Flock Theatre holds second annual Burning of Benedict Arnold Festival
Here's an image: at last year's burning-Benedict-Arnold-in-effigy festivities in New London, upwards of 150 people started dancing with the "moustache fusileers" - full-body puppets with paper-mache heads and ribbon hair and moustaches. And then they drifted into a conga line. They snaked around the Arnold puppet figure - to the very fitting sounds of "Ring of Fire."
"People really got into the spirit of it," recalls Derron Wood, Flock Theatre's artistic director.
Indeed, the inaugural Burning of Benedict Arnold Festival, organized by the New London-based Flock, was quite the history-based hit. It was a re-creation of a tradition that began in the Whaling City in the 1800s - after Arnold led the Sept. 6, 1781 burning of New London - where residents torched the Norwich-born traitor's effigy.
The modern-day bash continues for its the second year this weekend - with more Arnold-related chicanery.
Additions include a moustache fusileers ball Friday night at Dev's on Bank, to raise money so this can become a self-sustaining event; and plays about Arnold-era local history Saturday at the Hempsted House and Shaw Mansion.
The moustache fusileers ball isn't so much a ball as a party, with food, door prizes, moustache contests and, Wood says, "all sorts of ridiculousness." It runs from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday at Dev's, and tickets are $75.
(The moustache fusileers, by the way, are a throwback to a group formed in the 1800s that consisted of the mayor's council members and prominent businessmen. They'd get decked out in faux military uniforms and don fake moustaches and noses. They would then parade about and hold mock military drills on Sept. 6, in conjunction with the burning of Benedict Arnold in effigy.)
On Saturday, two plays reflect different aspects of the day's events. The one performed at the Hempsted House touches on what happened in New London from citizens' standpoints. The one staged at the Shaw Mansion focuses on the military campaign, with much of the real battle happening and human lives lost at Groton's Fort Griswold. Hempsted performance times are noon, 2 and 4 p.m.; at Shaw, it's 1, 3 and 5 p.m. The plays are written by Charles Traeger and performed by Flock actors.
The parade follows, kicking off at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Shaw Mansion and making its way down Bank Street. The 9-foot effigy will be on a cart, trundling through the streets, with revolutionary war figures and mustache fusileers joining in. The procession continues onto the pier and swoops around to the Custom House Pier, which is where local restaurants will sell food. Ancient Mariners and moustache fusileers will perform.
At 8 p.m., the Arnold effigy will be set ablaze. Last year, the conflagration was done all via theatrical effects - lights, fans, smoke, machines - and with no actual flames. This year, Flock will actually light one of the effigies on fire. Another will, once again, go the visual-effects route, since so many people last year wanted to get their photo taken with it.
In addition, one of the effigy's legs will be chopped off and brought to the Leffingwell House in Norwich. Benedict Arnold's right let was wounded in battle when he was still fighting on the American side. In some places where they later burned Arnold in effigy, the revelers would cut off his right leg and bury it with high honors.
On the Saratoga battlefield where he was injured, Wood notes, there is a statue of Arnold's one leg. At West Point, along with photos of famous generals, the site has a painting Arnold's one leg - with the portrait hung upsidedown.
"It's this weird history that I found totally fascinating," Wood says. "It's all this very symbolic stuff that goes back to the birth of our country, and a big chunk of that history is right here in New London."
The festival is a chance for people to have fun, of course, but there's another aspect to it as well - for them to discover more about local history.
"They're learning all this incredible stuff that happened here that fewer and fewer people actually know," Wood says.
Burning of Benedict Arnold Festival, Friday and Saturday, downtown New London; includes Fusileer's Ball, 6-10 p.m. Fri., Dev's on Bank ($75, $65 New London County Historical Society members), plays at Hempsted House, Hempstead St., noon, 2 and 4 p.m. Sat., and at Shaw Mansion, Blinman St., at 1, 3 and 5 p.m. (free, $10 suggested donation); parade, 6:30 p.m. Sat., Shaw Mansion to Custom House Pier, where the effigy will be burned at 8 p.m.; (860) 443-3119.