How do the stories we tell ourselves about the past inform what we think about the present? What role do performances of history play in shaping those narratives? How might these performances become more “real” than the history itself? My current research is about remembering, forgetting, and the ways that performances of history manipulate cultural memory.
This exhibit focuses on one example: the communist invasion of Mosinee, Wisconsin, which appears in more detail in my 2019 article, published in Theatre Survey. This “object lesson in Americanism” was a town-wide pageant that imagined a possible future and instructed audience members in how to prevent a communist takeover. I argue that May Day in Mosinee is a highly visible—and effective—example of leveraging performance to rewrite US history.
“It was 14 hours of the most smashing, dramatic demonstration of what communism really is and what it means to the ordinary citizens ever staged in an American town.”
Source: “It Happened One Day in Mosinee,” American Legion Magazine (June 1950)
“An Object Lesson in Americanism”: Performing Cultural Amnesia in Mosinee’s Communist Invasion
On May 1, 1950, a communist army invaded the small town of Mosinee in central Wisconsin. Occupying soldiers dragged the mayor from his home, interrogated and executed the police chief, and exiled religious, civic, and political leaders to the stockade. They ransacked citizens’ homes and raided the public library in search of capitalist propaganda. They set up roadblocks and parked cars across the railroad tracks to cut off the town. Within hours, the paper mill, the newspaper, and other local businesses had fallen to the invading communist army.
This tale of communist invasion may seem unbelievable, and in the strictest historical sense, it is. The “Mosinee Americanism Plan” was an elaborate pageant conceived of by the American Legion Department of Wisconsin and executed in concert with the people of Mosinee to demonstrate just how dangerous communism was. To drive home the “object lesson in Americanism,” Mosinee residents gathered in their new “Red Square,” built an enormous bonfire stoked with communist propaganda, and rejected communism with a rousing chorus of “God Bless America.”
Mosinee may not have been invaded by a real communist army, but the performed invasion of this small Wisconsin town is a matter of history. Like wildfire, the story spread across the nation, appearing in hundreds of newspapers, magazines, and radio and television broadcasts. In fact, it’s one of the town’s most memorable moments. In this event, history, possibility, and performance intertwined, so that the performance of this potential future became history even as the event it portrayed was imagined.
My study of “May Day in Mosinee” focuses on how this intricately planned performance plays into the larger anticommunist fervor that swept the country in the late 1940s and 1950s. I consider it as both performance and political weapon. Even more, the choice to replace May Day festivities—which were for and about workers and had become connected to communism—was deliberate. “May Day in Mosinee” was one of many performances of loyalty that overwrote the workers’ day in a larger process of revising cultural memory.
This piece fits into my larger project about how performances of history shape, erase, and revise cultural memory. As far back as the 1980s, theorists pointed to a growing crisis: widespread historical amnesia, in which the rising generation had lost their connections to their collective pasts. We’ve seen a “memory boom” as a result, with monuments, memorials, reenactments, and other ways to connect to the past. I point to a corresponding performance-of-history boom and ask how performances of history shape the stories we tell ourselves about the past, and how they inform what we think about the present and the future.