Column: How ‘A Bird Masque’ Changed the Nation

Sunday, August 18, 2013
It may be hard to believe, but one reason that women’s hats today aren’t graced by wild bird plumes is because of a short dramatic play performed outdoors in the woods of Meriden a hundred years ago.

In the early 1900s, naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes of Meriden, concerned about the mounting disappearance of the local wild bird population, began a one-man campaign to save them. He wrote treatises on the care and feeding of wild birds, tested and built bird houses to fund the effort, and involved the whole community in trying to rid the village of the numerous stray felines that attacked the birds. His book Wild Bird Guests: How to Entertain Them contains multiple photos of Baynes and his wife, Louise, at home among the birds, even one of Baynes drinking tea with a chickadee perched on the rim of the cup.

In late 1910, Baynes established the first bird club and then developed a bird sanctuary in Meriden, which was becoming known as “Bird Village.” For the dedication of the bird sanctuary in 1913, he called on a friend, Cornish Colony dramatist and poet Percy MacKaye, to write a poem for the occasion. The resulting dramatic presentation, Sanctuary, A Bird Masque, was performed in the clearing at the sanctuary with a number of the artists’ colony members taking part and included dancers, a musical score and costumes worthy of the Gilded Age. President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson attended the invitation-only event as their daughters Margaret and Eleanor were in the play.

Sanctuary was an unabashedly didactic work in which a poet and a naturalist, with the help of a faun and a goddess, seek closer communion with the birds. Their quiet sanctuary is invaded by a hunter’s gunshot. The spirit of the birds recounts the agony of countless birds who have been hunted over the ages. The hunter is supernaturally able to perceive the spirit of his prey and, in the end, flings his gun away and vows never to hunt again.

Sanctuary was also unquestionably successful. The show went on the road with the original cast to the grand ballroom of the Hotel Astor in February, 1914, and then, with various casts, toured the popular Chautauqua Circuit in 120 towns from Jacksonville, Fla., to Chicago. The show eventually was performed internationally in England and Japan.

The play had its desired effect. The Masque and its attendant publicity were credited with influencing the U.S. Senate to pass the “Feather Proviso” in a tariff bill, prohibiting the importation of plumage of non-game birds for millinery purposes, and for influencing President Wilson to sign a bill to stop commercial market hunting of migratory birds. Hundreds of people who saw the play vowed never to wear feathers again. The effect on the plume trade was described by the 1916 Meriden Bird Club report as the same as “a forty-two centimeter shell might have if dropped into a den of pirates.”

The idea of a bird sanctuary started a preservation movement that became national, resulting by 1916 in the creation of more than 200 bird clubs that owed their origin to the work done by the bird-lovers of a little New Hampshire village. The traveling presentations of the Bird Masque played a significant role in the spread of the idea of bird clubs and bird sanctuaries and contributed to the conservation climate that ultimately led to the establishment of a U.S. National Park Service in 1916.

The Cornish Colony of artists peaked just before World War I. Fortunately, these architects, writers, sculptors and painters left behind remarkable artifacts, photos and works of art associated with the Masque. The original manuscript for the songs has recently been located. To celebrate the centennial of the Bird Masque, a re-enactment of the drama, complete with costumes, dancers and the original score, will be performed next weekend at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park on Saturday and at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site on Sunday. In addition, the Aidron Duckworth Museum in Meriden will have an ongoing special exhibition about Baynes, “Service to the Birds: Meriden’s Bird Story,” from Aug. 24-Sept. 15.

Sanctuary was quite possibly the first piece of socially conscious performance art ever performed in this country. Percy MacKaye had a theory that the stage could be made to perform valuable service to the cause of wildlife preservation. His dramatic work popularized bird protection probably beyond his wildest expectations.

What started as “The Meriden Idea” of bird protection and preservation, celebrated by poetic drama, still has a message for today. It demonstrates the power of art and drama to influence and change society and the effect one determined person can have on a nation.

Protection of the natural environment is as important today as it was 100 years ago. It is entirely fitting to resurrect this imaginative work, which has been lying dormant for nearly a century, to celebrate the anniversary of an important moment in conservation history.

Margaret Drye is a freelance writer and president of the Meriden Bird Club.

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