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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: September 2019

4 - History, Progress and Community Performance


From 1905, and until at least the Second World War in the US and the 1960s in Britain, thousands of villages, towns and cities staged at least one historical pageant. Huge casts of more than 10,000 people could bring in total audiences of over 200,000, and millions of individuals either saw or performed in a pageant in the twentieth century. This form of historical re-enactment allowed civic officials to construct a ‘civic image’ that made ‘place’ the ‘hero’ and joined disparate peoples into a community that shared common purpose through a collective history. Like civics, historical pageants linked the past and present of urban life together to inspire pride and belonging, transferring responsibility for the urban future to the general populace. Pageants did not just show the transition to the municipal city after the problems of the nineteenth century, however. Instead, it was a story of before, during and after the shock city, and a celebration of how local people had responded to dislocation throughout history. Pageants demonstrated how and from where the present city had gained its power: from historic and not just historical beginnings, and through adversity – whether war, depression or conflict.

Pageants often looked to the pre-industrial past, but this did not necessarily mean that they were conservative or rooted in a bucolic and rose-tinted belief in the hierarchical power relations of rural society. In more nuanced theories of modernity, historians have stressed the continuities between pre-modern and modern – a connection that contemporaries were also capable of making. This chapter begins by showing how pageant authors and organisers in Manchester looked to both the distant and recent past to frame the image of the contemporary city. There was no contradiction in finding the soul of the industrial city in the Roman fort, the medieval monastery or the folk traditions of sixteenth-century Merrie Old England. The city council led the creation of pageants which told this story to huge crowds in urban parks and stadiums. By the 1930s these narratives foregrounded the inclusivity of urban society. A focus on ‘everyday’ citizens of the city, and not just institutions and industry, reflected shifts to a more demotic sense of citizenship in Britain.