100th anniversary of the Golden Twenties! A chance for the rise of 1920ies larp?

Das Vermächtnis 1925 photo (c) Rafael Bienia

I was not familiar with the Golden Twenties until I participated in ‘Das Vermächtnis’ (2008), a German 1920ies Cthulhu larp taking place in an almost dilapidated mansion in France.

As part of my preparation for this live action role-playing event, I had spent certainly 700 hours with reading articles and watching film footage from this period.

My connection with that age had been only the German cinema. I was delighted to watch all the strange movies again. There are excellent films, such as Nosferatu, Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, Der Golem – wie er die Welt sah, Häxan, to name the most important ones for me.

I fell in love with that period and I wanted more. After ‘Das Vermächtnis’ I went to ‘Mythos Isfet 1925’ in 2009. Today, three years after my last larping in the 1920ies, I hunger for more. But there is an obstacle. A niche genre such as the 1920ies Cthulhu setting only attracts some larpers. What to do when there are no events? Right, you organize a larp on your own. So in 2011, our plans to organize ‘Societas Vitam Aeternam’ for 2012 were on the way to become reality. That was until one of the organizers and I got a new job. Moving to another country and keeping such a project running was ambitious. We decided to make a clear decision: either an excellent larp with all the needed preparation done or none. All what was left was this trailer. I took some photos during our location to the Belgium mansion and worked on an unique vintage style to create a certain atmosphere. The video editing and music has been delivered by Morze do Rana productions:

As this project was postponed to a distant future, there is no hope to experience the 1920ies in the near future, isn’t it?

With Hollywood movies, such as The Artist (2012), mass media begins to reconnect us with an exhilirating period which is so similar to our times but was suffocated by fear of too much novelty in a short time span. My fellow Ph.D. candidate Jasper Aalbers made me aware of a new adaptation of The Great Gatsby. This one looks definitely more entertaining than the dreadful version with Robert Redford from 1974, although Hollywood follows the same receipe again: U.S. piece of world literature + a mature male star + some updates + references to a previous version. Check the trailer to recognise these elements:

As you might have seen, there is nothing new to be expected from this movie. Beside some hope for the excellent acting skills of DiCaprio, there will be a shower of impressions from a fascinating and vibrant era. This rain will fall on dry ground. At the moment, with films such as The Artist and Great Gatsby, Hollywood is picking up the work done by the Lovecraft fan community, especially the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society and acquainted activities such as the retro-chique movies The Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness. I am still hungry for the total 1920ies experience. I really hope that the anniversary and the attendance created by commercially successful products will raise awareness in the larper community. More larpers, more cheap retro clothes to buy in fashion stores – will it mean more 1920ies larp? I will give some suggestions how we can prepare to create some extraordinary events, because I hope that the 1920ies will hit mass culture as we slowly approach the 100 year anniversary.

The 1st Academy Awards, held in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, May 16, 1929

This is the very first Oscar night. Quite poor compared to the major movie award celebration of today. Now we have a multimedia broadcast, designer costumes and elaborate decorations and narrow ritualistic procedure. The picture above resembles a dinner party, which larpers of today might easily organize in order to recreate the glamorous society from hundreds year ago. Here a scene from the first evening at ‘Das Vermächtnis’:

Das Vermächtnis 1925 photo (c) Rafael Bienia

The costumes, the table, the location are on the same level as the first Oscar gala. Larpers can reconstruct what is necessary to have a glamours evening dinner from the 20ies. We know how to research historical fact, we have trained our eyes for details, our skills in creating props and imitating exotic behaviours have increased after years and decades of Fantasy larp. The effort, but also the expertise the organisers, players and non-players had put into the fabrication of ‘Das Vermächtnis’ is almost equal to the first Oscar gala. One difference is the amount of participants for the event. Here recent movies and the approaching anniversary might help out.

Let us move on to the next picture and a different aspect about the 1920ies. The representation of the female in silent movies and vintage photography shows me how the self presentation of people changed during the 1920s. Theatre based acting was not the appropriate method to reach the audience before a projection of moving photographs. What I seem to have found is that the poses of 1920s photography show the changing from theatre to cinema. What I want to show is, that the representation appeals to me because of its rawness of the poor ability of early movie stars to act. Acting is the faking of a sketched out personality. Something similar happens in playing roles in RPGs.

Theda Bara – Death of the Maiden

In this picture of Theda Bara as a femme fatale you find a certain expression you only get from 1920s photography. I collected hundreds of photos from thousands I have seen in the last five years. They all bear a certain expression of the face. Describing it only as stiffness is not exactly the point. Compare it to a Victorian portrait to see the difference:

Charles Fechter (1872)

Charles Fechter in his role of Hamlet gives more than a stiff expression in his face, the dark make-up around the eyes and on the lips of women and men. Our forefathers didn’t intend to create such an artificial impression on us. I believe that this is something we project into those pictures. If you collect many similar pictures you realize that all of them are among the first modern male and females photographed in the history. They feel uneasy and are not trained how to posture for a certain expression, like todays models are trained in. What we feel is the notion that these people have reached immortality, not because they have contributed massively to the society, but because they are young. We as spectators forget time and see therefore immortality. And immortality is something many creative people want to achieve. I for my part, see role players as semi-professional artists who use art for self-expression. But they lack something so apparently that it hurts to phrase it. Let’s have a look on role-players trying to imitate the expression of vintages photos:

Two players posing in character before me while role-playing a photographer

With this second example of role-players we see them following the memories and data we have today from the past. When we return to the question of this blog entry, we might have the answer in reach. As the first models one hundred years ago felt awkward when posing before a photographer, relying on imitating pose, facial expression and props from theatre, so do larpers today when they are exploring new ways of expression parts of themselves, relying on imitating historical documents, such as an Oscar gala or photos from our ancestors.

Before we finish this blog, let us go back and see how people fantasized about the future, some fashion ideas from 2000 are included:

There is one thing among many which seems convincing to me: we put our past, present and future on a stage and try to perform as if we know for sure what truth is.

Let me end this blog entry with a personal note. What do I like about 1920ies larps is that this genre exposes the function which role-playing games have in our culture. Cthulhu is about horror in the Golden Twenties which were on the verge to the electrical era. There were still forces of old times working, but also modern tools like microscopes, u-boats, telegraph, telephone, and grammophon among the first. What happens when old superstitions and powers adapt to the modern world. What society is emerging from this marriage? We have more issues to cover with playing and enjoying ourselves which the Fantastic genre provides at the moment. 1920ies Larps can help us to use the tools role-playing games offer to explore modern topics. The fantastic illusion reminds us of the magic circle, the highly debated term in game studies, which points at the distinction between real life and as-if of play. If we are aware of the liminal space and know how to operate in this area, we do not have to use further markers for a different reality. We role-play different everyday issues of our time and society. The options which become possible after this step, will lead to a further evolution of role-playing.

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