Milwaukee residents, take note! There’s a play running through April 28th about the wily Benjamin F Butler, Union general and all-around rapscallion.
What if General Butler was a bundle of contradictions: a military commander with no real experience, a brash and bellowing man who was also plagued with self-doubt and a lack of confidence? What if Butler’s decision to grant runaway slaves asylum was influenced heavily by conversations with one of the black petitioners, who was secretly taught to read and had an uncanny grasp on legal issues? What if the landmark decision to define slaves as contraband – property seized from the enemy during wartime – wasn’t the calculated wranglings of an experienced trial lawyer, but instead an accidental discovery in the midst of a heated argument? What if General Butler had serious misgivings about the impact his decision would have on his own military and political career, not to mention the rest of the war effort? What if Butler’s acts were heroic, in spite of himself?
Far from a Wikipedia entry bogged down with facts, and very far from a historical recreation of the moment, “Ben Butler” takes these questions and turns the story into a farce, pumping up the ridiculous personalities and foibles of all the participants, who are accidentally involved in an enormously important historical moment. The result is a sitcom in period costumes, re-imagining characters with exaggerated mannerisms but with dilemmas and speech patterns that sound very contemporary.