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Thursday, March 5, 2009

What's with those Tableaux, anyway?

After having lived in Los Angeles for 25 years, it was through a different lens that I watched the Historic Natchez Pageant on a visit home in 2006. It had been many years since I’d seen it – even longer since I’d participated.

As I watched and reminisced, it occurred to me that what had seemed like such a natural form of entertainment was really quite unusual. I wondered what the tourists thought about it. I wondered how the founders of the pilgrimage came up with it.

This year, opening night at the pageant will be free of charge to the public. If you’ve never attended, now is the time to go. And for those who are unfamiliar with its unusual format, I’ve done a little research and am pleased to share what I’ve learned.

I learned that not only is the pageant about history, but its format is based on a form of entertainment that was popular all the way back to the Renaissance and reached its heyday during the late 19th Century —the tableau vivant.

Before radio, film and television, the tableau vivant (often shortened to simply “tableau) was a popular form of entertainment where people would dress in costume and recreate a famous painting, often of an historic event. So it made perfect sense that in 1932, the founders of that first Pilgrimage would pick a form of entertainment they and their parents had enjoyed. And what better place to find illustrations of life during the 19th Century than Godey’s Lady’s Book, the preeminent ladies’ magazine of the 19th Century?

The magazine was best known for the hand-tinted fashion plate that appeared at the start of each issue showing the latest in women’s fashions, including an illustration and pattern with measurements for making garments at home. Thus armed, the ladies who organized that first pageant went about recreating historically accurate dress to depict scenes from the 1850s.

What surprised me most, however, was that the first year the pageant was actually a street parade sponsored and financed by the merchants of Natchez as an attraction to draw people of the surrounding countryside into town where they would tarry long enough to shop in their stores.

Originally based on agriculture and harvests, historically, pageants in United States all have same elements — queens, mock courts, Maypoles. That first pageant or “parade” was entitled “Under Many Flags,” and the floats depicted historic events of Native American, French, English and Spanish days. Because it was impractical to have parades every other day, the evening pageant replaced that first parade.

In addition to tableaux, dances were included. The rendition of old time spirituals was given by outstanding voices of the African-American churches and of the Natchez College, an African-American institution of the city.

Even though it was in the midst of the Great Depression, that first pilgrimage was a huge success, drawing people from thirty-seven states.

And now as we face another economic crisis, it’s a good time to remember that early success and learn from it. Please join us on Friday, March 6 for a free evening of entertainment based on history with eye toward the future.

 For tickets, contact Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, 640 S. Canal Street, P.O. Box 347 Natchez, MS 39121 601-446-6631, Toll-Free 800-647-6742, Fax 601-446-8687

*Posted by Elodie