Ron Carnegie enjoys interpreting the first president of our nation, a man whose character he clearly admires.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you will meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Ron Carnegie, who is George Washington at Colonial Williamsburg – a new George Washington, I’m told.
Ron Carnegie: Yes, yes since July 4th, as a matter of fact, was my first program.
Lloyd: What kind of training does it take to make yourself comfortable being George Washington?
Ron: Well, I have to start earlier than that, I think, to get to all of my training. I have been doing first person interpretation, which is what we call what we do here, since 1979. And, my experience at college was with history and a performing arts background. I bring that up, because that is all is building my background and is part of the training which brought me to where I am now. I’ve worked here at Colonial Williamsburg for 10 years, often in first person or character interpretation roles. For Washington specifically, about a year before I actually got to do a program, I was approached by our department of public history, and they suggested to me that they wanted me to audition for this role. So, I was given a year to research initially, and then we would meet for auditions, sort of. I would go through several steps to make certain, or to see how my progress was coming. And that was not only content, but also performance. All that was gearing towards one audition with our vice president of our Historic Area. And that was on the 29h of June. So, [I spent] about a year of preparation, of reading various books that are out there, but that’s just to get started. The research for a role like Washington is ongoing. There is a tremendous amount of work out there, not only in secondary sources, but in surviving primary sources – his own writings – some of which are still being collected and put together.
Lloyd: Well, there are a couple of really good biographies that have been published in the last year that are just fascinating. Do you have to read all of that?
Ron: I do, and I always make a point of reading the newest works as well, even controversial ones, because I know that’s what the public coming here are going to read. So, a lot of the guidelines I’ve been using are older biographies. One of the most important to me has been Douglas S. Freeman’s, which is not very new at all. But I always read the current works, too, because it is going to affect the questions and the expectations of the public coming to me.
Lloyd: Well, you have a benefit because Washington was big, and you are big, so physically you can carry it off.
Ron: Well, that aspect, yes…
Lloyd: I can’t imagine me playing George Washington – when did he shrink?
Ron: (Laughs) I do have some challenges that way as well, because I don’t look like the stereotypical image of Washington – which is mostly based on very late in his life. Not only is that a problem for myself here but it’s a problem that Mount Vernon is facing as well. They are going through a process today of trying to bring alive the image of an earlier Washington. And they are doing a lot of research to back date the …what is well known now the later paintings, the presidential paintings to come up with images of him, of what he looked like at the – I think they are looking at around 18 and 19 years of age and I know they are doing 45 years of age, which would have put him right during the war.
Lloyd: There are some pretty good descriptions of what Washington looked like – especially during the war – people describing him passing and riding on his horse, which reminds me, do you ride a horse?
Ron: I do, and I am going through a process presently to start riding horses here at Colonial Williamsburg, which is…there are different concerns that you have to be engaged with when you are dealing with a large public, for instance…
Lloyd: …not running over them with your horse…
Ron: Well, exactly, but our horses even follow some slightly different instructions than what are commonly used. For instance, a horse will often be spurred on in the normal world by certain vocal sounds. “Clicking” is one of the most commonly used, but here often that is how a crowd will approach any animal is by clicking. So if our horses were trained like a normal horse, they would take off when they heard that, so we have to train ours a little differently, which means we also have to re-train our riders a little differently as well.
Lloyd: Washington – in one of the biographies I read – was described as probably the best horseman of his day in the colony of Virginia. I’ll take it that is not entirely accurate…
Ron: Well, depends upon what you mean by “entirely accurate.” I’m not the best horseman, if that is what you mean. If you mean in the period, there is another man who I think doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, and that is Billy Lee.
Lloyd: Oh? Okay.
Ron: Billy Lee is Washington’s valet, his manservant – that’s the highest ranking slave in an 18th-century Virginia household. It’s a relationship where he is almost never removed from his master, and that’s the point I am getting at, when riding, just at the hunt before the war, and all throughout the war, Billy Lee was always there, right beside Washington. So I would argue he had to at least be as good a horseman as Washington, though he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.
Lloyd: He doesn’t, but I did recently read a book that described Billy Lee and George Washington on a hunt together, and they were not going to quit. They were just going to ride each other into the ground, and Washington apparently just took it as Billy Lee’s right to do that – if he could outride him, then he could outride him. That would have been fun to watch, though.
Ron: Something interesting about Washington that I do not think is all that well known in the modern world today, is that Washington does not judge a man by his religion or by the color of his skin but by his abilities. And that’s saying a lot for a man – particularly a Virginian in the 18th century – and a slave owner at that. But it is pretty impressive.Along the religious lines, there’s a remark in his own writing. He is creating a property that’s out far to the west, and the manager of that property writes to him and says, “well, I can get some indentured servants, but are you concerned if they are dissenters, if they are not members of the established faith?” And Washington wrote back and said, “I don’t care if they are Jews or Mohammedans, as long as they will do the work.”
Lloyd: Pretty clear.
Lloyd: What have you found, if anything, most difficult to assimilate while you are interpreting the character of Washington, trying to find a level where you can go out comfortably?
Ron: The biggest difficulty I think when in portraying someone like Washington is you want to present as historically accurate a character of Washington as you can, but Washington was the sort of man that in reality wouldn’t make a very good character for a place like this. He’s very, very private – so much so that people who do not know him often refer to him as being cold, which is not good when you are dealing with the public. His friends never accuse him of that, I should add here. A lot of it, I think, comes from his concern for how he is viewed and his reputation and how he is coming across in public, and also I think he has a natural reticence or shyness. He does not let people “inside” very frequently. So to try to come up with a balance where I am presenting Washington so that that idea or feeling gets across but where I am not turning away or making an audience feel uncomfortable – that is one of the greatest challenges – that, and some of the perceptions that an American will come with regarding Washington. There’s a great quote, I can’t remember which book it was in now, but they referred to Washington as being perhaps the best known of the founding fathers, and yet most Americans know less of him than any of the others, which sounds like it is contradictory, but a lot of people don’t really know much about Washington himself. They know about the war, they know about him being the first president, and they may know a handful of myths, but the real man they don’t know.
Lloyd: Probably his reputation now comes off being commander of the army and president. What period [of his life] are you portraying?
Ron: Right now I portray just prior to the presidency in some programs – well the truth is we move around – I portray Washington in 1774 before the war even begins. I portray him throughout the war – both in the very beginning at Cambridge in Massachusetts and in New York later, and also, we always do programming here at least once a year which is set just before Yorktown in ’81. And I do a program right now where Washington is discussing the beginning of the new federal government in ’88. By next spring, I will also be adding to that programs where Washington is looking back over the presidency as well from the end of his presidency when [he is] stepping down. I think most of the focus next year, because of “Revolutionary City,” is going to be geared toward 1781. In that program of Revolutionary City we are taking the Historic Area through a quickened history of the whole Revolution from ’74 to ’81 to just prior to the Battle of Yorktown. So, it will be culminating on its second day with Washington in his preparations for leaving the city of Williamsburg and going to Yorktown to confront and to besiege Cornwallis.
Lloyd: That would be an interesting period, particularly if you are going to do kind of what I call a sort of “hurry-up history,” so you can get a lot into a little bit of space. That would be fun. Are you looking forward to it, or are you looking at it saying, “oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?”
Ron: (Laughs) Well, the role of Washington has been just terrific – I mean, how can you turn that down? When they approached me, they specifically asked, they were offering it. If you are interested in doing this, we want you to think about it and come back to us. Well, how do you think about something like that?
Lloyd: You say “yes!”
Ron: I would never have seen myself in this role, but there was no way I was going to turn down a role like that. And, as far as the Revolutionary City goes, that’s just another challenge to the role, somewhere else to take it. So, yeah, I am excited about whatever the future brings.
Lloyd: Let me change gears. You’ve played Washington; you’ve met with the public; you’ve gone out and talked to visitors and guests, what do they ask you – you as George Washington? What do they ask George Washington?
Ron: Well, that’s not as easy a question to answer as you might think, because it varies tremendously. I can expect almost at every program to be asked whether or not I cut down a cherry tree. I very frequently will be asked about wooden teeth, but I might be asked something that shows far more knowledge or depth. I had a child the other day ask me how I trained Nelson. I was surprised he knew who Nelson was – he was one of Washington’s two most famous horses throughout the war – Nelson and Blue Skin. But the child specifically asked about the horse by name, which I thought was interesting. So, you never know where you are going to go. I find in my program where I’m dealing with the Constitution, I get an awful lot of questions where people are trying to get insight into Washington’s views on how our government is now operating, and I think that is true not just for myself, but I think some of the other founding fathers and nation builders get questions along those lines as well.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.