A friend and longtime visitor to the Chautauqua Institution complained last year about the overwhelming sameness of the programming here from year to the next, and I doubt that the theme weeks for this year and next are making her revise that notion. The pattern for the nine-week summer season recently has gone something like this: an inaugural week featuring critic Roger Rosenblatt and “Friends” (back in 2014, after a brief hiatus; another week devoted to a country assuming greater importance than before (this year: Turkey; next year: Egypt); and another week given over, in one sense or another, to the Civil War, for that conflict’s sesquicentennial. (This year focused on 1863; next year will bring Ken Burns, who will surely touch on the conflict.)
My friend has a point in her frustration with this lack of originality, but I, for one, never tire of the Civil War. The focus this week on 1863 is especially fruitful, covering the Emancipation Proclamation; political infighting; disruptions in gender relations; riots in the North and South; guerrilla warfare in Missouri; and, of course, the battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga.
The 10:45 morning lectures are the focal point of an entire week here in this upstate New York cultural Disneyworld, as well-known speakers or experts not only flesh out the week’s themes but also anchor much of the ancillary programming (e.g., afternoon lectures offered by the Department of Religion, “Special Studies” courses, even concerts and plays). The first day’s speaker has the major responsibility of, in effect, touching on themes to be explored later. The very vastness of Civil War change, however, makes it almost impossible to bring all of this into focus.
That, I think, limited the effectiveness of opening lecturer Catherine Clinton, of Queen’s College, Belfast, on Monday. She certainly engaged with the audience, offering a number of interesting, little-known facts (e.g., the Civil War was the second most costly for native-born Irish, exceeded only by World War I) and briefly relating her experience with Steven Spielberg as a consultant on his film Lincoln. But ultimately, I think discussing her own extensive research in greater detail would have focused her lecture somewhat more.
In mid-afternoon, I attended a lecture at the Hall of Christ, on “Tragic Dancing Ladies of Film” (i.e., Carmen Miranda, Eleanor Powell, Vera-Ellen, Carol Haney, and Rita Hayworth). As I got on line for the event, sponsored by the Chautauqua Dance Circle, I felt like a fish out of water. I estimated that males in the audience were outnumbered about 20 to 1 by women. (One of my friends--and he knows who he is!!!!!—would have regarded that ratio not as a deterrent, but as the most powerful incentive of all to attend.)
The lecturer, Nancilee Wydra, came armed with a host of terrific YouTube clips (the brilliant tap dancer Powell and the died-too-young Haney in the “Steam Heat” number from Pajama Game were revelations to me), an infectious enthusiasm for her subject, and a quick wit. (When one male audience member, beholding the ravishing redhead Hayworth, pronounced, “Now that’s the real deal,” she shot back about the star’s transformative dye job: “Not her hair!”)
(The image accompanying this post shows where I am staying, Carey Cottage Inn. Notice the American flags—a very common sight in this village, and extremely appropriate for a week that meant whether this nation would, indeed, remain "United.")