Stepping into the 375-year-old church, rich with history, white panel walls, and colonial detailing, Dr. Kevin Radaker transforms himself from chair of the Anderson University Department of English to Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s great 19th century writers and political activists. As he begins to speak, the year seems to shift back to 1860, and the captivated audience listens intently to Thoreau’s every word.
Radaker presented his Thoreau monologue on Oct. 15 at First Parish Church in Concord, Mass., in celebration of the church’s 375th anniversary. More than 100 people sat in the audience as Radaker discussed, in character, Thoreau’s political thoughts and ideas, many of which were inspired by the women who attended First Parish Church in the 1860s. Thoreau attended the church until 1840, when he objected to the tax placed on churchgoers to pay for clergy. Many of the women who remained in the church’s congregation were active in the anti-slavery movement, and they influenced Thoreau’s thoughts and behaviors.
Rewind to when Radaker was 16 years old. He picked up Thoreau’s most well-known book, Walden, and discovered his love for the author. Radaker, who grew up in Pennsylvania, was fascinated with nature. “My primary interest in Thoreau concerns his realization and celebration of the natural world,” said Radaker. “He is one of our first environmentalist voices, one of the first voices in American culture and American literature urging us to reconsider our views and attitudes toward what we now call the environment.”
After reading more from Thoreau, Radaker discovered that Thoreau advocated for more than just nature; he was a political dissenter and a social critic as well. “He was a very important voice in responding to perceived governmental injustice. He is the well-known author of what most Americans know as Civil Disobedience,” said Radaker. “That essay has inspired many great reformers since it was first published in 1849. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Desmond Tutu, and many other reformers from the past century have been influenced by that argument, which argues for how even one principled individual should consider not cooperating with the government, but doing so nonviolently and in the process objecting on a moral level to what the protestor perceives as some form of injustice.”
Along with politics, Thoreau also questioned materialistic values. “He’s the great advocate of simplifying our lives, urging us to not be so stuck on having large and impressive things, whether it’s our home or our wardrobe or even our diet. He even criticizes Americans’ diet, which is way ahead of its day,” said Radaker.
While attending college at AU, Radaker portrayed Thoreau in the play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. “I landed that part and it meant a great deal to me. At the time I thought it was a dream come true! I also thought, ‘I’m sad I’ll never get to portray Thoreau again in my life,’” said Radaker. Thirteen years later, his mentor told him about the Great Plains Chautauqua Society, where scholars spend their summers portraying various authors from the mid-19th century. His mentor urged him to try out. Many national scholars competed for one of the seven coveted spots, and in December of 1990, Radaker was chosen to portray Thoreau. “I like acting, but I also love this combination of acting and scholarship,” said Radaker. “Because to portray someone well, the more you know about your author, the better you’re going to depict him.”
Once the Chautauqua tours were over in 1993, Radaker continued depicting Thoreau, performing at universities, conferences, libraries, museums and parks. Over the last 20 years, he has become very comfortable performing as Thoreau and uses a wide variety of material. “If you care about the acting side of something like this, and I do, then you’re continually crafting your delivery,” said Radaker. “So people who hear my Thoreau show now often do compliment me for its dramatic, evocative, poetic flavor.”
Diane Weiss, who was in charge of special programs for the celebration, was one of those people. “He created such a dramatic atmosphere and made it seem so real. It was spell-binding and mesmerizing,” she said.
Even though this was the fourth time Radaker had performed in Concord, his shows always have something new to offer, even to those who have seen him before. “Because of my acting experience and the fact that I’ve had these wonderful 20 years rehearsing certain passages, my shows are never the same,” said Radaker.
Weiss saw him perform once before, but it was a very different show. “The first time, he presented Thoreau’s reaction to Captain John Brown and Harper’s ferry. This time he talked more about the three major anti-slavery speeches Thoreau wrote and women’s influences on his ideas,” said Weiss. “It’s not like you get the same performance. He really listens to what each venue wants and caters to them.”
Radaker’s performances portray different sides of Thoreau, so the audience understands the complexity of the author. “I’m depicting someone who had some distinctly different selves and I’m trying my best as an actor to offer that. I try to emphasize these dramatic shifts and the tones you can find in all of his writings,” said Radaker. “People are more interesting if they have different selves. They’re not really just one self, they’re competing, a compendium of selves. And Thoreau was that too.”
Radaker’s monologue stirred the audience as he stressed Thoreau’s political thoughts. His progressive beliefs and fiery fervor came through in Radaker’s presentation. “When I get to the end of the political material, Thoreau is defending someone who has taken his outrage about slavery into the public arena in a violent way and Thoreau was agreeing with him,” said Radaker. “That’s very passionate, it’s very radical and it demands a radical, passionate voice. Then, there is a long, dramatic pause between the end of that material and Thoreau suddenly becoming a different human being. Suddenly, he is talking about how he spends most of his time ‘not upon the affairs of men, but upon nature.’ It’s supposed to jar you in the audience.”
Weiss not only experienced Thoreau’s transformation, but also Radaker’s conversion to Thoreau. “I was very impressed with the way he was able to get into character. I watched him in the five minutes before he went on. I was able to see him transform from his usual self into his character, and it was very profound. He really becomes Thoreau.”
Radaker’s performance also showed the impact Thoreau had on American literature. “Sometimes we in Concord feel like we own Thoreau since he lived here. We forget there are other people outside of Concord who are just as knowledgeable, if not more so, than we are about him,” said Weiss. “To have someone from Indiana come in and do a perfect portrayal of him was very impressive. He feels like a son of Concord and he understands his subject matter deeply. Plus, he does a very good New England accent.”
— Alyssa Applegate is a senior from Dayton, Ohio, majoring in communication arts and minoring in Spanish. Applegate is an associate with Fifth Street Communications™, writing on behalf of the Anderson University Office of University Communications.
Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson University continues to be recognized as one of America's top colleges by U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, and Forbes. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education, music, nursing, and theology.