By Elizabeth Duccilli
Henry Clay is without a doubt a famous figure in Kentucky history. Even though he ran for president three times and lost, he is still well-known for his work and contributions to the US government. However, there is a lot of information that people still wish to know about Clay. Prof. George McGee offers to present this information by appearing as the politician and performing his life story as part of a group under the Kentucky Humanities Council. When he’s not doing that, you can find him teaching or directing a play in the Ruth Pearce Wilson Lab Theatre.
Prof. McGee didn’t know he would have a career in theatre at first. He revealed that he went to Illinois Wesleyan University in the 1960’s simply because he wanted to avoid the draft, but his plan backfired when, due to being dropped from a class, he was drafted anyway.
While in Vietnam, he thought long and hard about what he wanted to do with his life and, through the inspiration of one of his former professors, he decided to become a teacher. After receiving his Master of Fine Arts at Florida Atlantic University, McGee founded the Palm Beach Children’s Theater along with his wife Cathy and their IWU friends.
Twelve years later in 1984, he heard that a position in Georgetown was open and was asked to visit. Right when he arrived, he was drawn to how the campus was a lot like IWU. He says he took the teaching position because “Illinois Wesleyan is known for being one of the Top 25 theatre schools in the state. I wanted to make Georgetown just like my Alma mater: a Top 25 school.”
Realizing his goal has not been an easy task, mostly due to the small stature of the lab theatre. The lab theatre was introduced as the temporary building when McGee first started working at Georgetown, and he had hopes that a new building would recruit more students into the theatre department.
When he heard that the new football stadium was being built on East Campus in the 1990s, he knew that a new theatre building wouldn’t arrive anytime soon. But the small space hasn’t stopped him; he has directed more than 100 productions on campus. Some of his favorite shows he’s directed include “Arcadia,” “Death of a Salesman” and “A Fence for Martin Maher,” which was commissioned by the Scott County Museum.
He wrote “A Fence for Martin Maher” with Irish playwright John McArdle, and it tells the story of a young American boy helping his Irish uncle rebuild a stone fence. McGee also said that one of the highlights of his job is working with his former student and fellow director Dr. Ed Smith because they are always there for each other.
McGee first started working with the KHC’s Kentucky Chautauqua, a group of actors who perform historically accurate accounts of famous Kentuckians who made a difference, in 1992. He first performed as Elijah Craig until he was approached by Brack Marquette, a Georgetown graduate and member of the Henry Clay estate.
Brack said McGee looked like Clay, and asked if he would, as McGee recalls, “stand in front of the Henry Clay house dressed like him and scare everyone.” McGee agreed, even though he was a little taken aback because most books describe Clay as having a “homely” appearance. He took a sabbatical to do research and write a one hour play about him. He has performed as Clay ever since.
Since 1995, McGee has done over 500 performances with the KHC as Clay. For each performance, he tells the chronological story of Clay’s life and focuses mainly on specific stories. He also uses audience participation by inviting people onstage to reenact political duels with him.
He joked that sometimes people have mistaken him as Abraham Lincoln in costume and he corrects them by saying, “No, he’s taller and uglier.” McGee has travelled to schools all over Kentucky as well as Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia and Washington D.C. to share Clay’s story.
He has even performed for members of the Clay family at their reunions, and they all love McGee’s portrayal of Clay. McGee has also been to events in Washington D.C. dressed as Henry Clay where he interacts with people either as Clay or as himself. He said, “It is always different. If someone says, ‘How’s the family?’ I am stumped. If they say, ‘Senator, why can’t you get along with Andrew Jackson?’ I will bend their ear for twenty minutes.” Sometimes he will lead a group in singing “My Old Kentucky Home” at these parties as well, but he jokes that he tries to find someone to sing it with him because he never remembers the words.
There are many things that McGee likes about Henry Clay. One thing he likes is that unlike most politicians, Clay could separate his stand on political issues and his opinions of the people giving them instead of having a bias against them. But what he likes most about becoming Clay is his personality because Clay was well-known for being outgoing and charming to everyone he met.
McGee, however, feels that his own personality is nothing like Clay’s. When he explained the parties in Washington D.C, he said, “Henry Clay made it a goal to greet everyone in the room. George McGee stands near the door.” Nevertheless, he takes what he experiences through the Clay performances to overcome his shyness when he’s not in character.
McGee’s performances have inspired other people to join the KHC as well. Dr. Smith saw how much fun McGee was having and joined the group, performing as Adolf Rupp and Justice John Marshall Harlan. His wife Betsy and their two kids, Ethan and Harry, are members as well and portray a variety of different people: Betsy plays Emilie Todd Helm, Harry plays William Greathouse and Ethan plays Johnny Green and Price Hollowell. McGee enjoys performing in shows with the Smith family and jokes that “[Dr. Smith] won’t be happy until he gets the family dog a character.”
Fun as they are, the Henry Clay performances are very time-consuming. On the day of a performance, McGee said it is not uncommon for him to wake up at dawn, get into costume and drive to a grade school to perform at 8 a.m. before immediately coming back to campus to teach his classes.
If rehearsals for the semester play are going on as well, McGee doesn’t get home until late at night. He has even performed six Clay shows in one day. Over spring break this semester, McGee did about nine or ten performances.
Prof. McGee highly recommends being a part of the KHC because it’s an entertaining educational experience and “the chance to make a person come alive,” just as he has done in bringing Henry Clay to life. The KHC has recently given him the task of adding another character to their list: someone involved with the bourbon industry. McGee is still doing research for that particular character, but he does not plan on retiring Clay anytime soon after all that he has gained and experienced from portraying him.