Ramona: The Set-Up

So this past weekend, I fulfilled a long-time desire: to attend The Ramona Pageant, America’s oldest continuously running Outdoor Drama.

Perhaps I would do best to reiterate the underpinning issues at play here. I have a long-standing obsession with finding, learning about and experiencing populist and popular forms of American performance—past, present and future. Theater that Americans actually go to because they want to, and not as a cultural checkmark.

And people go to Ramona. Oh, do they ever. On a nice day, like last Saturday, clear and sunny, they sold more than half of their 5,400 person capacity amphitheater. All kinds of people were there, too, milling around eating tamales and hot dogs and watching the pre-show entertainment. Elderly white folks made up the bulk of the audience, of course (leaving the show, we walked by the hi-larious sight of a long line of Boy Scouts with wheelchairs, waiting). But families and young couples, of diverse ethnicities and classes and styles, also attended—including, in our row, a pair of safety-pin crappy black sweatshirt wearing punk kids on a date. The Red Hat Society ladies, Riverside chapter, were out in full force.[1]

They all came to see the pageant, a two-and-a-half hour spectacle that takes place in an amphitheater where the stage is less a stage than a cleverly landscaped stretch of desert, audience facing a backdrop consisting of seemingly untouched foothills.

The production is based somewhat on the novel <a href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0451528425/qid=1113947568/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/102-9543807-9192956"target="blank&quot;Ramona, written by New England authoress and Indian rights activist Helen Hunt Jackson.

Some Background (with many thanks to Genevieve Bell)

Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), was one of the most prolific and influential American woman writers of her era (along with childhood classmate and lifelong friend Emily Dickinson). Emerson regarded Jackson as “the greatest woman poet,” rating her superior to most of her male contemporaries. She also wrote novels and essays; and turned up in Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose, both as herself and, in many ways, as the model for book’s main character.

In the 1870s, Jackson first encountered stories of Native American oppression and discrimination; she also met and married her husband, a wealthy banker and railroad magnate, who ended up bankrolling her growing obsession with Indian rights.

Genevieve notes that Jackson became politicized around Native American rights before there really such a thing; she wrote A Century of Dishonor, a book documenting a hundred years of broken treaties, empty promises and government corruption with regard to the Indian population. At her own expense, she sent a copy to every member of Congress, admonishing them to: “Look upon your hands: They are stained with the blood of your relations.” The book, a shocking expose, didn’t excite any real interest. No one cared.

So Jackson tried another tack: she decided to write a novel “in a way to move people’s hearts” to the plight of American Indians, because “people will read a novel when they will not read serious books.” In this task, she must, of course, have been inspired by the success and infamy Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, itself the most popular novel of 19th century America, and a watershed cultural moment for abolitionism. After all, Lincoln said to Stowe, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”[2]

Ramona started something, but it certainly wasn’t a groundswell of support for Native Americans—instead, the novel created an enduring regional myth that started turning the wheels of Southern California tourism.

Originally published as a sentimental serial in a woman’s journal, Ramona tells the tragic story of beautiful half-caste orphan Ramona. Raised to be proper señorita on a californio hacienda, Ramona falls in love with Alessandro, an Indian (and “the noble savage,” if I ever read one). They run away together into the desert, and battle americano encroachment.

It was the first interracial romance to be a best-seller, which it was from the moment it was published. In 1886, the North American Review ranked Ramona as one of the two foremost ethical novels of the 19th century (next to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, of course). Unfortunately, people were far more interested in the luxurious Spanish ranchos and the love story between Ramona and Alessandro. Jackson was (I like the phrase), trying to deliver an aspirin in a banana split—and the banana split won out.[3]

Within a year of the novel’s first publication, people began visiting the San Diego and Inland Empire area in droves, looking for Ramona’s birthplace, for the site of her wedding, for Don Felipe’s hacienda—maps were sold to follow Ramona’s travels and travails. Never mind that none of these characters or locations really existed. (For a detailed exigesis on the impact of Ramona, check out Dydia Delyser’s Ramona Memories: Tourism And The Shaping Of Southern California. And see John Rollin Ridge’s Joaquin Murieta, for similar California mythologies created wholesale by novelists which “became real” over time).

Ramona sold 600,000 copies in 60 years, remaining continuously in print until well into the 1950s. It was adapted to film several times (including a famous silent version with Don Ameche as Alessandro, which the Hemet Movie theater screened while we were there), and is apparently the basis for the vague script of a daytime soap in Mexico.

In 1923, the enduring regional myth of Ramona was transformed into a tourist pageant, California’s Official Outdoor Drama. And the rest is history. Tomorrow, The Pageant.

[1] The Red Hats are women who meet in public wearing red hats and purple clothing, inspired by the Jenny Josephs poem that starts, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.” Truly legit members have to be over 50, but women over 40 can join–you have to wear lavender and pink, though.

[2] More about Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s complex and storied history as American performance, some other time.

[3] To be fair, historian Antoinette May (author of The Annotated Ramona) claims that Ramona was responsible for the enactment of the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act, the first comprehensive reform legislation for Indians enacted by Congress. The well-meaning though ultimately problematic, racist act (aren’t they all?) attempted to “civilize” Indians, making them farmers by dividing tribal lands into individual allotments—it also opened Indian reservations to white settlement.

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