Bill Barker has been interpreting Thomas Jefferson for more than three decades. “I never took an acting course in college,” he says, but by finding regular work in the theater he was able to become an Equity actor in the 1980s.
Brendan McMahon is a young actor portraying Jefferson for the first time at Toby’s Dinner Theatre outside Washington, D.C., in a production of the musical “1776.” We invited Brendan to pose questions to Barker about how to portray an accurate and convincing Jefferson. Here is their conversation.
McMahon: What does Jefferson sound like?
Barker: I would never ever have thought of putting the costume on without the accent. That’s only my choice.
Once in a while a visitor might ask why. I say I hear it in the letters. Go out to Albemarle County and go into the country stores. Sit around the potbellied stove. It’s still there.
So why not an English accent? Their families have been long settled here. They didn’t just come over. Jefferson’s family had been settled here for generations.
I was born and brought up in Philadelphia, but of Southern parents. So I was well acquainted with such an accent. My great-grandfather was born in 1821, and my father used to say he could hardly understand his granddaddy because his accent was so thick. His granddaddy was born while Jefferson was still alive.
That’s why I made that choice.
I think it’s profound when you speak as Jefferson, and are involved in some of the arguments and debates we’re having now, to speak with a Southern accent.
McMahon: What makes him smile or laugh?
Barker: Good homespun humor makes him laugh. Among neighbors and friends he’s unrestrained. He shares opinions about people, he loves a good yarn, he loves to turn a tale.
There are some acerbic remarks that Jefferson makes, such as “the British need to be kicked into good manners.” He occasionally lets his hair down and says things like that.
I think irony also makes him laugh. He has a very good sense of humor and wordplay.
McMahon: What is one characteristic that defines Jefferson?
Barker: He loves his privacy. That’s why we’re never going to know everything about him.
We fortunately have the letters and papers that are still extant, but we’ll never know what he burned. We do know he burned everything with respect to his wife.
In my opinion, that is when he realized his stature on the world stage. He didn’t want those he held deepest in his affections to be so scrutinized and attacked. But what a contrast with the public person.
McMahon: How do you find a nice balance between quiet and shy Jefferson who never spoke in Congress, and the passionate Jefferson who wrote the Declaration?
Barker: We only presume that he never spoke in Congress because John Adams wrote that he never knew him to utter three sentences together. He was a listener when it came to debate because he was correlating all the differences of opinion ever in search of resolution.
His forte was listening and reasoning out the arguments and debates. He had to have been a decent public speaker in order to be elected to office and sustain elections to public office.
In scenarios where I am amongst others who are into an argument or a debate to be restrained until I may be invited into the conversation, until I might find an opportunity to throw in a word of reckoning. [As Jefferson wrote,] “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Theatrically, it’s timing.
McMahon: Do you feel Thomas Jefferson is accurately represented in the musical “1776”?
Barker: I think the idea of Jefferson wanting to return to Monticello was dramatic license. He yearns to be with his wife, but we don’t know what he wrote to his wife. The letters are gone. They were burned. And his wife never went to Philadelphia.
The show also reflects the public’s concept that he’s shy and reserved and doesn’t talk much.
But from what Sherman Edwards (the musical’s creator) was trying to get across, I think it’s fairly accurate.
He holed himself up for a long time in the Morristown Library in New Jersey to write this musical, making certain that dialogue was taken out of the actual minutes of the debates and that the music was taken out of the actual compositions of the time. “Mama Look Sharp” was a ballad of that particular period.
The marvelous thing about acting in “1776” is that you know what’s going to happen, but it’s the way you engage it. Each one of those debate scenes can be taken different ways emotionally. Every night can be different. It’s like what we do here at Colonial Williamsburg.