While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is traveling for research and art acquisitions (October 14-29, 2017) she is reposting early installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her sixteenth post from March 1, 2017.
Part 16: Stonehenge
I need to explain a little history about the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry prior to discussing the Fort Scott Stonehenge composition. I will simplify this history as much as possible so that your eyes don’t glaze over before getting to the scenery part.
The Scottish Rite is divided into two jurisdictions that are based on geographical demarcations. The Southern Jurisdiction is west of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio River. This means that the majority of the country belongs to the Southern Jurisdiction. I am not going to discuss what caused the division or the reason for the appearance of multiple Supreme Councils (governing bodies) in the North.
In the past, I have argued (in various publications and in my doctoral dissertation) that the earliest degree productions were performed in the Northern Jurisdiction.
Why? My theory is competition.
You see, during the mid-nineteenth century there were competing Supreme Councils in the Northern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite. This was not the case in the Southern Jurisdiction where one Grand Commander ruled from 1859-1891 (Albert Pike).
If you are in competitive environment, WINNING requires more members and more money. Staging degrees was a great way to promote a superior ceremonial experience that would subsequently bring in more money. Keep in mind that during the 1920s there was even a candidate class of 1000! That is a pile of cash that results from initiation fees and membership dues.
Now in the Southern Jurisdiction, Grand Commander Pike passes away in 1891. Prior to his death, Scottish Rite stages were beginning to appear in the Southern Jurisdiction – especially Minnesota, a state that straddled the western geographical demarcation of the two jurisdictions. By the 1880s, small stages were appearing in Minnesota lodge rooms with settings for the obligatory (or indispensable) degrees. Each degree could be an individual play with the potential for multiple acts. Each act could have numerous scenes. Money determined the size of scenery collections. Some Valleys had small stage with a set of ten roll drops while others had massive auditoriums with over a hundred drops that would be lower from a fly loft.
Grand Commander Pike in the Southern Jurisdiction was against the elaborate staging of degrees, stating, “The Rite in this [Southern] Jurisdiction is a Rite of instruction, and not of scenic pomp and stage-show…I can not conceive of a more useless occupation than the arranging and performing of degrees, neither the effect nor the purpose of which is to make men wiser or better, but which are acted as melodramas…” This pretty much sums up why a lot of Masonic theaters didn’t appear throughout the Southern Jurisdiction until AFTER Pike’s death in 1891.
At this point, the Supreme Council initially takes a “non-action” as no one wanted to stop the growth of the Scottish Rite. This neutral action enabled the expansion of degree productions and theatrical interpretations of the degrees.
But some of the interpretations went a little too far – especially in Kansas. New designs began to appear – Stonehenge – for the Vedic scene in the 30th degree. There are two extant scenic designs depicting this composition – so the drop in Fort Scott, Kansas wasn’t an anomaly. But was it regionally specific to Kansas? You see, many regions developed unique interpretations for each degree.
Just a few hours to the west of Fort Scott in Wichita, there was another unusual composition that appeared. The stagehands still refer to this as the “goddess degree.” And I first encountered it during the summer of 2015 on our road trip from Fort Scott to Guthrie, Oklahoma.
Enter a new friend and kindred spirit Janet Wolter. Wolter co-authored “America, Nation of the Goddess: The Venus Families and the Founding of the United States” with Alan Butler.
We met while volunteering at the Minneapolis Scottish Rite library. One of our first discoveries was a handwritten Grange ritual. It was at this point when I exploring the ritual for the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. Beginning in 1867, it too had secret meetings, oaths, and passwords, incorporating themes from Greek and Roman mythology. This intrigued me and I thought about the Stonehenge and Goddess scenes in Kansas, telling Janet about my discoveries.
She suggested that Grange characteristics might have been incorporated into the ceremonies of other organizations. Were these new Scottish Rite compositions a type of outreach to Grange members? Was the Grange in Kansas an overt influence on the staging of Scottish Rite degree productions?
To be continued…