Dozens of black folding chairs lined the extra-wide floorboards at the East Hampton Historical Society on Friday night, while the packed room grew quiet as village historian Hugh King perched himself on a stool behind the podium on the dimly lit stage. Donning a white top hat, suit vest and tie, Mr. King’s silhouetted figure looked more like a caricature out of the historical essay he was introducing than a present-day host of its reading.
The reading of “The Rustic Manners of Old East Hampton: John Howard Payne’s 1838 Recollections of His Boyhood” was part of the East Hampton Historical Society’s Winter Lecture Series, called “In Their Own Words: Voices From East Hampton’s Past,” which showcases famous pieces of literary work entrenched in local history.
After a quick slideshow of landmarks mentioned in Mr. Payne’s piece, Mr. King disappeared from the stage, and the crowd warmly welcomed Mr. Payne himself—portrayed by local actor, writer and literature professor Andrew Botsford.
“The village is built on two sides of a very wide, grass-grown street,” read Mr. Botsford, “the most of its houses low, with one end to the street, and the roof of that old-fashioned and unintellectual form, which may be compared to a face without a forehead.”
Mr. Botsford continued to describe the town through the words of Mr. Payne, including features like Clinton Hall, the building hosting Friday night’s event, windmills, and a certain large pond on one end of Main Street.
“So much of what Payne described in this essay is still standing today,” said Mr. King. “It’s really kind of amazing. You can still hear the subtle roar of the ocean. Clinton Academy is still standing, obviously. If you come into our town and you go to the stoplight by the pond, and you make a left, you’re seeing what he could have seen.”
Mr. Payne’s essay went on to describe the “oasis” of East Hampton and its beauty, but how it is “inevitably destined to interruption by the city”—a line that prompted more than a few knowing chuckles from the audience. It continued: “And many an eye, wearied with the glare of foreign and domestic grandeur, will ere long lull itself to repose in the quiet beauty of the village.”
The essay, according to Mr. King, is written somewhat “tongue in cheek,” but undoubtedly it resonated with a modern audience, given the nods and quiet laughs as Mr. Payne portrayed East Hamptoners as part of a tight-knit community somewhat apprehensive about newcomers.
Mr. Botsford concluded the essay, and Evan Thomas and Samantha Ruddock took to the stage for a reenactment of the operetta “Clari, The Maid of Milan,” which was the original forum for the song for which Mr. Payne is most widely known, “Home Sweet Home.”
The song tells the tale of Clari, a maiden who is placed in the palace of the Duke Vivaldi with the promise of marriage, only to find out the Duke has no intention to actually marry her, because of the “splendid slavery of rank.” Instead, the Duke buys her jewelry and gowns for entertainment. But Clari can only lament that she is alone, according to the American Theatre Guide.
“She feels like she’s been deceived by the guy she loves,” said Mr. King. “So she’s left alone, and she sadly sings her song, ‘Home Sweet Home.’”
Finally, according to the American Theatre Guide, Clari escapes home to her disapproving father, only to be followed by the Duke, who has received approval from the king and can take Clari’s hand in marriage.
“‘Home Sweet Home’ is a wonderful example of the Colonial Revival period, but also how summer people help save our institutions,” added Mr. King. “There wouldn’t be Guild Hall or the library without the summer people, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries—those are the people that really gave to this community.”
The East Hampton Historical Society will host its next winter lecture series event on March 28. It will be “Cornelia Huntington’s Vivid Diary, 1820-1860,” with Barbara Borsack as Cornelia Huntington.