Michael Olmert Adds to a Long List of Scholarly Achievements

March 11, 2013

Michael Olmert’s career as an English professor started almost by accident. But since filling in for a sick faculty member to teach Shakespeare more than 25 years ago, he has made teaching and scholarship as much a part of his professional life as the creative writing for which he has won so many awards.

With five books, three plays, two feature films, an IMAX film, over 90 TV documentaries, three Primetime Emmys, and some 200 magazine articles, reviews, and essays to his credit, he shows no signs of slowing down. One of the country’s foremost commentators on Colonial Williamsburg, Mike has published two recent essays on the cultural and material life of the founding city. The first – “Longinus, ‘On the Sublime’: What Everyone Read” – explores the Roman essayist’s commentary on the aesthetic and its influence on the political rhetoric of the colonial and early national period; it was published in the Winter 2013 issue of “Colonial Williamsburg.”

Mike’s encounters with the material geographies of Williamsburg and London (during his highly-regarded study-abroad courses) have inspired an interest in architectural form. In his recent article, "Of Follies," he characterizes folly buildings and their history, and explores places such as an office in Colonial Williamsburg, to the Temple of Vaccinia, the site of the first smallpox vaccination. (The essay appeared in the magazine "Colonial Williamsburg" in its Summer 2013 issue.) A folly building, as defined by Mike, is "a small building put up mainly for aesthetic and self-regarding reasons rather than for shelter, safety, or work." However, as he explains in his article, not all folly buildings were simply aesthetically pleasing or results of whim.

His recent article “Of Arms, Armourers, and Armouries,” on the nature and cultural heft of armourers and the architecture they generated in the eighteenth century, is of a piece with his larger inquiry into the relationship between how we read architecture and how we read history. (The essay appeared in "Colonial Williamsburg" in its Autumn 2012 issue.) This kind of “new history” approach to the archives – locating the economic motives behind the move toward more private slave quarters in colonial Virginia, for example – has long been a theme in Mike’s work, most notably in his “Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg,” published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Mike’s public speaking reflects his broad interests in scholarship and drama. In November, he gave an illustrated talk called “The Architecture of Taste: Building, Working, & Living in the 18th Century Kitchen,” at the Mount Harmon Historic House, in Cecil County, MD. And in September, he spoke to the Warrenton, North Carolina, Preservation Society about two eighteenth-century topics: “Vernacular Architecture” and “Dabby Bryant, the Girl from Botany Bay.” Bryant is the protagonist of Mike's most recent drama, “Southern Cross: A Play for Dabby Bryant.” Mike recalls the life of Dabby Bryant, an English convict who in 1788 chose “transportation” to the Australian penal colony over a sentence of death, and whose biography - she acted in the first play in Australia - is the subject of a recent novel (“The Playmaker”) and drama (“Our Country’s Good"). Mike's new work re-imagines the story of Dabby Bryant’s life, including her long history before and after transportation, her eventual escape from the far-away continent and return to England, her defense at the bar by James Boswell, and generally her trouble with...men.