Sunday, June 24, 2012

All of a sudden, a widely produced Civil War play

I've made sporadic attempts to track what Civil War plays are being done elsewhere in Chicago and around the country, mostly in the hope that there would be a lot to report.  The big development currently is that there is now what didn't used to exist:  a widely produced new play about the Civil War. 

It's The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez, which I wrote about back in October.  Three actors, one set.  Here's the playwright's synopsis, from his website:
It is Passover, 1865.  The Civil War has just ended and the annual celebration of freedom from bondage is being observed in Jewish homes across the country.  One of these homes, belonging to the DeLeons of Virginia, sits in ruins.  Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon has returned from the war to find his family missing and only two former slaves remaining.  Caleb is badly wounded and the two men, Simon and John, are forced to care for him.
Matthew Lopez, looking about 18, with the Old Globe cast
It made its world premiere at Luna Stage in
 Montclair, New Jersey (where my friend Jim Glossman works a lot, though I don't believe he was involved in this show), way back in 2006.  The website lists thirteen productions since then, omitting at least the Plowshares Theatre Company production that ran in Detroit for two weeks in January and the Curtain Call Theatre production which ran in Latham, New York, during April and May.  The play's fifth listed production was a highly acclaimed one at the Manhattan Theatre Club in February and March 2011, which gave the play a national reputation just as the Sesquicentennial period was beginning and artistic directors across the country started wondering if maybe there was a good three-actor, one-set Civil War play out there somewhere.

There are another thirteen productions listed as scheduled, including at Northlight Theatre in Skokie (or, as people outside the area persist in spelling it, "Chicago").  By this time next year, the play will have been produced at least twenty-eight times, in twenty states plus the District of Columbia and Canada.  Nice job, Matthew Lopez.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Late-breaking news from the Lincoln assassination

After one hundred and forty-seven years, the apparently never-before-read report of the first physician to reach Lincoln after he was shot has surfaced.

From The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum press release
Papers of Abraham Lincoln researcher Helena Iles Papaioannou came across something unexpected while searching the records of the Surgeon General in the National Archives in Washington, DC. Papaioannou discovered a copy of a twenty-one-page report by Dr. Charles A. Leale, the army surgeon who was the first to reach the presidential box to care for a wounded Abraham Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865. Leale wrote out his story just hours after the President died the next morning, but the text of that first report had remained undiscovered, until now. The newly discovered report is not in Leale’s hand, but is a “true copy” written in the neat and legible hand of a clerk. For nearly a century and a half, it has been tucked away in one of hundreds of boxes of incoming correspondence to the Surgeon General, until Papaioannou discovered it.
Page 3 of Dr. Leale's report; full report available here
Charles A. Leale was 23 years old and had held a medical license for all of six weeks when he took his seat 40 feet away from the presidential box to watch Our American Cousin.  Remarkably, this evening would be the second time in three days he would be mere yards away from both Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.  On April 11, he had been in the crowd outside the White House when Lincoln had given what would be his final speech, from the second story window over the main door of the White House, about his hopes for Reconstruction and endorsing voting rights for blacks.  Elsewhere in the crowd were Booth and his co-conspirator Lewis Powell, to whom Booth raged,“That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”

It seems incredible to us that a large crowd of random people would have free access to the very front steps of the White House to call the President to come to a window and speak, but of course no one had ever attacked a president before.

Leale's report is a quick and compelling read, as much for the medical specifics he details as for the simple narrative of the still-shocking events of the awful evening:
When I reached the President he was in a state of general paralysis, his eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition, while his breathing was intermittent and exceedingly stertorous.  I placed my finger on his right radial pulse but could perceive no movement of the artery.
By the way, there's no mention of Laura Keene entering the presidential box and cradling Lincoln's head in her lap.  Leale later said that this had happened, but it's nowhere in his report filed the day Lincoln died.

Lincoln's papers are scattered all over the world.

So, big kudos to The Papers of Abraham Lincoln for finding this.  It's a joint project of  the Lincoln Presidential Library and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.  They've been at it for eight years, and will be for years to come:  locating and digitizing every document they can find that was written either by or to Lincoln.  Of course, Leale's report is neither of these, but it's hard to imagine a more important exception to make.  I believe the earliest document they've found is a heavily deteriorated page of math problems from a school workbook he had as a teenager in the 1820s, and just this spring they came across a cache of previously unknown documents held in a collection in Japan.  These include a letter he wrote in 1833 for Ann Rutledge's father on a business matter, and a very short bio of himself he wrote in the 1850s that includes this gold nugget: “Born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin county Kentucky.  Education, defective."  Next month the search moves to Australia, where they know of one document (a Presidential letter appointing a Camden, New Jersey, postmaster) and have hopes of finding more.