A Character In Itself

REST COTTAGE: A Character In Itself

by JD Garrastegui

I am a Dramaturgy theatre major with a history minor. What is dramaturgy? Dramaturgs are key to a theatre production’s claims of “authenticity.” We are charged with keeping an eye out for any missteps in the historical accuracy of the production. We serve as advocates for the playwright, making sure his or her work is respected in the process, and we  as aid the production team by researching and answering questions. In short, we’re consultants and research heads who make sure the academic side of theatre is alive in the creative process.

Knowing I was a dramaturgy major, Professor Tyson (who taught the course that this website was born out of) presented me with the question: “How is the Rest Cottage a character in the story of Frances Willard and the WCTU?” This question helped crystallize for me, the relationship between my theater major and my history minor. What follows is an earnest attempt to answer her question.

Stick with me.

What is a Character?

What is a character anyways? Let’s look at the definition. Aristotle, in his defining Poetics, says “In a perfect tragedy, character will support plot, i.e., personal motivations will be intricately connected parts of the cause-and-effect chain of actions producing pity and fear in the audience.” Though the Rest Cottage is not personified, that does not mean its impact is any less than any other character in Willard’s life drama.

The layout of the house affected the interactions within the house amongst family and colleagues. For example, after her sister-in-law Mary Bannister Willard and her family moved out of the annex to the house, which was built in 1885 for them to live in, it was set up as the headquarters of the WCTU. The house–with its new annex– was perfect for the business that was being carried out at the Rest Cottage and was also very well equipped to take visitors.

Note the two front doors to Rest Cottage. The far left door was the Willard family entrance; the far right was the entrance to the Annex.

Fig. 1 Note the two front doors to Rest Cottage. The far left door was the Willard family entrance; the far right was the entrance to the Annex.

With Anna Gordon in her front office, at the center of the home, bridging the north and south entrances (fig. 1),  whateverreason one had to be in the house, one had to go through Gordon. This room greatly influenced Willard’s interactions as it was she who no doubt controlled who saw Frances Willard and when. The way the house functioned speaks to Frances Willard and her character, which could be described as ambitious and busy to say the least. With the house functioning so, she had a hold on who she had to see and work with which ensured her success and left no time to be distracted by random guests. This layout introduces us to not only to the functionality of the house but also gives us keen insight into how Willard thought. She invented a new type of space combining both public and private areas of the house to complete her work. This ingenuity helped thrust Willard to the forefront of women’s rights and the temperance movement because at the time, to even have a public space and platform as a woman was unheard of.
The house was divided in a way that separated business and family (at least until her mother’s death in 1892). Her mother had her own staircase, which made it easier for her to get around without disturbing the flow of business and people there for WCTU efforts. What makes the house a character is not only its function but impact. This house became more than just a living quarter, it became a way of life and a headquarters for a serious and dedicated organization. To fight for temperance, Willard and her team needed a place that she would be comfortable in but also be able to get her amazing work done. Why go anywhere? The Rest Cottage was perfect and functioned accordingly. It also gave Frances more opportunities to relax and be at ease because of her comfort with the surroundings already, hence the name Rest Cottage. Without the Rest Cottage being the way it is, the ‘plot’ of Frances Willard’s life and the WCTU would not have unfolded in the way they did.

Investigation

Now while I’m not working on a play on Frances Willard or the Rest Cottage at the moment, I still can’t help but think how I would go about investigating this woman and her home if I were doing a play on her. Frances Willard is fascinating on paper. She was the first dean and the women’s college at Northwestern, started the still active WCTU (Woman’s Christian Temperance Union), and became a voice to be reckoned with in the world. and the first thing that came to mind is to find her own words on the Rest Cottage and how it affected her. While it was rare to find in her Journals her speaking on the house itself, it was easy to see the impact her time there had had on her.

From January 11,1888 she wrote “An enjoyable day but very fatiguing. Came home so cheerily & gladly to my humming hive of a Rest Cottage-so safe & sheltered & to dearest Mother & Anna my truest & nearest two.”  Many of the interactions she details include her and her family praying and learning together as well as interactions with her mother which were very influential in her upbringing. The house was greatly influential because it was where a large bulk of her education took place as well as where she blossomed into an educator, with her spending a great time at Northwestern.  After looking into Willard, I looked into her family and their attachments to the house. Willard’s father had the house built and because of this dedication since the breaking of ground, the house was very personal for Frances. In another entry in her journal from January 1893 she said in  “I thought of dear, dismantled Rest Cottage-so bright one year ago and salved by my blessed Mother’s sunny, God-believing presence.” The impact of emotional and sense memory in theatre has been astronomical since the great actor and pioneer Konstatin Stanislavski popularized the concept in the late 19th century. Through this technique, you channel past experiences to influence your current ones. The memories, both sensory-wise and emotionally, brought upon by Rest Cottage greatly affected Frances and inspired her to continue her work in honor of those who graced the hallways before passing like her parents. But when bombarded by memories, sometimes it is best to leave them behind. Towards the end of her life, Frances had to leave the Rest Cottage because of the sentimentality held there.

Theme and Conclusion

Whenever speaking on a dramatic work or device, there’s usually a theme to it all. The theme that screams out to me from working with the life and home of Frances Willard is evolution. The house and its inhabitants all evolved to fit the greater goal of Frances and the WCTU. When expansion was needed for family, it was accomplished and when the house needed to be converted into a major headquarters, no problem.

The transformative quality of the house astounds me and it speaks wonders of Willard’s character because all of those changes were instigated by her need to fulfill her vision of a suffragist and temperance nation. Willard is just lucky the house was as giving as it was because in drama a character as important as The Rest Cottage can often muddy things up for the protagonist or make things complicated. All I came to find in my dramaturgical investigation however was that the Rest Cottage was nothing but an ally in the success of Frances Willard and the WCTU.

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Bibliography:

Poetics

Northwestern Archives

National Parks Service records; Frances E. Willard House

Willard, Frances E., Journal Transcriptions (transcribed by Carolyn DeSwarte Gifford); online resource at http://willard.archivestree.com

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