In rural areas, home coming weekends are part of Autumn. Our county sponsors a Heritage Weekend at the end of each September. Historic homes are opened for touring. Businesses display memorabilia in their windows. Classic cars have cruise-in’s. Tractors are on display. Quilts, crafts, and country foods have shows. Musicians gather for fiddle and banjo contests, and to entertain passers-by along Main Street. Living history re-enactors present Civil War and Frontier encampments. This year, the folks at the McCoy’s Grand Theatre, in conjunction with West Virginia Theatre East from the next town over, produced Stephen Vincent Benet’s dramatic poem, John Brown’s Body, adding to the history theme in several ways.
I will admit that I underestimated this production. After reading in the local paper that this would be a dramatic reading of the poem, with occasional music and vignettes acted out, I anticipated a 90 minute event, composed of a dozen stanzas interspersed with The Battle Hymn of the Republic, some Johnny Reb in a Yankee prison songs, etc. Linda was off for the weekend to an educational course. I ran a list of errands on the way home from work Friday, snacking along the way. I arrived home in time to pet the dogs, unpack the car, and decide that I would just wait until my anticipated 8:30 or so time for dinner. Little did I know that I would not be back to the car before 10 p.m.
Beyond my miscalculation about dinner, listening to a three-hour poem about the Civil War was an experience. The fifteen members of the chorus faced the audience from two platforms, while the music director sat at her keyboard, center stage. Different members of the chorus approached one of three music stands, from which they read sections of the poem. At times the whole chorus recited lines in unison. At times,they sang sections. At times, they filled the background with sounds in acappella to enhance those reading the poem, creating sounds of weather, moods, and scenes of battles. I shall not try to sort out who read which parts of the poem, for this was an ensemble work, with each reader adding her or his gestures and inflections to emphasize the words and phrases.
Some in the audience appeared puzzled that this was not a typical “stage” production, with the story played out by the actors through a series of scenes. Rather, one or two members of the chorus would step forward, select a prop, and enact a scene in pantomime or with limited dialogue from the poem. These tableaus included scenes of a ship captain and mate checking on slaves below deck, boys from north and south going about their adolescent lives prior to joining their respective armies, the young women who would love them, and John Brown and Lincoln deliberating their actions toward emancipation and warfare.
In a manner, the brevity of these scenes made them more symbolic than if the rest of the action was filled in with other scenes. To watch that ship’s mate try to rub the “blackness” off his arm, after returning from the ships hold, gave chills with the retrospective knowledge of how our nation would try to rub it’s backness off with the Civil War. To see John Brown’s raiding group attempt to negotiate their way out of the engine house in which they were barricaded, foretold the traps that soldiers, both Confederate and Union, would be caught in during the war. To watch the southern boy flirt with the girl who desires him, while cattily suggesting that he might just go kiss some other girl at the dance, allowed relishing youthful folly. To hear a soldier describe General Lee as a marble statue, hailed admiration for his leadership. To see Lincoln finger the rim of his top-hat while deliberating his options at Gettysburg, brought his solemn mood to pondering of those who must decide. To hear the chorus enacting the rebel yell on Picket’s Charge, evoked the sense of the desperate chaos that occurs in battles. To watch the young men, captured in battle, walk in prisoner lines, then be exchanged for other prisoners, north and south, weighed heavy with the humiliation of defeat. To hear the sad melody sung by the young woman yearning for her gone soldier, stirred memories of loss and reunion. To consider the terms of surrender at Appomattox, with General Lee’s request that his men be allowed to take their horses to use for the Spring planting, with General Grant’s respectful reply, encouraged hope that John Brown’s body would be mouldering in the ground for the abolition of the many sins of a nation.
Our Civil War was very much a 19th century event, in conflict, structure, and resolution. Though Benet’s poem was written in 1928, it too is very much of the 19th century. The original 400 page poem was abridged for a dramatic reading by the Yale Drama School. This reverted back to a time before the wireless brought the world into people’s homes; A time before moving pictures showed us images of our cities and countryside. An evening of entertainment might include family and friends gathering in someone parlor to read the epic poems of Homer, or scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, or chamber music composed by one of the group, or solo or group singing with piano accompaniment. Poems were more than a dozen lines long and read out loud. The production crew and ensemble for John Brown’s Body has brought this tradition ahead one hundred plus years.
At intermission, a high school student came from across the auditorium to greet his grand mother who was sitting behind me. They both expressed surprise that the other was there. They pondered the structure of the production. He mentioned that he would get 100 points of extra credit for a class by attending the performance. Maybe this was an English class studying the organization of an epic poem. Maybe it was a music class emphasizing the use of incidental music to enhance a dramatic reading. Maybe it was a history class reviewing Civil War events and personalities. Maybe this student experienced more history that he realized. I wonder if I can go back to Mr. Pendelton, my high school, senior year English teacher, and get extra credit points?