by Anna Simon
Perhaps the most pertinent things have already been said about Blinglab’s The Untold Misadventures of Lewis and Clark, and my own thoughts will seem like a refrain to the chorus of groans heard around town. But understanding why things don’t work is often better than knowing why they do, so here’s my take.
Presented as a traditional puppet show, Misadventures sought to show us the seedier side of the two explorer’s journey, I suspect to deconstruct the revered American legend that has been force-fed to us Northwesterners for the past couple years. I have great respect for Marne Lucas and Bruce Conkle’s other projects, and I love puppets in all their stiff, animatronic splendor. But I’m also something of a Lewis and Clark buff, having retraced the trail and written the ol’ undergraduate thesis on the subject. There’s much to capture the popular imagination in their story—some sexual, mostly non. Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis to explore uncharted territory recently attained from the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson wanted to find a river route to the Pacific enabling inter-continental trade. It was also a scientific journey and an ambassadorial trip—time to meet the neighbors! Clark was chosen as co-commander by Lewis and often gets more publicity, but Lewis’s sensitive, mysterious personality combined with his wildlife drawings and poetic descriptions of the land make him ready dramatic material.
Blinglab centered their show around the idea that Lewis was gay and lusted after Clark. I’m not from the northwest, but I’d never heard this before, nor even contemplated it. (Scholars agree that Lewis was depressed and maybe a bit manic. He was a loner, and after the expedition ended, he fell into a deep depression.) Homoeroticzing the pair is the silly glue that’s supposed to hold the performance together amid quirky vignettes. These expedition funny facts are crudely, painfully translated into puppet sketch comedy but do not add up to a show. I, as others before me, did not make it past intermission.
Misadventures used historical information without regard to context and threw it into a sex-drugs-racism-imperialism-etc. soupy mush. Yes, it’s true that Clark had a black slave whom the Native women slept with for “black magic.” It’s also true that York was treated as a free man on the expedition and voted with the other guys on group decisions. Clark did unknowingly prescribe poisonous Thunderclappers to relieve constipation, but that was the state of medicine at the time. Charbonneau, Sacagawea’s French fur-trapping husband, was a dim bulb and disliked among the men—he also won Sacagawea (who was already a prisoner of a tribe) in a gambling match when she was fourteen, before they ever came across the expedition. Taken out of context and blown-up these tidbits unfairly ridicule the past for its cultural shortcomings. It felt too easy and glib. Re-examining history from different perspectives is essential, but Blinglab’s only point seemed to be, “Isn’t the past just ridiculous?” without further insight.
A Puppet’s History of The United States
by Anna Simon