Ye Guv was out.
The footman of Gov. Norborne Berkeley, Baron de Botetourt, resplendent in the livery of his master, stepped through the massive front door of the palace and with a grandiose bow announced: "His Excellency is noe at home, but his private secretary will see you."
Standing before the entrance, he embodied the power of the Crown, humming through the circuits of command to be administered by butlers. At once you felt put in your 18th-century place. You, after all, belonged to a group of mere tradesmen presenting a petition to a peer of the realm.
Before you have traversed the rooms of the palace you will assume a variety of other roles, however. You will hear William Marshman, Botetourt's head steward, discourse on the etiquette of serving an elegant supper; listen to the ornate language of the private secretary praising the generosity of the governor while stalling your petition; become a crony of Lord Botetourt; a scullion, a relative, a servant, a judge of horseflesh and minuets, and finally, amid the herbal scents of the Palace Gardens, return to the dubious delights of a 20th-century identity.
The recent reopening of the redone residence of Virginia's royal governors -- perhaps the most carefully researched and authentically furnished building of its kind -- may seem in certain respects emblematic of Colonial Williamsburg. An advertising campaign proclaims the theme "Colonial Williamsburg proudly takes another giant step backwards." Ever since 1926 when the Rockefellers began restoring the 150-or-so structures of the immaculate 173-acre historic area, Colonial Williamsburg has been an enclave of early-American history.
But the key phrase in the reopening of the palace, after a three-month hiatus while the project was completed under a Rockfeller Brothers Fund grant, is "newly interpreted." Thus the Governor's Palace also represents one of the most advanced trends in the curatorial and museum field today -- changing the passive spectator into an active participant.
Instead of looking at objects embalmed in cases with placards explaining what you're seeing, you enter a stage where you become, in effect, an actor. Touring the rooms is not a matter of trouping behind a guide and receiving a lecture. You participate in a species of living theater.
The dangers of this are transparent. Twentieth-century faces gaze at us beneath 18th-century perukes. The palace, like any museum, is mostly an artificial environment, a space where the illusion of the past is recreated. Although the foundations are original, the structure is really only 48 years old. The sumptuous Colonial gardens with their shaded arbors, shaven hedges and shining beds of tulips are the work of eminent modern landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff.
Does this make a difference, however? Only to those for whom literal authenticity is a passion. Does it make a difference that the life one imagines in the palace never took place there, that the 18th century of Smollett's novels or Fielding's, with its cholera, bawdry and crime, does not intrude? I think not. Like any other form of theater, the interpretation of the Governor's Palace is based on accepting the conventions of a reconstructed event.
For those who consider authenticity to be all, the decorative arts of the mansion are unquestionably real, and magnificent, too. These derive from access to Lord Botefourt's inventory of 16,500 objects in the original palace, where he died in 1770. The highboys, four-posters and globed candles capture the opulence of an 18th-century life style; so does the palace foyer, decorated with huge ceiling fans of musketry, the actual symbol of order in a new world.
The indisputable advantage of the living theater approach, however, is that it unquestionably kindles the imagination. For example, I had never experienced 17th-century painting by corridors of candlelight. Canvases would never be shown that way in a standard museum of art. To see them by candlelight, though, with forms swimming in and out of pools of shadow, is to better comprehend the fondness of the age for paintings in which tremulous light wavers among engulfing shadows.
The experience, despite its stage-management, is highly effective. After all, Colonial Williamsburg is beautiful, and when one leaves the Governor's Ballroom, where musicians are performing a little night music, and passes into the scent of gardens where a saffron moon is ascending through clouds of blossoming dogwood, one is not disposed to be captious. On what other stage can you be a star at such a small expense of talent?