that he recites. Dressed as a soldier, Guide represents the voices of the wider community that lived through the Great War. Each poem that he recites was written either during or in the wake of World War One. If a tour guide’s purpose is to evoke a response in the audience based on a connection to the program’s content, then Guide succeeds in adding real voices and a creative yet poignant context to those being portrayed by the rest of the cast. He does not attempt to explain, describe, or rationalize what people were going through at the end of the First World War. Instead, Guide expresses sentiments that echo those experienced in each scene. The interpretation given by our Guided Spirit Walks tour guide is historically accurate, and is entirely primary source material, but most importantly it is sentiment rather than definition. When you come to see this production, you will be able to exercise empathy for those living in the aftermath of the war.
This year’s production covers a variety of themes and emotions, reflective of those present in St. Catharines in 1918. There was celebration of the victory and armistice that marked the end of the war, but there was also communal exhaustion from the war effort. There was terrible sadness for the lost, but also a great optimism going forward. The poetry recited by Guide extends these themes. Now, let’s take a look at a couple of the poems that we felt best fit our subject matter and sentiments.
We wanted to capture the feelings of loss experienced by so many on the home front. Mary Liz Frye’s “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” does perhaps the closest to justice
it can, on the pain endured in mourning. The speaker asks their loved ones not to be overwhelmed by sadness, and describes their spirit after death. The speaker says, “I am a thousand winds that blow. / I am the diamond glints on snow.” This imagery of beauty represents the afterlife: the beautiful memory that loved ones can have of this deceased person. Lost friends and family can be experienced in the pleasure of seeing shimmering snow. This poem encapsulates well the juxtaposed feelings of optimism and despair that most of our historical characters experience throughout “At War’s End”. The speaker demands of the listener: “Do not stand at my grave and cry;/ I am not there. I did not die.” The request is hopeful, because this loved one should carry on despite the loss, but at the same time this tone suggests that the demand is desperate. The contrast between the final words should allow the difficulty of dealing with loss to resonate with our audience. The suggestion that “I did not die” allows for hope that this person will carry on in memory or spirit after death. However, the precursory “I am not there”, despite suggesting that the spirit has moved beyond this gravestone, also serves as a painful reminder that they are gone beyond this life as well.
Death was not the only form of loss that struck men, women, and children during World War One. Loss of identities, attitudes, and beliefs was also rampant after the devastation of war. May Wedderburn Cannan’s poem “After the War” provides a microcosmic perspective on changing relationships that have been effected by the terrors that occurred between 1914 and 1918. The speaker wonders if, “After the war perhaps I’ll sit again/ Out on the terrace where I sat with you”. This line suggests that the wartime effort has been extremely busy, and that after the war there may finally be time for rest. Its tone also brings about the feeling, however, that when this rest comes, relationships may be different. The closing stanza reads:
I shall remember then, and sad at heart
For the lost day of happiness we knew,
Wish only that some other man were you
And spoke my name as one you used to do.
While this loved man has returned, he has changed, and the speaker doesn’t have the same relationship with him anymore. True of so many soldiers returning from war, he does not interact with his loved ones as he “used to do”. The speaker is saddened by the change and presents sentiments that suggest that their relationship may not be able to endure.
Both of these poems, as well as the others included in the tour that I haven’t mentioned, establish and expand the tone of residual post-war conflict. For the loved ones of those who had either died or returned, life had been scarred by war. There were numerous problems in areas from personal relationships, ranging up to community infrastructure, to which there was no one easy solution. Being a student of both English Literature and History, I was thrilled to take on this topic as the direction of my last blog post. What art forms like poetry or theatre can accomplish is sometimes more valuable than just reciting historical facts. While Guide will not be giving specific statistics or dates, the poetry will speak perhaps more profoundly in terms of human experience. The Guided Spirit Walks overall hope to accomplish this purpose: teach about history, but more importantly create an immersive experience in which the audience can appreciate that history.
By the time this blog is posted I will have ended my summer with the Museum and will be back at school at Brock University. However, I have just purchased my own tickets to go take in the production and all of the hard work the team has put into research, rehearsal, and costuming. Be sure to buy your tickets so you can come appreciate this significant moment in history! Don’t forget to look out for these two poems to see how they connect to the content of the production, and see if you can recognize any of the other poems that so excellently convey the pain and hope that these brave people experienced one hundred years ago.
Guided Spirit Walks run September 7th, 8th, 14th, and 15th at 6pm and 7pm at Victoria Lawn Cemetery. Tickets are on sale now!
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Chris McGivern is the Museum’s summer Program Assistant and is studying Concurrent Education at Brock University.