Monday, November 4, 2013

Civil War Plays 2013

Now that we're more than halfway through the sesquicentennial period, how's it look out there for Civil War plays being produced around the country?

I wrote recently about the Tri-State-and-Federal-District Civil War Project that promises a bunch of new work about the war and its legacy, much of which looks as if it might turn out to be interesting.  None of it exists yet, though.  Also upcoming at some point:  Charles Fuller, Pulitzer Prizewinner for A Soldier's Play, says in his bio for his new play that "he is currently working on a quartet of plays called We about the Civil War and Reconstruction."  Glad to hear it.

Don Bender is terrific as Lee
in The Killer Angels.

At the moment, here in Chicago, there's a strong production by the always swell Lifeline Theatre, an adaptation by Karen Tarjan of the Michael Shaara novel The Killer Angels, about the battle of Gettysburg.  The source material is a little too Confederate-apologist for me--more about that in a minute--but the adaptation is quite good. The show is extended through November 24.

Shaara tells the reader at the outset of his book, “This is the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, told from the viewpoints of Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and some of the other men who fought there,” so it is no surprise that its perspective is more Southern than not.  Well and good, except that it retails the tired falsehood that Lee opposed slavery.  This is an important falsehood to retail if you wish to convey (a) the sainthood of Robert E. Lee; (b) the idea that secession was not about slavery; and by extension, (c) the moral legitimacy of the Confederacy.  But some of the slave quarters at Lee's home at Arlington are still there to be visited today, the letter to his wife still exists in which he describes slavery as a burden to whites but a divinely ordained boon to the black race, and the 1866 testimony of Lee's former slave Wesley Norris of being whipped under Lee's personal supervision is still harrowing to read.  What Lee actually opposed was secession, but of course there's no smooth way to get that fact to support the idea that the Confederacy was a noble thing.

The book also puts forth as the Southern view on slavery--unfortunately, it's the only Southern view on slavery that makes it into the Lifeline adaptation, as far as I recall--the poppycock that a victorious Confederacy would soon end slavery, or let it die out, or something.  
Slavocracy's operating manual
In fact, Article I (Section 9, Clause 4) of the Confederate Constitution prohibited the Confederate Congress or any individual Confederate State from ever passing a law against slavery.  Again, to make the Confederacy into a thing worth honoring, its apologists must divorce it from slavery in the modern popular mind.  So it's incumbent upon sensible people to remember that secession was not merely about preserving slavery, it was explicitly about extending slavery.  The whole ten-year crisis of the 1850s was about Southern attempts to extend slavery into federal territories.  And not just westward toward the Pacific; there were influential voices urging military annexation of Mexico, Central America and parts of South America, along with all the major Caribbean islands, so that these places could become slave states.  Of course, a victorious Confederacy would have been too exhausted in the mid-1860s to launch the new war that might make any of that happen.  Still, some Lost Cause types in 1904 published this map of what their dream country would have looked like.

Fun fact to know and tell:  the Sun-Times review of Lifeline's show gets the battle's dates wrong; also, the critic's summary of why the battle matters ("not only resulted in the largest number of casualties of the war, but also is widely seen as its turning point") is suspiciously close to Wikipedia's  summary of the same thing ("involved the largest number of casualties of the entire war and is often described as the war's turning point").  As the economist Brad DeLong often asks, "Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?"

Back on topic now:  There are two different musicals called The Civil War making the rounds.  One I've written briefly about before, as has celebrity commentor Tom Shea, who corrected me when I thought it was a new show.  Composed by Frank Wildhorn with lyrics by Gregory Boyd, Jack Murphy, and Wildhorn, it was a major Broadway flop in the '90s but seems to have found new life during the sesquicentennial.  In the last twelve months it's had productions at the Lubbock, Texas Civic Center Theatre (which for some unfathomable reason is not yet named after Buddy Holly), the Gettysburg Community Theatre, Hale Center Theater in Utah, and the Artisan Center Theater in Texas, among others, with upcoming productions scheduled later this year or in 2014 at Poteet Theatre in Oklahoma City, Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, New Jersey, and a return to Lubbock, this time at Sidecar Theatre.
Theatreworks USA's The Civil War

The other one is a new show produced this summer at Theatreworks USA at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village.  Put together by Arthur Perlman and Jeff Lunden, best known respectively for the book/lyrics and score of their musical adaptation of Arthur Kopit's play Wings, it features mostly period songs like "Lincoln and Liberty" and "Dixie" as it presents an hour-long dramatization of the war aimed at grades three through nine.  The show focuses on a collection of archetypal characters whose stories interweave through the songs.  It ran all summer as Theatreworks's free summer show, and the Theatreworks website says they're putting together a national tour. 

Assuming the website's study guide material accurately reflects the show, I have a complaint.  Here's the description of two of the characters: Zak, a runaway slave who demands the right to fight his own fight; Will, his former best friend and "master."  Sigh.  No way Will was ever really Zak's best friend.  His self-interest as Zak's "master" would always preclude genuinely caring about Zak's diametrically opposed self-interest.  And why is master in quotation marks?  If we're denying that the master-slave relationship was a real thing, we're not teaching the core fact in this whole saga. Let us hope that the show itself is truer than the show's study guide.  The chief value of teaching the American Iliad to schoolchildren is to convey an understanding of the great struggle that continues to shape our identity as a nation.  If our understanding of that struggle is that it was a big misunderstanding among perfectly nice people who actually all liked each other--if we deny or smooth over the moral aspects of the war, of slavery and of secession--we're just feeding kids pablum.

Cornerstone Arts Alliance in Goshen, New York, produced this April a pair of obscure one-acts from the war's centennial period, Edward Finnegan's 1964 drama My Hands Is Full o' Gifts and Charles George's 1960 The Curtain Falls.  In the first, the spirit of a Civil War soldier observes a modern-day debate over whether to move the cemetery he's buried in to make room for a building development.  In the second, Edwin Booth in 1873 sifts through his brother's trunk and remembers.  So, both about legacy.  Nice.

Winding Road's cast for Row after Row
Also in April, Winding Road Theatre Ensemble in Tucson produced the world premiere of Row after Row by Jessica Dickey, about a trio of Civil War re-enactors, one of them female, who in a time shift to 1863 also portray the Civil War characters being re-enacted.  The play is already scheduled for its New York premiere in January in a production by The Women's Project at Center Stage II.

Finally for now, Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, the Incredible Hulk of new Civil War plays, continues to rampage around the country.  Lopez's website, which appears to need updating, lists an even dozen productions in just the first four months of 2013.  A quick look around the internet locates other productions during that period or since then in Rochester NY, Austin TX, Dorset VT, Columbus OH, Seattle WA, and Jacksonville Beach FL.  There are undoubtedly more.

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