Ben Butler Play

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.

Civil War-Era Musical in SF

Readers in the San Francisco Bay area should note there’s a new stage show currently playing at the Berkeley Rep Theatre. It’s profiled in the NYTimes, though the focus is on the fact that its producer is Garth Drabinsky – a name we Canadians know and note less for his lavish productions than for the criminal activities of his production company! That said, his productions were always of excellent quality, and seeing as how Stephen Foster’s music is heavily used, this would be a must-see for me.

“It’s about two brutalized peoples, Irish and African-American, one fleeing famine, and one fleeing slavery, who meet in the Five Points, and, for a brief moment, change the flow of American history, until America catches up with it,” Mr. Kirwan said. “It’s not kumbaya, but it happened, and that’s what’s hopeful about it.”

It has a score that is at once familiar and new: rearranged and re-lyricized songs of Stephen Foster, the 19th-century composer celebrated for his contributions to early American pop music but criticized for his work on minstrel shows. Foster spent the final months of his life in the Five Points neighborhood, and is a prominent and problematic character in the show — talented but often untruthful, ambitious but often intoxicated.

Source: The Producer Has a History. So Does This Civil War-Era Musical. – The New York Times

‘The Widow Lincoln’ at Ford’s Theatre

How is Ford’s Theatre marking the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s assassination?  It’s staging a play about Mary Lincoln.  Hope the Secret Service are keeping the Obamas far, far away from this one.

The moment is just one of many pathos-crammed sequences in “The Widow Lincoln,” the doleful historical monument of a play at Ford’s Theatre. Written by James Still (“The Heavens Are Hung in Black”) and directed by Stephen Rayne, this world premiere broods knowledgeably over the plight of Mary Todd Lincoln after the assassination of her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, at Ford’s Theatre in 1865. While fever-dream design and dramaturgy evoke the first lady’s mental health problems, there’s an aching universality to the production’s portrait of grief and bewilderment in the face of loss.

via ‘The Widow Lincoln’ at Ford’s Theatre shows a first lady in mourning – The Washington Post.

‘Whipping Man’

I caught a mention of the play, The Whipping Man, which opens in Costa Mesa, California January 25th.  By this review, it’s a must-see, and it is centered upon a facet of the war I had never considered before: Jewish Southerners who raised their slaves as Jews.  I’m researching more on the topic for subsequent posts. Stay tuned, unless you’re in Costa Mesa, in which you should tune out and go see the play!

Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man” gives us something even more intriguing – and more gut-wrenching. Imagine Southern Jews of the Civil War era. Now imagine them alongside slaves whom they’ve raised within the precepts of Judaism.

That’s “The Whipping Man,” and its Martin Benson-directed staging at South Coast Repertory is a powerhouse.

via ‘Whipping Man’ casts shadow over Old South – The Orange County Register.

Our American Cousin Revisited

A Slate writer reads through Our American Cousin so we don’t have to. (For that we should be grateful – it sounds pretty dire.)

It’s the hoariest sick joke in America: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” By now it isn’t even a joke; it’s become a familiar way to complain that undue attention is being given to some frivolous aspect of an otherwise grim and urgent matter. But we’ve had a century and a half to ponder the awful tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater and its effect on the post-Civil War Reconstruction, the presidency, and the American character. Surely that interval is sufficiently decent that we may now ask, in earnest: What sort of aesthetic experience occupied the Great Emancipator’s final hours?

A pretty terrible one…

via The hackneyed play that ended Lincoln’s life. – Slate Magazine.

“John Brown’s Body” – Live!

I’m too late to shill this local theatre production, which is a shame, but it looks as though there are other dates for Wyomingites to attend.  It’s a live reading of Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem, with choral accompaniment. An unusual spectacle but an interesting one.

“John Brown’s Body” was originally produced for the stage in 1953. It tells the story of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry on through the battle of Gettysburg and the emancipation proclamation. In the Simpsons’ production, these events are blended with the stories of soldiers and families who witnessed these events firsthand. The adaptation comes out of Yale University, according to Lynne Simpson.

“There are no time-specific costumes, but we have been working to learn a lot of the lines and there will be a lot of effects and music to highlight the story and make it dramatic,” Lynne said.

via “John Brown’s Body” – Wyoming Tribune Eagle Online.

Lincoln’s Waterways

I’m trying and failing to turn a pithy river course/course of his life phrase, here. Maybe this blog has a future as a kind of New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest?

I wish I’d been in the audience for this presentation on Lincoln’s relationship with rivers. I’m a sucker for unusual essay themes and anecdotes of small incidents that have big consequences.

Lincoln discovered that a river that contained plenty of fish in the warm months presented danger in the winter.

He recalled that during his first winter in Macon County he stepped through the ice, suffered frostbitten feet and spent a couple of weeks recuperating in Sheriff Warnick’s home. He took advantage of his misfortune by reading law books found in the sheriff’s home.

I also adored this throwaway last paragraph:

Green said he and his wife, Barbara, attended the opening of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in 2005 in Springfield, which featured about 100 Lincoln look-alikes. A memorable moment of that affair was when the ceremony ended and everyone went outside.

“All of the Lincolns were talking on their cellphones,” Green said.

Necessary Sacrifices

A play about Lincoln is currently playing at Ford’s Theater, and it sounds pretty good. I was supposed to visit a friend in DC last weekend, and I’m kind of kicking myself now at missing this. If you’re in the area, it might be worth checking out!

(I’m ashamed to say my first thought on reading the review was “what if another actor shoots Lincoln?” The world would surely fold in upon itself.)

Selby’s sly, earthy Lincoln and Wallace’s dignified, fiercely determined Douglass spar about war, peace, politics, and moral courage. Douglass confronts Lincoln about the discriminatory treatment of black recruits in the Union army and their worse fate when captured by Confederate forces. He decries what he views as Lincoln’s tardiness in signing the Emancipation Proclamation and urges the president to think seriously about the citizenship status of freed slaves after the war. (The play notes that Douglass also supported women’s suffrage but argued, first things first.) Lincoln, who fears he’ll lose the next election, warns Douglass of the danger of moving too fast for the electorate or even the Union military. In another telling moment, Selby’s Lincoln admits with embarrassment verging on physical pain how much he craves the power of the presidency, and fears it is the sin of pride. In some of the play’s best, most human moments, Hellesen imagines the two men finding common ground and a commmon bond in the pain of losing a child, the memory of a brutally hard upbringing, the loneliness of becoming a self-made man, and the sacrifice of devoting one’s life to a cause.