by Bianca Morrison Dillard, dramaturg

It’s always a little bit surprising and a little bit exciting when you come to a rehearsal for the first time and though you’ve read the script dozens of times, and you think your research has been exhaustive, there are always new questions that arise–things you never thought to question before. As a dramaturg I have the opportunity to help answer some of those questions, or at least offer some solid options or observations. One such questions arose last week.

The script mentions a “social register.” In fact the line is, “father if you reach for a social register I’ll cry out with pain.” We all had an idea of what a social register was, a sort of roster of people, their families and their social position. . .right? But when Barta (the director) had the great idea to actually have a social register on stage for the actors to look through the need to know the specifics became tangible–what did it look like–how did it function–how would you go about finding someone in a social register–who would be listed? As the rehearsal continued I started digging. Here’s what I found:

Social Register: think family tree meets ward directory, but only for the coolest, the richest ward members who’ve been in the ward the longest. The Social Register was interested in listing the families of the upper class, social elite, especially those with “old money.” “drawn from the country’s most prominent families, and many of those currently listed are direct descendants of the original members. Included are many accomplished individuals who have contributed greatly to their communities.”

It was organized according to families. The head of the family is listed first, then their children. The address to the family estate would be listed. Furthermore, it tells you, based on titles who’s married and who’s still on the market. Listed next to each name is a code to where they went to school, which degrees the earned, and to which clubs they belonged. If someone was married that year they would list the date, to whom he or she was married, and the location of the wedding. They would also mark “deceased” next to your name if you passed away that year. And don’t think that just because you belong to a prominent family you were a set-anyone could be dropped from the social register if you were involved in a scandal, married someone without proper social status, or for choosing a career that was undesirable. I found one source that suggested there were special listings for criminals, though how that was listed was unclear.

As I shared the info with the cast, we all found it a little hard to wrap our brains around the fact that in our recent past people were listed in a book based on social statues and family wealth and that anyone would pay attention to such things. Then I stumbled on to the Social Register’s official website. Yes, they have a website.They have a website because the Social Register is still in print. Today. This year. 2012. You could buy one. Now, you wouldn’t be able to register yourself–the rules are that five people already listed on the Register would have to nominate you, or the Social Register organization itself could request your information. I’ll be honest, it’s a little hard for me to imagine anyone paying much attention to this sort of thing these days (or those days, for that matter). But then I think about how we already have plenty of other ways to rank each other socially these days. For most of us it doesn’t take the form of a social registry book, but what about entertainment “news sources”–magazines, TV shows, blogs? Think about the multiple ways in which we judge people based on Facebook preferences–everything from music, movies, and book choices, to who their friends are and what pages they “like.” While these things seem more common place for us today, how different are these social rankings really? What other means do we have to tangibly rank each other? What about intangibly?

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