A Visit to Mary Arden’s Farm

Image of Mary Arden's Farm

Experience the sights, sounds and smells of a working Tudor farm on a fantastic family day out at Mary Arden’s Farm. Meet the Tudors who run the farm just as Shakespeare’s mother would have done, watch craft and falconry demonstrations and explore the farmyard, playground and historic buildings.

 —Mary Arden’s Farm Promotional Material

Before us were roughly a dozen heritage piglets. All tumbling over one another as they attempted to touch their snouts to my hand, which I placed before them. Perhaps they thought I had food. I didn’t. After petting the piglet, I walked back towards Mary Arden’s farmhouse. In the distance I could see a woman in Tudor style clothing on what looked to be a mound of wet hay. I approached the fence, leaned on it, and observed her. She was holding her dress up with both hands, all the while rhythmically stomping her feet on the mound. I asked, “What are you doing?” She responded, “I have to pack the compost down, master.”

Image of pigs at the farm

The scene that I described was an ethnographic moment on a visit that I made to Mary Arden’s Farm on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon during the summer of 2016. A heritage site that is owned and operated by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the farm is a reenactment site framed by the promotional statement to offer visitors an opportunity to “meet the Tudors who run the farm just as Shakespeare’s mother would have done.” However, upon meeting with the managing director and farm manager, the farm as a reenactment of the past becomes much more complicated by, and entangled within, present day determinations that establish what can be reasonably seen, said, and grown within this space. From a pedagogical perspective, the site aims to engage present-day students through reconstructed past in order to address the quandary of sustainable living in the future. And from the production perspective, the farm must negotiate the tensions that emerge when reenacting past ways of farming while still adhering to present day health and safety regulations.

Since its nascent years in the 1980s, performance studies included a wide array of embodied acts under its purview; including ritual, sports, politics, play, communication, festivals, and behavior (both human and animal). Included in this has been the performance of everyday life, emphasizing collective gatherings as sites for identity formation and making meaning. Following suit, performance historiographic methods have also taken to the town and city streets, to the reenactment fields and living history museums to address how the past is transmitted into the present. What this adds up to is a moment in which how the past is reenacted in the present, and by whom, carries a great deal of social, cultural, and political import. The act of reconstructing the past through embodied performance is not an innocent act, but one that has the potential to circulate an ideology about how collectives of people remember their past in the present to activate possible futures.

It is with this in mind that I consider Mary Arden’s Farm as a cultural site that not only intends to transmit a past to the present, but one that also wants to transmit knowledge of sustainable agriculture in order to consider future potentials. When thinking about Mary Arden’s Farm as a site that generates a collective memory, tensions and discontinuities emerge in the present day reenactment of Tudor life on the farm. For example, the farm manager is a present day anachronism.. Dressed in blue coveralls and work boots, the farm manager weaves in and out of the reenactment site to maintain the day-to-day operations at Mary Arden’s. While in the foreground one is witnessing the Tudor reenactment of managing the compost pile, in the background the farm manager is tending to the heritage pigs. The entrance of the farm manager into the field of vision disrupts the reconstructed past. In this anachronism, the circulation of present day regulations and consumer markets becomes visible.

Women prepping food

In her book Performing Remains, Rebecca Schneider makes the claim that history, much like performance, should not seek to recover a pure past. Instead, Schneider argues that the (historical or performance ) event should be understood as a continuous re-enactment that negotiates mistakes and misfires. It is through this engagement that Schneider blurs a distinction between liveness and archive, past and present, performer and spectator. For Schneider, the past seeps into the present via a continuous critical renegotiation of events through an embodied liveness, which allows space for the collective (rather than the individuated) generation of memory.

Along with the farm manager, another anachronism that emerges at the reenactment of the past at Mary Arden’s Farm are the present day regulations administered by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the United Kingdom. This poses an interesting conundrum: since what is produced at Mary Arden’s Farm enters the consumer market, what is seeable and sayable at Mary Arden’s Farm reenactments are regulated and restricted by a governmental agency. Pushing this anachronism through Schneider’s theorizing of reenactments raises interesting questions about relationship between past, present, and future at these sites. Schneider, on anachronism, states,

“anachronism is at least a two-way street, with possibly more counter-directions than two. Because the manipulation of anachronism is the very stuff of the art or act of reenactment, it can never be entirely banished from the project at hand – a fact that reenactors know intimately” (53-4).

What needs to be considered further with reenactments are those moments when heritage sites spill into the present of everyday life, and, conversely, those moments when present day regulations spill into the heritage site. For example, in the case of Mary Arden’s Farm, the ideology of a more authentic and sustainable Tudor way of producing and consuming food actually materializes in the form of pork and dairy products that are produced and sold, spilling the past out into the present-day consumer market. This raises an intriguing question: how do we account for the added value of reenactment, anachronisms and all, on the food that we eat? It is through an engagement with performance studies that allows for such a question to emerge, indeed, even to be thought. To put it another way, it is performance studies that allows for a connection to be seen between reenactments and the production of food for paying consumers.

Since its nascent years in the 1980s, performance studies included a wide array of embodied acts under its purview; including ritual, sports, politics, play, communication, festivals, and behavior (both human and animal). Included in this has been the performance of everyday life, emphasizing collective gatherings as sites for identity formation and making meaning. Following suit, performance studies methods have also taken to the town and city streets, to the reenactment fields and living history museums to address how the past is transmitted into the present. What this adds up to is a moment in which how the past is reenacted in the present, and by whom, carries a great deal of social, cultural, and political import. The act of reconstructing the past through embodied performance is not an innocent act, but one that has the potential to circulate an ideology about how collectives of people remember their past in the present to activate possible futures.

My work at Mary Arden’s Farm shows how the move to examine historical reenactment through a performance historiographic lens provokes us to think through how the embodied performance of the past is embedded within a present day economic language of added-value. This requires scholars to consider how reenactment circulates beyond the confines of the heritage site and into a broader consumer market, enabling us to consider a very material by-product of reenactments. The question that emerges, and that I invite the reader to respond to, is: how do we account for the added value of reenactment, misfires and all, on the food that we eat?

WORKS CITED

Schneider, Rebecca. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011. Print.

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