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History of Chautauqua

Chautauqua (shuh taw kwa) was named for the Chautauqua Lake area of New York State. The Chautauqua movement began there in 1874 as a training course for Sunday school teachers. In 1878 the concept extended its philosophy of adult education to include an appreciation for the arts and humanities through the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. Home study courses in history, art, literature, foreign languages, the classics, and music theory reached some 80,000 Americans in the program's first decade.

About 1904, independent Chautauquas went on the road as "circuit shows" as part of the Lyceum movement. Lyceums brought lecturers and entertainers to town, especially in the summer when travel was easier. The Chautauquas offered a variety of arrangements, from seven days of programs for the larger, wealthier towns to two and three day "quickies" which the smallest of towns could afford. The traveling Chautauquas were more democratic than the permanent assemblies, usually at lakeside sites. Even the tiniest of villages could look forward to an annual visit by a dusty Chautauqua tent, and the shows were priced so that most could afford admission.

In its early years, traveling Chautauquas offered lectures by Biblical historians, political theorists, teachers of foreign languages, as well as dozens of programs to help people improve their skills and sharpen their minds. Many congressmen, judges, even presidents, traveled the circuit talking about women's suffrage, the plight of the poor in the slums of the cities, and the need for patriotism, especially during World War I.

Perhaps the most famous Chautauquan was William Jennings Bryan, who gave one speech, "The Prince of Peace," more than 3,000 times on the Chautauqua trail. Bryan ran unsuccessfully for president three times. He is also the man who successfully prosecuted school teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution. His opponent Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer, also traveled the Chautauqua circuits.

The Chautauqua movement faded almost as suddenly as it appeared. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson called Chautauqua a major contributor to the war effort. At that time, Chautauqua brought military bands, wounded soldiers to tell their stories, and singers of patriotic songs.

Chautauqua's death came at the same time America’s economy declined in the 1920s. Other reasons for a decreasing interest in Chautauquas included increased mobility, radio and the talking pictures, and a change in the national attitude. The Roaring Twenties were a time of fun, frolic, and far less concern about self-improvement and inspirational guidance.

Chautauqua Reborn

Since 1976 Chautauqua is a humanities program in which scholars assume the costume and character of historical figures. When the modern Chautauqua movement was revived as a humanities program in the late 1970s in North Dakota, it borrowed the idea of a dialogue between historical figures from Steve Allen's Meeting of the Minds. It was also influenced by Hal Holbrook's dramatic monologues in the character of Samuel Clemens.

As a humanities program, the first-person historical characterization meets three criteria. First, the scholar presents a monologue based on the biography, the ideas, and the writings of his/her character, with emphasis on history and intellectual exploration. The Chautauquan takes audience questions in character. The scholar answers the questions using the ideas and, if possible, the actual language of the historical character. At the end of the program the scholar comes out of character to provide historical context and to take more questions from the audience.

In Maryland, the Chautauqua tradition dates to when Chautauquas took places in 1891 at Glen Echo Park in Montgomery County and at the turn of the century at Mountain Lake Park in Garrett County. The Maryland Humanities Council’s Chautauqua began in 1995 at Garrett Community College and has expanded to include productions at the College of Southern Maryland, Chesapeake College, and Montgomery College–Germantown. "The Maryland Humanities Council brings the Chautauqua experience full circle, back to the communities in Maryland that debuted Chautauqua a century ago," states Phoebe Stein Davis, Executive Director of the Maryland Humanities Council.

Montgomery College

Montgomery County, MD


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