Saturday, December 31, 2011

Music for New Year's Eve

Happy New Year.  Here's the best song about the American Civil War ever written by a Canadian.

In searching for this video, I learn that Levon Helm--for whom, of course, the song was written--has refused to sing it in the 35 years since this performance was filmed for The Last Waltz.   Apparently he feels a farewell performance should be a farewell performance.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Civil War plays for 2012

Our own Opus 1861: the Civil War in Symphony, a world premiere music theatre piece we're building from about 20 Civil War songs, goes up in April.  There are other Civil War shows going up around the country next year as well--I haven't done an actual count, but it seems like there will be more in 2012 than there were in 2011.

The Washington Stage Guild in downtown Washington DC is producing the world premiere of Amelia:  a Story of Abiding Love by Alex Webb from January 5-29.  It's a two-person show starring the playwright and his wife about a woman trying to free her husband from the Andersonville Confederate prison camp.  It's inspired by one sentence in a journal kept by someone at Andersonville:  "Rumor has it that a woman has come in here after her man."

Half a mile away, Ford's Theatre, itself of course a piece of Civil War history, stages the world premiere of Necessary Sacrifices by Richard Hellesen from January 20 through February 12.  Hellesen has written three other Civil War plays for Ford's; this one is about the relationship between President Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.  You would expect the people at Ford's, which besides being a working theatre is a national museum dedicated to Lincoln's legacy, to have its facts straight, but here's how they describe the play in their season guide:
Richard Hellesen’s new play Necessary Sacrifices imagines the
real-life meetings between abolitionist Frederick Douglass and
President Abraham Lincoln. In the midst of the Civil War, the
president responds to Douglass’s passionate arguments for allowing
African Americans the opportunity to be represented in the Union
Army, thereby fighting for their own freedom.
The problem with this is that Douglass visited Lincoln at the White House for the first time in the summer of 1863, whereas the federal government had begun recruiting African American enlistments in 1862.  By the time they met, Douglass was already the most prominent recruiter of black soldiers for the Union army, and both his sons had enlisted.  So had thousands of other African American men, so many that in May '63 the government had set up the Bureau of Colored Troops to handle the high volume of enlistments.  They met to discuss the unequal treatment of black soldiers which had caused black enlistment to slow down; once Lincoln heard Douglass's bill of particulars, he agreed with him and took steps to remedy matters.

So what gives?  Let's hope that the mistake in Ford's season guide is simply that, a mistake in the season guide.  But I fear that it might accurately reflect the play itself, which would indicate that Ford's has bought into the currently fashionable opinion that Lincoln had to be convinced of the morality of things like emancipation and civil rights.  Lincoln's well-known slowness to adopt emancipation and related issues like black enlistment as his administration's policies was essentially political, in the best sense of the word--to lose support for the war in the tentatively still loyal slave-holding border states would be to lose the war, which would doom any federal effort to do anything at all about slavery in what would then be a foreign country.  It can be argued, though I think not successfully, that his caution was bad political strategy.  But there is nothing in the historical record to support the idea that Lincoln disagreed with the moral rightness of what people like Douglass and Charles Sumner were urging him to do faster.

But I digress.  Touchstone Theatre in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania has a really interesting show coming up for a short run in April (the 13th through the 15th only, the same weekend we preview Opus 1861).  It's a community-based play called A Resting Place, about the lives of area residents during the Civil War.  The playwright is Alison Carey.  Here's a plot summary: "A loving mother decides to break ground for a memorial to the long-dead of our nation’s bloodiest conflict. But when she digs up more than she expects, Bethlehem present comes face to face with Bethlehem past."  Assuming it doesn't involve zombies, this sounds great to me.

By the way, the Touchstone website says this: "Produced in conjunction with Moravian College, Touchstone concludes the Historic Bethlehem Partnership’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War . . ."  Really, Historic Bethlehem Partnership?   You're concluding your commemoration in 2012, three years before the anniversary period ends?  C'mon guys, step up to the plate.

Finally, for now, the Masquerade Theatre in Houston, which does musicals, is putting together a show they're calling simply The Civil War.   Period songs, diary entries and so on, plus text from Lincoln, Douglass, and Whitman.  It runs May 18-27, and the Masquerade website says it'll be both "gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring."  My goodness.

Guts and awe aside, one cool thing about the graphic Masquerade is using for the show is that the tattered flag it shows is apparently a photo of the actual flag that flew over Fort Sumter.  Nice touch.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Music for Christmas

Civil War-era slave spirituals "Rise Up Shepherd and Follow" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" sung by Kathleen Battle and the Harlem Boys Choir with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth." --Voltaire

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group behind the ongoing attempt to get the Confederate battle flag displayed on specialty license plates in Texas, is one of the groups responsible for desecrating the grave of Silas Chandler, a former slave, with Confederate paraphernalia.  The group also figures in Confederates in the Attic, one of our Civil War Project shows, and is one of the prime movers behind the Big Lie about the war:  that the Confederacy was not a deeply racist slavocracy which went to war to protect its financial interest in human chattel.

To you, Sons of Confederate Veterans, we submit 
the vindication of the Cause for which we fought; 
to your strength will be given the defense of the Confederate soldier's good name, 
the guardianship of his history, 
the emulation of his virtues, 
the perpetuation of those principles he loved 
and which made him glorious 
and which you also cherish. 
Remember, it is your duty to see that the true history of the South is presented to future generations.
Lt. General Stephen Dill Lee, C.S.A.
April 25, 1906

The Sons date from 1896 and is one of several organizations of the period founded for the perfectly respectable reason of honoring the group's actual fathers who had served valiantly in the Confederate army, risking (and many of them giving) their lives.  Even today much of their work involves the upkeep of gravesites and assistance with genealogy research and so on.  The more visible part of their work, however, is insidious:  to bring into the mainstream and make respectable the false idea that the Confederacy itself deserves to be honored.

Much of this work depends on minimizing the Confederacy's commitment to slavery as a foundation of its existence.  So we are told that Robert E. Lee hated slavery: he didn't; he saw it as a necessary evil that the white race had to bear in order to do God's work benefiting the black race.  We are told that thousands of blacks enlisted in and fought for the Confederate Army: of course they didn't; not only did Confederate law prohibit this until the CSA was gasping its last, the Confederate army refused to recognize even captured black Union troops as legitimate POWs but instead executed some of them as rebellious slaves.  The fact that the Emancipation Proclamation, as a product of Lincoln's war powers, could only free slaves where the rebellion existed, while emancipation in the loyal states had to wait for the Thirteenth Amendment, is twisted so that we can be told, hey, slavery was abolished in the South before it was in the North!--as if emancipation at the point of a Union bayonet is a credit to the Confederate slaveowner.

The license plate controversy represents another aspect of their work: to (1) get the Confederate flag displayed in official auspices of any sort, and (2) equate Confederate soldiers in the general mind with the soldiers who fought at Normandy and Khe Sanh and Lexington, as well as with the soldiers they fired upon at Antietam and Shiloh and Gettysburg.  "These veterans need to be honored too," a Sons spokesman testified to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board before the Board voted 8-0 against allowing specialty plates displaying the Sons logo, which features the Confederate battle flag.  The Sons have said they plan to appeal, and in fact have won such appeals in a number of other states.

A number of years ago the Civil War documentarian Ken Burns, himself descended from Confederate veterans, caused a furor in neo-Confederate circles when he discussed the eternal Civil War paradox of American respect and affection--North and South--for the valiant men who tried to destroy the country. ''I said it was interesting to note that a man held responsible for more loyal American deaths than Tojo or Hitler became our most cherished general,'' Burns recounted later.  For this statement of verifiable fact concerning Robert E. Lee, he ended up stripped of the CSV membership the organization had bestowed on him.  Verifiable facts are not the friends of neo-Confederates.

Alexander Stephens T-shirt, available in four styles
  Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea;
its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that
the negro is not equal to the white man;
that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.
This, our new government,
is the first in the history of the world
based upon this great
physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Alexander Stephens
Vice-President, Confederate States of  America
March 21, 1861

"I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people," Lincoln said in 1854.  "They are just what we would be in their situation."  True enough now as then, and if our beloved ancestors had been on the wrong side of the two great moral questions of the age, slavery and treason, we would not be eager to acknowledge the fact either.

That said, a tribute built on lies is no tribute at all, and the neo-Confederate disinformation campaign does the Confederate dead no honor.  Most Southerners might not choose U.S. Grant as the eulogist for the Confederate army, but his recollection of  Lee and his men at Appomattox Court House has more truth, and more tribute, in it than any part of the tissue of lies put forth by neo-Confederates:
Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us. 
The last word here goes to Rev. George V. Clark, testifying before the Texas DMV Board on November 10:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Other than that, Miss Keene, how'd you like the audience?

I should pay closer attention.  Here at City Lit we have closed our Hallowe'en show, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and our next production, a world premiere adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, doesn't open until late February.  In the meantime, we have booked the stage out to a series of itinerant companies for their productions.  First up is a company we like a lot, Project 891.  But I hadn't even noticed that the show they're producing here is a Civil War-related play!

It's Our Leading Lady by noted high-camp farceur Charles Busch, about Laura Keene, the producer and star of the performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865.  I'm not familiar with it, except by reputation, but I'm told that the first act is a backstage comedy showing us Keene's company in rehearsal for that performance, focusing on Keene as larger-than-life diva; Busch's play turns more serious in Act Two after John Wilkes Booth has interrupted the performance.

Laura Keene, circa 1856
Comedically seems like the right way to approach Laura Keene.  Though she is a genuinely important figure in 19th Century theatre--she was the first female actor-manager in America, she helped establish New York City as a commercial theatre center,and she came up with the idea of Saturday matinees so women could attend the theatre unescorted--there is a certain amount of dark farce to her cameo role in the Lincoln assassination.  She was backstage waiting to make an entrance when the shot was fired, and is credited with doing much to calm the crowd in the immediate chaos that followed.  But then she seems to strive to make the evening's big event about her:  she commandeered a jug of water, which she used as her ticket past the throng of excited rubber-neckers into the presidential box where Lincoln and Major Rathbone were being treated by doctors who had been in the audience.  Accounts differ as to what happened next, but the most reliable witness seems to be Dr. Charles Leale, who had just performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Lincoln and was the doctor who pronounced Lincoln's wound to be fatal:  "Laura Keene appealed to me to allow her to hold the president's head.  I granted the request, and she sat on the floor of the box and held his head in her lap."   This was within five minutes or so of the shot. 

You've got to give Charles Busch credit for recognizing the self-serving grande dame at the bottom of Keene's remarkable presence of mind that night, and for being brave enough to make it the subject of a comedy.  It's hard to see how shifting Lincoln's wounded head could have provided the president with either comfort or medical benefit.  But it did put Laura Keene back at center stage where she was used to being, and there's certainly something darkly comic about her drive to do that.

Our Leading Lady runs November 4 through December 4.  Don't call City Lit for tickets; it's not our show.  Project 891's box office number is 773-853-3210.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Abe's Mini-Me?

This is from the excellent Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War.  I've seen this photo many times, of course, but I've never noticed (maybe because he was always cropped out?) the Lincoln look-alike sitting on the grass in the background over on the left.  Who the heck is that guy?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Here is the steed that saved the day.

Okay, not only do I like the Library of Congress because they're collecting this blog, and because their National Jukebox is a great website, but this week they're publishing a terrific coffee-table book, The Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War.  I've spent much of the last few days browsing through an advance copy, and it's pretty great.  The timeline itself is excellent--nearly day-by-day entries covering important events over the length of the war, cross-referenced to related events on other days--but the real treasure trove is the collection of illustrations, some of them full-page, from the Library's vast and authoritative archive. 

The picture above (click on the picture to enlarge it) is from the book.  It's a lithograph called "Sheridan's Ride," done by a Harper's Weekly illustrator named Thure de Thulstrup.  This is from the Timeline's entry for October 19, 1864:
On his quest to crush Jubal Early in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Phil Sheridan rides into legend at the battle of Cedar Creek. After achieving victories at Winchester and Fisher’s Hill (see September 19 and 22, 1864), Sheridan has departed his camp for a strategy conference in Washington when Early attacks so unexpectedly that the army Sheridan has left securely encamped begins a pell-mell retreat. Sheridan’s return to the front on his warhorse Rienzi helps turn the morning’s humiliating defeat into an afternoon of over­whelming victory — and it generates a patriotic poem, “Sheri­dan’s Ride,” that is a pre-election rouser in the North. The Union is now firmly in control of the Shenandoah Valley — and the area is showing the effects of the “hard war” policy Grant has directed Sheridan to embrace (see July 30, 1864).
The book doesn't include the poem, so here's a link to it.  While I'm at it, here's a link to the John Philip Sousa piece commemorating the ride, in a perfectly swell 1902 recording at the National Jukebox, complete with galloping hoofbeats.  Sheridan's twenty-mile ride that day became so famous that it became possible to buy portraits just of Rienzi, the horse he rode; my great-grandfather had one on the wall when my family lived with him when I was a little boy.

The poor horse is still available for photo shoots, as Sheridan had him stuffed and he's standing in a glass case at the Smithsonian. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Black Confederates? Not so much.

Elizabeth Margolius, who is directing Opus 1861 for us this spring, and I are in a workshop this week for the show, listening to an amazingly good bunch of singers and musicians play through the songs we've chosen in the structure we've tried to build, and talking about the songs and their context and so on.  One thing that's come up is the ongoing disinformation campaign to convince us all that there were black Confederate soldiers fighting for the South.  Thousands of them.

One of the singers recently saw an episode of Antiques Roadshow from 2009 that featured a Civil War tintype showing the above picture of a white man and a black man together, both armed and in Confederate uniforms.  The white's family history related that they were friends who served together.  Both men had the last name Chandler:  Andrew Chandler had owned Silas Chandler, but had freed him a year before the war, and both had enlisted in a Mississippi regiment of the Confederate army.

I don't doubt that Andrew Chandler's family historians are sincere, but the claim that Silas was an enlisted Confederate soldier is clearly preposterous.  The picture is more plausibly explained by the fact that many Confederates brought slaves along with them into their units, and frequently had them dress in uniforms like mascots.  Posing with his mascot, and letting the mascot hold arms like he's a real soldier, was apparently a diversion Andrew Chandler had time for.

The Confederacy outlawed using blacks as soldiers, until the Confederate Congress legalized it in an act of sheer desperation eighteen days before Lee surrendered.  Of course they wouldn't want black soldiers.  The South feared a widespread slave uprising, which was why John Brown's raid had galvanized them so.  Why on earth would they want to train thousands of blacks to use weapons and organize themselves into fighting units?  What happens after the South wins the war and then wants all these armed warriors to go back to picking cotton?

It turns out another PBS show, History Detectives, aired a segment about the Chandler tintype just last week and destroyed Andrew Chandler's descendants' version of things.  Andrew could not have freed Silas in 1860, because the Mississippi constitution at the time outlawed freeing slaves; it couldn't be done.  The 1860 census recorded zero free blacks living in the county where Silas resided.  The application Silas filed in 1916 for a Confederate pension when he was indigent and too infirm to work was on the form given to those freedmen who, while enslaved, had been used as servants by their enlisted masters ("What was the number of the regiment or name of the vessel in which your master served?").  And the roster for the regiment in question still exists; it lists Andrew as serving, but not Silas.  As for the weapons Silas holds in the photo, the Atlanta expert in Confederate photos consulted by History Detectives pronounced them "a photographer's prop."

The tintype is an unimportant curio, except that it's being used to further the agenda of Confederate apologists.  The Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy have placed on his grave a Confederate Iron Cross and a Confederate battle flag in order to claim him as a Confederate soldier.  This is just plain ugly.  The groups are part of a movement among "neo-Confederates" to establish the myth of black Confederates as history.  Their object, of course, is to make slavery seem to be not the main cause of the war:  if the South were fighting to preserve and extend slavery, would so many blacks have enlisted to help it?  So the movement spreads as fact, among other lies, the howler that Stonewall Jackson commanded two black battalions.

Their disinformation campaign has been conducted mostly on the internet, but briefly crept into actual print last year, when a fourth-grade history textbook used in Virginia schools repeated the Stonewall Jackson falsehood as fact.  The book's author, Joy Masoff, is not a neo-Confederate, merely an ignoramus (her book also got the number of Confederate states, and the year the U.S. entered World War One, both wrong).  After a public outcry, school officials pulled the book.  Its publishers say that from now on they are going to start having people who actually know things read their books before they send them out. 

As for Silas Chandler, in 2008 fifty-two of his descendants signed a petition to get the Confederate paraphernalia removed from his grave.  An excerpt from a letter explaining their position:
In a cynical attempt to further their political objectives, the descendants of Silas’ oppressors have decided  to place an iron cross and a confederate flag on Silas’ grave.  This is equivalent to the descendants of the Gestapo placing a swastika on the grave of a Holocaust victim.  The placing of the confederate flag on Silas’ grave is a gross affront to the memory of Silas, and nothing more than  an attempt to rewrite history.
 On October 3 of this year, eighteen days ago, Myra Chandler Sampson, one of Silas's great-granddaughters, posted the following reply when a commenter on an article about Silas asked if they had received an answer from either the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the United Daughters of the Confederacy:
Not yet.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Civil War plays elsewhere, not in Chicago

It's old news by now--but still shameful-- that there is no federal Civil War Sesquicentennial organizing committee (though the admirable National Park Service has events planned at the Civil War battlefields it administers), and if online journalist Robert McNamara's round-up is up to date, only twenty-five states (plus D. C.) have official commemorations planned (five of the eleven states from the old Confederacy, twenty of the twenty-five loyal states).  Nothing west of Iowa and Missouri, though the states of Kansas, California and Oregon, as well as the territories of Colorado, Dakota (not yet itself divided into North and South), Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington, all contributed soldiers to the Union army.

So it will be interesting to see how widespread the production of Civil War plays will be during the next four years.  Outside of Chicago, there is somewhat of a natural accumulation of them in places that were in the war's geography, but let's hope that by 2015 the country's theatres will have outshone the embarrassingly absent official entities.

Off to a great start is Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, whose story theatre musical Civil War Voices, based on period diaries and letters, is on tour through Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey.  Back home they are in the midst of their run of The Road to Appomattox, a world premiere by Catherine Bush that pairs the story of a modern day married couple considering divorce with the story of Lee preparing to surrender to Grant.

Elsewhere in Virginia earlier this year was Rappahannock County by Ricky Ian Gordon and Mark Campbell, another musical based on Civil War diaries and letters, which premiered at the Virginia Arts Festival in April as a joint commission by the Festival, the University of Richmond, Virginia Opera, and the University of Texas at Austin.  It played the Texas leg of its premiere last month.   

In the Shenandoah Valley, Wayside Theatre (which is run by my old Body Politic Theatre colleague Warner Crocker--Hi, Warner!) began its 50th anniversary season with the 1999 pastiche Reunion ... A Musical Epic in Miniature, about a post-Civil War acting troupe staging a show about the war.  One of the reviews for Reunion went out of its way to deny that slavery was the chief cause of the war, cautioned its readers that the play had a "Northern point of view," and regretted that "a Virginia audience should be prepared — some of them, anyway — for hearing their ancestors referred to as traitors."  Yes, the war is still with us.

Up north, Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, originally produced by Manhattan Theatre Club in February, is being co-produced by the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield, Michigan and Plowshares Theatre, an African American company in Detroit.  It's about a Jewish Confederate who returns home after Appomattox and finds his home occupied by a pair of his former, now newly freed, slaves--also Jews, having been raised in the faith of their master's household.  It closed October 2 at JET and is scheduled to re-open at Plowshares in January.

Missing in action as far as I can see so far is James Still's The Heavens Are Hung in Black, which seemed two years ago a contender to be done all over the country during the sesquicentennial.  It was commissioned by Ford's Theatre, no less, and premiered there for the Lincoln bicentenary in 2009.  The play depicts Lincoln during five months in 1862 from the death of his son Willie through the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  It had a second production, also in 2009, at Indiana Rep, where Still was resident playwright, but seems not to have had a third one yet.  Of course, 2012 will be the sesquicentennial year of the events it depicts, so maybe there'll be a major production of it then.

A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel, though there is at least one production scheduled this year, also seems to be underperforming what appeared to be its potential not long ago.  It premiered in 2008 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, and went on to productions in Boston, Chicago (at Northlight, so really in Skokie) and Palo Alto.  It's a sentimental imagining of Christmas in 1864 Washington, featuring a raft of period Christmas songs, so it seemed poised to become an annual event at theatres at least through 2015.  But the only production this year I can find online is at History Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I'll post information on more Civil War shows here in Chicago and around the country as I learn of them.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Lovely but Hard-to-Find Play, Now Available to You at the Touch of a Button

Our production of Augustus Thomas's The Copperhead this past April, the first show of our Civil War project, was apparently the play's first production in decades.  It had been a Broadway hit in 1918, and spawned a movie version in 1920, but we were never able to find out its production history beyond that.  I emailed Samuel French, its erstwhile publisher, to ask if they could let us know when the last licensed production occurred.  They wrote back that once the play had passed into the public domain, they stopped keeping records of any productions.  I had assumed that would be the case, which is why I had asked about licensed productions, but my follow-up email pointing this out went ignored.

I bring this up by way of saying The Copperhead is a terrific play that more people should do.  Most American drama from its period, not written by Eugene O'Neill, has lapsed into obscurity.  This is largely because we're embarrassed by the remnants of 19th-century melodrama  that cling to most early 20th-century American plays.  The Copperhead has its share of these remnants, but--there is no higher praise in the theatre--it works.  Our director, Kathy Scambiatterra, had it played straight--no nudging the audience to assure them that we're all more sophisticated than the script--and when the play's climax needed to move the audience, there were tears in the house every night.

I'm posting a pdf of The Copperhead's script here.  If you're with a theatre company, download it and consider it for production.  There are no royalties involved, so to a degree the expenses of a large cast and period costumes and props are offset.  Your company might (should, in my opinion) want to do at least one play connected to the Civil War during the sesquicentennial, and The Copperhead is a lovely script.  There'll be no other show in town like it.  Here's a link to a round-up of the reviews we got, so you can see the range of how the script was perceived.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Civil War put into perspective in two minutes and fifty-seven seconds

Speaking of our new friends at the Library of Congress, here's something from their National Jukebox:  Billy Murray on the Victor label in 1915 singing "If War Is What Sherman Said It Was (Then Tell Me, What is Married Life?)"  Their embedding feature doesn't seem to work--or maybe I'm doing it wrong, as the old Randy Newman song says--so here is the link:

The song is by lyricist Andrew B. Sterling, a Songwriters Hall of Famer whose big credit remains "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie," and journeyman composer Albert Gumble.  Murray was the biggest recording star of the twentieth century's first two decades, whose career faded away when the electric microphone was invented and enabled a more intimate type of singing than the full-throated loudness that the acoustic recording horn required.  In his 20-year heyday, he sang the original recordings of dozens of standards, including "In My Merry Oldsmobile," "Harrigan," "K-K-K-Katy," and (as lead tenor of the American Quartet) "Oh, You Beautiful Doll." 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Civil War plays elsewhere in Chicago

Though City Lit is the only theatre in Chicago the nation producing an in-depth Civil War Sesquicentennial project lasting as long as the war itself--our project's first show opened in April 2011 and its last one will open in April 2015--I'm glad to see that there are other theatres here and there also doing some Civil War-related shows.

Let's look at some happening here in Chicago:

Jackalope Theatre is currently running Chicago playwright Shawn Reddy's play My Name is Mudd, which of course has to do with Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth's leg while the assassin was trying to get to the hero's welcome he thought awaited him in the South.  I haven't seen it, but I gather it is a vaudevillian satire played essentially from Booth's perspective, and it involves a descendant of Mudd's trying to clear his name, and there's a running joke involving top hats.  The reviews have been all over the map, which may only demonstrate once again Oscar Wilde's point about the artist being in accord with himself.  The show plays through October 2.

I should mention Mourning Becomes Electra beginning previews tomorrow at Remy Bumppo Theatre, though it only happens to be set at the end of the war; it's not in any way about the Civil War.  It's Eugene O'Neill's rewrite of the Oresteia, rarely done and certainly worth seeing (though Remy Bumppo says it's doing a shortened version; ah well). 

And then there's The March, opening next April at Steppenwolf.  It's Frank Galati's world premiere adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's multi-award-winning novel about Sherman's march through Georgia.  Galati is the only real genius in Chicago theatre (sorry, Mary Zimmerman and David Cromer), and he has a deep connection to Doctorow's work, going back to the years he spent developing (and  then directing on Broadway) the musical version of Ragtime.  I can't wait for this one.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Say what you want about Congress, but they run a great library.

So we got this email the other day from (ahem) the Library of Congress:

     The United States Library of Congress has selected your website for inclusion in the 
     historic collection of Internet materials related to the American Civil War 

      The Library of Congress preserves the Nation’s cultural artifacts and provides 

      enduring access to them. The Library’s traditional functions, acquiring, cataloging, 
      preserving and serving collection materials of historical importance to the Congress 
      and the American people to foster education and scholarship, extend to digital 
      materials, including websites.

      The following URL has been selected for archiving:

      We request your permission to collect your website and add it to the Library's research 


We've said yes, of course. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Titus Andronicus from New Jersey, not ancient Rome

Indie band Titus Andronicus put this out a couple of years ago--a Civil War-themed punk album called The Monitor, after the Union ironclad vessel.  This is track one, "A More Perfect Union."  One nice touch is that, though Lincoln is usually portrayed as a baritone, this number opens with an excerpt from his Lyceum speech read in a nasal tenor twang, which is supposed to be more like how he sounded.  No idea if they were equally fastidious about the William Lloyd Garrison portrayal that ends the song.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Bloodhound Law

That's the new title of what we have been calling simply Fugitive Slave, the fourth show of our five-play series of productions commemorating the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Kristine Thatcher is writing it--she's City Lit's associate director and part of the playwrights ensemble at Victory Gardens--and she emails to say this:

 I'm still figuring out the chess pieces, the characters who will roam at large.   One is certainly Stephen Douglas. (Amazing how his lame centrist stand led to his defeat for president.) Another is Edwin Larned who heard Douglas and came out of left-field to quelch his reasoning just a few days later. The problem, at the moment, is how to recreate the Common Counsel without 17 guys on stage. Don't worry, I won't do that to you.  .  . .  There is also Frederick Douglass, John Jones and Mary Richardson Jones (black citizens) who were in Chicago at the time, but didn't appear before the council, but who were sending folks to Canada as soon as they appeared on the doorstep. John and Mary had also entertained both Fred D. and John Brown in their living room. Mary thought John Brown was nuts!

The more I read about that particular and ugly law, the more I understand how far we've come. The more I read about the ugly law and even Abraham Lincoln's guarded response to it, the more I realize we haven't come far enough.

The play will revolve around a series of 1850 meetings by the Chicago Common Council regarding the passage by Congress of the Fugitive Slave Act, which attempted to help solve the slavery crisis in America by essentially legalizing the kidnapping of African Americans.  The Act, brokered through Congress by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas eight years before he trounced Lincoln to win his third term, ended Chicago's role as an important final destination for escaped slaves and made Canada the only safe haven on the continent.  Prior to 1850, attempts by slaveowners to recover their escaped slaves were frequently thwarted by Northern communities who passed local laws requiring that the proceedings involve such notions as due process, jury trials and habeus corpus.  Many Northern juries cleared a runaway's route to freedom by the simple expedient of voting against the slavehunter, no matter what evidence had been presented in court. 

The Fugitive Slave Act fixed this problem by doing away with local authority in the matter and establishing a federal magistrate with sole power to hear and decide cases.  There was no jury, the African American in question was denied the right to testify, and cases were as often as not decided on the basis of the slavehunter's word.  To streamline the process further, the magistrate was paid ten dollars if he decided in favor of the slavehunter, but only five if he found for the African American.  The slavehunter--a bounty hunter with no incentive to make sure the person he seized was really the runaway he was sent to chase, as he'd be paid the same money for having grabbed a suitable replacement--could now apprehend any African American he chose, in any American community.  His infamous motto--"The right nigger if you can catch him, but any nigger will do"--had the effective protection of federal law.

Voting with Douglas in favor of the Act was Illinois's other senator, James Shields (after whom the avenue that runs past White Sox Park is named), and five of the state's seven-member House delegation.  Chicago in 1850 was strongly abolitionist, and had a growing middle-class African American community, many of them escaped slaves, who owned homes and ran businesses.  The Common Council passed a resolution by a vote of nine to three condemning the new law, calling on the Chicago police department not to render any assistance for its enforcement, and offering this character reference:  "Resolved, That the Senators and Representatives in Congress from the free States who aided and assisted in the passage of this infamous law  richly merit the reproach of all lovers of freedom, and are only to be ranked with the traitors Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot."

Arnold and Iscariot were not to be ranked with Douglas as orators, however.   The Little Giant addressed the Council a few days later.  He defended his law for three and a half hours, and was so persuasive he won a unanimous resolution repudiating the Council's previous resolution.  The next day the Chicago Journal, no friend of either the senator or the Fugitive Slave Act, summed up his performance:  "Senator Douglas demolished the Common Council last night."

There's more to the story, but I won't spoil the play's ending.  The Bloodhound Law will make its world premiere at City Lit in April 2014.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Follow the Drinking Gourd

This is one of the Civil War songs that will be in Opus 1861, in a version--the song's first-ever recording, I believe--by The Weavers, to whom I could listen all day.

Profile in Caution

Now that President Obama has acquiesced to a fundamentally Republican plan to raise the debt ceiling, which means federal spending cuts that will contract the economy when it needs to be expanded, it may be worth pointing out a couple of Civil War connections to the whole fiasco.

One, of course, is the Fourteenth Amendment, much in the news lately as Obama rebuffed suggestions he invoke its clause that the “validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned” in order to keep paying the country’s bills no matter what the Congress did.  In a position to need all the leverage in his fight with Congress that he could get, he threw this lever away and had his spokesman say that he didn’t think the amendment applied in this situation.  He’s the constitutional scholar, not me, but there are plenty of other experts who thought he was wrong, and a look at why the clause was written suggests they might have been right.

The Fourteenth of course was one of the Reconstruction amendments, put into place as the states of the old Confederacy took their places again as part of the Union.  Fearful that Southern federal legislators might someday acquire a voting majority in Congress and get it to vote to refuse to pay the U.S. war debt, or to take on some or all of the Confederate debt, Section Four—forbidding both—was included in the amendment.  That is to say, one explicit reason it was written was to prevent Congress from taking a vote that would prevent the federal government from paying its bills. 

How is that different from the recent situation?  I dunno, but the question brings us to the other Civil War connection.  Obama’s hero Lincoln more than once took executive action that he believed crucially important to the nation even when he couldn’t have sworn he had a winning argument for the Supreme Court were he to be challenged there.  His biggest gamble was the Emancipation Proclamation itself.  He knew that as Commander in Chief of the military during a time of armed rebellion, he had the military right to seize private property that was necessary to the war effort, and that the legal status of enslaved blacks as property meant that he could seize them from their owners.  But with all other types of property, after the military necessity has passed, the property is returned to its owner.  The Proclamation declared that the slaves under its jurisdiction were “forever free,” which was essential but constitutionally suspect.  If, after the war was over, a plantation owner whose slaves had been emancipated were to sue the federal government for their return as property, and fought the case all the way up to substantially the same Supreme Court that had issued the Dred Scott decision, the odds might well have been good he’d be given his slaves back.  Lincoln might not have had the authority to make emancipation permanent. 

He was aware of this, and worried about it.  Thankfully, we’ll never know how that hypothetical former slave-owner’s case would have turned out, because Lincoln rushed to send to the states the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery; its ratification meant the Proclamation’s full legality never had to be tested. 

We’ll also never know if the Fourteenth Amendment gambit would have cut the Gordian knot in the debt ceiling crisis, because Obama declined to find out.

Lincoln's courage is part of  his greatness.  Obama, a profile in caution, cannot plausibly have been worried that he might be successfully impeached for continuing to uphold the nation's credit by paying its bills.  John B. Judis of The New Republic has an article online headlined "If Obama Likes Lincoln So Much, He Should Start Acting Like Him."  Well, yes.

First post: Welcome to our Civil War Sesquicentennial blog

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.