The novelist Walker Percy called the Civil War the American Iliad, the epic struggle from which has emerged our sense of who we are. The point of our Civil War Sesquicentennial project is to produce a show each season that pursues that idea. One of the virtues of being a not-for-profit resident theatre is that we can undertake a project whose development and execution will span years (though we don’t know of another theatre that has undertaken a similar project).
This blog is officially about City Lit’s Civil War project, but I intend to also write about other Civil War-related topics. The central idea of our project, after all, is that the Civil War is still with us, and that means politically and culturally as much as anything. The sesquicentennial provides a theatre company with a specific opportunity that will not come again in our lifetime: to explore the most transformational event in American history during these important anniversary years. A blog provides a complementary opportunity.
The first production of the series was last season’s The Copperhead by Augustus Thomas, which opened on April 12, the precise anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter. Written in 1918, The Copperhead tells the story of an Illinois man who demonstrates Southern sympathies during the war, even in the face of his son's enlistment in the Union army and death at Vicksburg. The play hadn’t been done anywhere since, oh, maybe the ‘40s. Augustus Thomas was once upon a time a big-time popular playwright, but he and his work are pretty much forgotten these days. Not many people came to see our production until the reviews came out and said it was something special; after that, we did quite good business.
The second show of the series, scheduled to start performances this coming April 13, is Opus 1861: the Civil War in Symphony, a world premiere music theatre piece devised by Elizabeth Margolius and me, to be directed by Elizabeth. Set in present-day Afghanistan, Opus 1861 focuses on a group of American soldiers who find strength and solace in songs of the Civil War. The evening will include approximately 20 songs, including many familiar to all, such as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “John Brown's Body,” as well as such lesser known songs as “When This Cruel War Is Over” and “Give Us a Flag.” Rather than structure the show like a conventional revue—song, applause, song, applause, and so on—Elizabeth came up with the great idea of making it one continuous piece of symphonically structured music. So the evening will have four movements corresponding to a classical symphony’s structure, as we watch the characters accompany themselves on instruments in a bombed out Afghan location.
One of the richest bodies of literature to emerge from the Civil War is its songs. We want to connect that material to today and not be trapped into a standard historical music revue, which is why our characters are U. S. soldiers today, stationed in Afghanistan. It reminds us of the political--not just the historical--context of songs like ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home.’
The third, planned for April in our 2012-2013 season, is the world premiere of Comrades Mine: Emma Edmonds of the Union Army by Maureen Gallagher, based on the true story of the only woman to receive a U.S. Army pension for military service undertaken while disguised as a man. Edmonds enlisted as Frank Thompson and served for two years. She deserted when needed medical attention would have revealed her sex, and in the 1880s fought to have the U.S. Senate clear her record and authorize her pension.
The fourth, planned for April in our 2013-2014 season, is the world premiere of Fugitive Slave by Kristine Thatcher, City Lit's associate director. This play will explore Chicago's role as a haven for blacks escaping slavery in the years before the war. Fugitive Slave will focus on the night black and white abolitionist Chicagoans descended in a fury on the Chicago Commons Council meeting to protest Senator Stephen Douglas's—and the Council's—support for the Fugitive Slave Act.
The final production in the series, planned for April of our 2014-2015 season, will be my world premiere adaptation of Tony Horwitz's hilarious and frequently jaw-dropping Confederates in the Attic, in which the author tours the old Confederacy and examines the Civil War's lingering impact through a series of personal encounters with the likes of Civil War re-enactors, a Scarlett O’Hara impersonator, and quite a few unreconstructed rebels.