Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Cardiff Giant sings - or does he?

By: Erin Crissman, Curator
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the Cardiff Giant would be starring in a play (The Night The Cardiff Giant sang Rossini on the Lawn) at the Woodstock Fringe Festival. Kajsa and I went to see it on Sunday and I participated in a talk-back at the end of the performance with playwright, Charlie Traeger. It was a fun day and the play was quite thought-provoking. Traeger, like others who've been inspired by the Cardiff Giant over the years, used Giant-creator George Hull, and the Giant himself, to talk about the larger idea of hoax in America. The play is set in Cooperstown, NY in the present day. For the first few minutes, I thought it was interesting to watch a play set in the town where I live. Since Traeger lived in nearby Springfield for a brief time, his depiction was quite accurate!
Once I got past the setting, I could focus more on the ideas Traeger was presenting in relation to hoax. Each of the characters in the play struggle with accepting big changes in their lives and with the idea that the Giant may or may not rise at night and sing Rossini on the lawn of The Farmers' Museum. What I took away from the performance is how complicated the process of "coming to believe" really is. The play's characters sometimes feel crazy; they try to check their beliefs with each other for validation. During the talk-back afterword, I thought about those ideas in relation to both how the Giant came to reside at the Farmers Museum, and how people in the 1860s and 1870s struggled with believing, or not believing, that the Giant once roamed the earth.
Sometimes visitors to the museum, historians, and even museum staff, would like to believe that life in the 19th century was simple. At least it seems simpler than life today. Author and journalist Scott Tribble recently published Collasal Hoax, the story of the Cardiff Giant, and posits that early staff at The Farmers' Museum sought and purchased the Giant from a private owner in the 1940s, partly because it fit within a context of nostalgia and would give visitors a feeling of 19th century New York. I can't personally comment now on why early staff might have made this purchase, but I'm sure their rationale is somewhere in filed correspondence. If I find out more, I'll post it here. Whatever their reasons, I have my own reasons for believing that the Giant was a visionary purchase:
Often, people think of those taken in by the Giant hoax as simple country people, who, without too much education, would believe anything. I disagree. I see the Giant hoax as representative of how complicated and confusing life was in rural New York in the 1870s. Watching the actors on stage in Traeger's play struggle with nearly feeling insane because they weren't sure who to believe, or what was real, or if it was ok to believe something others thought was silly, helped me understand that rural New Yorkers must have been struggling with the same things when they heard about or (or travelled to see) the Cardiff Giant. At the time the Giant was "discovered," there were dozens of new religious groups, new science - it was the dawn of Darwin- and increasing numbers of publications with differing opinions. Who knew what to believe? Nineteenth century New Yorkers may not have had 5 different 24-hour news channels, but they were inundated with different versions of "truth." This was incredibly complicated stuff!
We saw The Night The Cardiff Giant Sang Rossini on the Lawn, at the Byrdcliffe Theater in Woodstock.
Cleaning up after the performance.

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