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This article originally appeared in Mount Vernon magazine, published three times a year by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
Character interpreter Matt Mattingly brings a wealth of knowledge—and style—to his portrayal of Washington’s trusted personal secretary.
“Excuse me, are you George?”
Matt Mattingly is rarely disheartened by this frequent case of mistaken identity. Perhaps because of his blue waistcoat, long hair, and breeches, visitors mistake him for “General Washington.” Instead, Matt uses such interactions as teaching moments to tell them about his character, “Tobias Lear,” the General’s personal secretary.
A southern California native, Matt moved to southern Maryland with his family when he was 17. He studied theater at nearby St. Mary’s College of Maryland before diving into the world of character interpretation: speaking in the first-person and dressing in costume to portray a historical figure. After working as an interpreter across the Potomac River with the Accokeek Foundation, Matt became a character interpreter at Mount Vernon, portraying Tobias Lear for the last several years.
When he began, Matt set out to learn everything he could about Lear. He read the less-than-reliable biography, The Checkered Career of Tobias Lear, and letters Lear wrote and received. Matt also studied topics that Lear would have found familiar—such as education, in order to tutor Washington’s grandchildren, and how to function in a formal setting—in order to intelligently speak as if he’s living in an 18th-century world. Through Matt’s character, visitors can gain a deeper understanding of Washington and his era.
“No one comes here to learn about Tobias Lear. We’re extensions of George Washington,” Matt says. “You first need to know about Washington, then about his world to put him in context. From there, I have to put Lear in Washington’s context and in Washington’s world. Knowing all these things paints a much more robust picture and gets to why things were as they were.”
Armed with facts, Matt distills the information into a coherent conversation with guests—a skill he has honed through experience. While he can talk at length about any topic he chooses, he prefers when visitors ask questions, talking about their interests and making each interaction unique. When visitors ask about current events, Matt remains in character and discusses Lear’s “current events”—life in the new republic, Washington’s opinions on farming and industry, and his priorities and values. “Interpretation is an art, not spitting out facts,” Matt says.
“My interpretation is that of the research historians and the aggregate body of research that exists. No one should walk away knowing my personal opinion about anything. I love when people say, ‘I had no idea,’ and I believe I get to those moments because of my research.”
For example, “Aren’t you hot?”
When Matt receives this question from visitors, he interprets it as, “Why are you wearing a suit in 98-degree weather?” He uses this opportunity to discuss his clothes and why 18th-century gentlemen dressed in such a manner. These questions about fashion sparked his program, “A-Dressing the Nation.” This 45-minute performance, presented regularly in the interpretive center at Mount Vernon, provides an overview of 18th-century fashion and manners in a light-hearted tone. With his background in mercantilism, Lear would be well-suited to discuss these topics.
- Matt Mattingly
Similar to his process in developing his character for Tobias Lear, Matt studied everything available about 18th-century fashion in preparation for this performance, focusing on the clothing worn by the Washingtons and their social class.
“Throughout history, people have used fashion to reflect changes in society,” Matt says. “This program is a slice of the Washingtons’ world. Fashion has always mattered and always will.”
Matt most enjoys portraying Lear because of his unique position as a northerner in the South and how Lear lived while in Washington’s employ.
“Lear was a good narrator with northern sensibilities,” Matt says. “Even though he inherited slaves through the estate of his second wife’s first husband, he viewed slavery as deplorable, which allows me to speak about it without qualifiers. He can comment on everything around him without being the center of attention. He was his best self with Washington and a prince of mediocrity when he wasn’t. Lear was everything Washington could have wanted and more.”
Although he is well-kempt in 18th-century attire, Matt most often wears jeans and an untucked shirt in his 21st-century life, without a clue about how to put together a modern outfit. Gesturing to his beaver hat, three-piece suit, and clocked stockings, he laughs, “It’s easier.”
Join Mount Vernon for a chat with "Tobias Lear," George Washington's personal secretary.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Mount Vernon magazine. Subscribe to the magazine by becoming a member today.Learn More