Hello again, intrepid fans of bad plays! This week, I’m looking at a professional melodrama set during the war: William Haworth’s The Ensign (1892).
To my knowledge, the copy I got from the Sherman Collection at Southern Illinois University might be the only extant copy of the play. But it seems that a lot of unpublished typescripts are squirreled away in odd places/papers, or haven’t been catalogued, or the finding aids aren’t digital/online, so I could be wrong on this front (please contact me if you know of any other copies out there!).
Anyways, actor/playwright/director William Haworth chose a rather unexpected location for the start of his play (at least, unexpected compared to many other popular Civil War melodramas). He set the first two acts of The Ensign in:
(For those of you who haven’t seen Godfather II, that would be Cuba. And shame on you.)
Okay. So a play about the Civil War, with two acts transpiring in Cuba. But what else makes this play stand out? Well – in case you couldn’t surmise this from the image at the top of the post – Lincoln makes a cameo. Of course, this is hardly the first time Lincoln appeared on stage, but it is clearly a significant inclusion. And, and – here’s where shit gets even more interesting: guess who played Lincoln for a Chicago production of The Ensign in 1898? D.W. Griffith, of later Birth of a Nation fame. 1
Cue conflicted scholarly response:
(Also, see first post in series when I talk about my excitement when things get really ridiculous in “bad plays.”) More on Griffith and Thomas Dixon, Jr., (author of the play The Clansman, basis for Birth of a Nation) another day.
There are additional reasons to consider this play, should you not be convinced by these revelations: it was extremely popular, for one. Also – and I’ll get more into this below – it serves as a good contrast to last week’s bad play. The pro-Union politics that cast the Confederates as villains of the GAR plays is utterly lacking in this offering. Hell, even the circumstances of the war more broadly are missing from Haworth’s play.
The Ensign opens in Havana in 1861, with the Trent Affair providing the situational material. For those who are rusty on their Civil War history, the Trent Affair involved the Confederate diplomats Mason and Slidell, who attempted to sneak through the Union naval forces and make their way to Europe to gain recognition for the Confederacy as a country, and get some economic/political clout against the Union. They were captured by the Union while on a British ship (well, really captured by Captain Charles Wilkes of the US Navy), but were eventually released in the face of mounting political pressure and the threat of military escalation from abroad. 2 If, once again, you don’t want the plot particulars, you can skip to the So, What? section of my ramblings. I’m going into some detail, as this play was never published and – as mentioned above – is only available at one archive that I know of. That, and I’ve seen some really inaccurate plot summaries for this one.
We open with the US Navy midshipman Arthur Watson, of the US Frigate San Jacinto, hanging out by his superior officer’s home (that’s Captain Charles Wilkes to you). Arthur flirts with Dot, with him alternately blushing and laughing at Dot’s recent mishap on a horse, where he got a bit of a peek at her underthings (or so it is implied). Arthur and Dot provide comic relief throughout the play: they flirt, fight, make out, then go through the cycle (or a variation of it) again. Repeatedly.
Arthur is BFF with Ben Baird, the Ensign. And Arthur already harbors suspicions about the English man-o-war HMS Warrior that’s been hanging about recently. We then meet – in rapid succession – Lieutenants Blythe and Allen, of the British Navy, and the women of the Wilkes family: Mrs. Wilkes, a.k.a. Arthur’s aunt, and the Wilkes’ kidlet, Mary. We also meet Alice, a cousin of Mrs. Wilkes: Blythe digs her, but we find out soon that Ben is her main squeeze.
We also discover that Blythe and Allen have been ordered to keep the San Jacinto occupied so that Mason and Slidell can head towards England. They are both of the opinion that Captain Wilkes is the kind of man who would use force to board RMS Trent (the vessel carrying the diplomats) and take them down (which he did, in historical reality, rather than futz around with some kid ensign’s fuck-up). Seeing as they likewise believe that England would declare war if the diplomats were captured and the US didn’t apologize, there is a certain sense of urgency about the matter. Blythe suggests that they pick a fight with someone that evening, since the Wilkes are holding a ball before the men leave that night (as one does). This way, the Cuban police will get involved and detain everyone.
Allen approves of the plan at this point, and of Blythe’s intent to target the Ensign, as he is “hot-headed and impetuous – besides,” says Blythe, “I dislike him…he’ll never marry Alice Greer while I live.” We get a hint from Allen that Blythe is operating under an alias, but they are interrupted by Arthur. To break the tension, Allen proposes that Arthur join the English navy, where he would be quickly promoted. Allen makes a snide gibe at Blythe, suggesting to Arthur that one doesn’t need to be “born and bred” in American to defect. It is further confirmed that Allen doesn’t think much of his colleague in an aside: “Bad sort that chap. Pity the U.S. authorities didn’t hang him when they had a chance.” 3
In the next scene, we finally meet Ben and see him confess his feelings to Alice. And then – because love is war, and women are objects that demand conquest, and thus men must envision all hetero-romantical encounters as military endeavors – Ben reflects on his mission:
If I storm her as I would a fort, she must either repel me, show a flag of truce, or surrender. Well I’ve stormed, now repel, show a flag of truce, or surrender. Which is it Alice, quick, don’t give me time to think.
She “surrenders,” he cheers that they should “run up the stars and stripes, the fort is mine.” 4
FYI: Wilkes and Allen have been watching this whole thing, which I find a tad weird.
Act II takes us inside the Wilkes’ house and to the ball, except Haworth was smart about production costs (I mean, he has to get us on a navy-boat later), and we are just in a side room rather than seeing the whole spectacle, and all the expensive evening-wear. As Arthur and Dot do their flirt/fight routine, Bowlin – an old cranky sailor we met in Act I – fiddles with the lamps, letting the production crew show off their wares. Once that lot clears out, Allen and Blythe appear and Blythe elaborates on his plan; he will talk smack about Alice to get Baird all a-fluster. Allen, hearing this, wants to bail:
If we cannot prevent their capture without slandering a pure girl, I am out of it. I fight not women. 5
They bicker a bit, and Allen claims Blythe has no honor. Blythe says he’ll do the thing on his own, but he wants to make sure Allen at least got the Cuban police lined up. As he leaves, Allen’s feelings about Blythe are laid out pretty clearly: “I hope Baird will kill the cur.” 6
Arthur has overheard Allen and Blythe, and warns Ben about their stratagem. Arthur also reveals the real identity of Blythe as Frank Herbert, “who was court martialed and sentenced to be hanged for cowardice” during his prior service in the US Navy, and only escaped punishment when he swore he was a British subject. Blythe is also angling for a promotion in HMS – thus Blythe’s involvement in this entire affair. When Ben threatens retribution, Arthur points out that’s exactly what the Brits want. “Just let them think for this one night that you’re dead, Ben, see,” Arthur advises him: “dead but not buried.” 7 Revenge can come later: in the mean time, let them slander your bae.
As the men begin to depart for the San Jacinto, Ben decides to hang back for the encounter with Blythe. Wilkes tells Allen to treat the Wilkes’ home as his own while he is away, clearly not sensing the Brits’ intentions – but certainly planning on trying to thwart Mason and Slidell that very night. Ben wonders – as he saying goodbye to Alice and trying to prepare her for what is coming next – if this is all a “huge joke perpetuated by Arthur.” He reminds himself that he has Jack in his corner: Jack is a sailor that Ben rescued (we don’t ever really hear how), lacking in polish but utterly devoted to Ben. “That rascal would die for me,” Ben wagers. 8 As Ben prepares to leave as well, Blythe finally makes his entrance. The two of them are alone (for the moment) in this room where the British, American, and Spanish flag hang, and Jack is heard outside. Blythe begins his verbal attack, but Ben tells him not to bother:
Ensign: I know what you would say, but it is useless. Your well laid plan to provoke a quarrel with me is a failure, and now sir, before I go, let me tell you what I think of you in good plain American terms. You are the most cowardly, ill-bred, ruffian, left unhung.
Blythe: (angrily) Sir, I am an English gentleman.
Ensign: You are an American renegade.
Blythe: [locking the door] Retract these words Ensign Baird, or by Heaven, you shall never leave this place alive…I am desperate, I owe you or your country a cursed debt that I mean to pay to-night…Your country I have renounced forever, and the contempt I feel for that damned rag (points to American flag) which refused me protection can best be shown by tearing it down…(throws flag C. plants his foot upon it). And grinding it under my hell. Now then if you are an American and love your country, (draws sword) vindicate the honor of her flag. 9
And the fight begins. Jack springs over the balcony, “cutlass between his teeth,” telling Ben to “Kill him – d–n him, kill him,” smashing a glass globe with his cutlass, causing an immediate blackout. During the struggle, Blythe falls against the balcony rail and breaks it, dropping into the bay. Dot comes in with a lamp and the lights come up, showing Jack looking down over the water from the balcony, Ben bleeding from a shot to the temple and holding onto the American flag. Jack encourages Ben to flee as the cops roll up, telling Ben he’ll kill anyone who touches him; despite Jack’s efforts, Ben is taken into custody.
Act III puts the action on the gundeck of the San Jacinto, docked in the Naval yard in D.C., with the ensign’s court martial in progress. Here, Haworth stipulates that there should be “two Negro sailors among the others” spectating. 10 It’s a moment of military spectacle, with careful specifications about flag size/placement, the arrangement of men by rank, the placement of caps and officer’s gloves. Arthur is the first to be questioned and reveals Allen and Blythe’s plan: it turns out that San Jacinto still got out, but we are not told if Mason and Slidell were captured (they were, in historical reality, but that is utterly ignored here – more soon-ish). Jack provides a little comic relief during his interrogation: he botches the oath on the Bible, doesn’t seem to understand courtroom procedure (he thinks it strange that they ask for his name when they already know it, tries to get up and go say hi to the Ensign, cracks a couple jokes, etc.). When he describes the tussle he gets a bit more serious, and as the questioning grows tense Jack declares that he killed Lieutenant Blythe. Ben’s having none of that, and recounts the flag incident for the gathered crowd:
What could I do? What would you do? Stand by and see the stars and stripes desecrated by a renegade, a traducer, and a liar? No, and when he called on me as an American to vindicate the honor of my country’s flag, I did, and I did, for I killed him. (Sailors cheer, toss up their caps). 11
Side note: can we bring traducer back into common parlance, please?
After the admission, we move to the Cabinet Room in D.C., where the President’s orderly (O’Shay) reads the report of the trial and, monologuing, says he believes the Ensign should be pardoned and given a medal, instead of being hanged. Mrs. Baird and Alice seek an audience with Lincoln in the one hour they have before Ben’s execution. O’Shay tells them he doesn’t have much hope, as Lincoln’s “a good man…but he aint like he was a year ago, and you can’t blame him, for this war is enough to turn anyone’s heart to stone.” 12 They try their luck with the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, when he ambles into the room, but he informs them the president is out of town for two days. Alice tells Welles of all Ben’s heroic acts, but Welles, close to tears, says he couldn’t – and wouldn’t – do anything:
If he were my son, as God is my judge, I wouldn’t ask that his life be spared. The law and order of our country should be enforced though I lost ten sons. 13
The Ensign’s punishment will serve as a warning. Jack comes to beseech Welles shortly after the ladies leave. When Welles says that Jack “speak[s] strangely,” Jack tells him “thats cos I aint eddicated an aint go no manners like most folks, but I knows whats I does when it comes to yer land law.” 14 He asks that his life be taken instead of the Ensign’s, “cos’ I’m ready and I aint skeered to die,” saying he has nothing in his life anyways. Still, Welles claims he can’t do anything.
And then Mary, the Wilkes child, approaches the Secretary of the Navy about the matter. Just to warn y’all, the next bit is creep-tastic from a 21st century perspective. It did not age well.
Welles calls Mary – “my little angel” – over to sit on his lap with her doll. And then: “Now then, tell me your troubles, for you are in trouble, aren’t you? (she nods yes) Then tell me, don’t be afraid, you know I like little girls.”
Mary explains that she brought in her broken doll (the squeaker is broken – my dog totally sympathizes with this problem), but she was going to try and give it to the President in exchange for Ben Baird’s life.
The President’s going to let them, papa said so, but he won’t now, cos I’ve brought him my dolly. I love B.B. so does Alice. She came to see you about him, but she was too big wasn’t she? You only like little girls like me. You made her cry. 15
Welles decides to telegraph the president, but is told the telegraph is down. Welles says the Ensign must die, but then – LINCOLN!
Except he doesn’t say anything in the extant typescript. Not a word. There’s just a series of stage pictures, with the president eventually holding Mary and the doll. So was this a shitty gig for Griffith? The typescript hints that Haworth anticipated multiple rounds of applause due simply to a Lincoln impersonator’s presence, but the promotional poster certainly suggests some later rewrites. As Haworth also directed the play for at least a little while (during its initial tour after the Washington, D.C., premiere in February of 1892), this could have been an addition he personally made at some point.
Act V takes us back to the San Jacinto, where Ben roams the ship. He’s been given free rein by Wilkes, in exchange for an oath not to wander off. This will be Wilkes’ last act working for the Navy: he will follow orders, even if he disagrees with them, and will immediately resign afterwards. Allen shares his admiration for Ben, urging him to escape. Ben refuses, and has accepted his fate, saying it is “far better to sacrifice the life of one, than bring on a war with England and sacrifice the lives of thousands.” 16 Allen enlists Jack in an attempt to drug Ben with chloroform and kidnap/save him (it doesn’t work). Ben commences his farewells, and is relieved when Alice faints, after telling her that her “tears unman me.” 17
Jack is ordered to put the noose around the Ensign’s neck by Wilkes, and refuses; consequently Jack is taken into custody. Just as the noose is placed by the sergeant-at-arms, O’Shay appears at the top of the gangway, conveying a full pardon from Lincoln. Wilkes happily releases everyone, and promises his daughter a large dolly that works so the President can be reminded “of the day he was spared the sorrow of knowing that a fellow being had suffered death unjustly.” 18 Fin.
So, what? As I mentioned above, this play was popular. There were full houses in the North and South, and The Ensign was revived into the early twentieth century. This is surely because – along with the naval spectacle element – the play conveniently left out the whole “Southern rebellion” thing. In fact, the word “South” is not used at all in the play. Nor is the word “Confederacy,” or any variation thereupon, or any references that make it clear that the South was in open rebellion. Characters even reference the burning of a fucking Confederate ship, but do so in a nonpartisan, nonsectional way somehow. When Alice arrives in the Cabinet Room at the White House and pleads for Ben’s life in Act IV, she asks Secretary Welles –
Have you forgotten the burning of the Privateer Schooner Judah at Pensacola? His superior officer fell wounded on the deck of the burning ship. Did he desert him like the others? Did the thundering guns of the fort drive him from his duty? No. He lifted the unconscious form in his arms and sprang into the sea, and so saved the officer’s life. He has performed a dozen such heroic acts, and because he resented a dastardly insult to our flag he is to be hanged like a traitor (pause) he deserves a better fate, Mr. Welles, a better fate. 19
Here, there is really only one traitor: Blythe, a.k.a. Herbert – or he-who-insulted-the-flag. But the Confederates, the real traitors according to the Grand Army of the Republic’s position? Not implicated at all. Even as Baird and other Unions soldiers burn Confederate ships in Florida, the South is not explicitly tied to the encounter. Mason and Slidell aren’t bad-mouthed at all during the course of the play. The divergence from the virulent condemnation of the Confederates that we see in many of the GAR plays is stunning.
The Ensign stands in contrast to many other popular, commercial melodramas; there is usually at least one, if not quite a few more, leading characters of Southern extraction. A favorite device, of course, is to have lovers that pine for each other across sectional lines (see: Daly, Gillette, Boucicault, Howard, Belasco…well, pretty much everybody). We are told that Mason and Slidell are living and breathing individuals, but we do not meet them, or anyone else who explicitly hails from Dixie.
Also of interest: Mason and Slidell drop out of the narrative after Blythe’s death (we assume he died, at least; no body was mentioned, and during the court martial Allen states that he is not entirely sure Blythe is dead – sequel, anyone?). The fact that Wilkes actually arrested the diplomats, not operating under any direct orders, and that it turned rather into a thing – I mean, this was truly an international incident – is not mentioned. In the play, Wilkes is a benevolent family man, whose little daughter Mary saves the Ensign’s life, and whose wife happily plays cards with British soldiers (the same Brits who will escalate the military as a possible response to the Mason and Slidell incident). In reality, Wilkes’s family stayed in DC – there was no Havana home – and Wilkes had a reputation as being quick to anger and act (Blythe & Allen were right on that front). One tends to gain this reputation when, as an explorer of Antarctica and the South Pacific, you get angry with the inhabitants on Fiji after your nephew and another sailor get killed during a trade bartering session, and you then proceed to kill around 80 locals.
In removing the diplomats’ capture by Wilkes from the narrative and putting the Ensign on trial instead, this becomes a play about patriotism rather than the Civil War. The South remains blameless: pride in the reunified America is the main take-away. When the “stars and stripes” are brought up (and they are, often), it is in the context of defending the country and, more particularly, in relation to Blythe/Herbert’s defection to England. United States? Uncle Sam? ‘MURICA? All there. Lincoln? There, but silent (at least in the text we have), sanitized, only a dramatic device. Slavery? BAHAHAHA, that’s funny (no, the answer’s no – if the characters won’t say “South,” or “Confederacy,” they sure as hell aren’t going to say “slavery”). It would have logically and dramaturgically made more sense to have Blythe be a Confederate spy, or somehow linked to the South, and certainly would have supplied him with a convenient motive; but Haworth seemingly knew that this would not be a profitable move for Southern stages.
Somehow, this is a Civil War play – without the war. Other popular, commercial melodramas did this, and made the war present as a backdrop only. But here, that such a specific moment of political trans-Atlantic intrigue and maneuvering was chosen and then so quickly dropped is intriguing. The acts of omission and revision that Haworth commited regarding historical context and actual events of the war are, in and of themselves, wildly telling.
Not sure what next week will bring, beyond another “bad play.” Give me a shout below (or via whatever method you prefer, really) with any thoughts.
- See David Mayer, Stagestruck Filmmaker: D.W. Griffith & The American Theatre (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2009), 66-7. ↩
- Oh, y’all didn’t grow up in Virginia and learn about the Civil War constantly? That’s okay, that’s what Wikipedia is for. ↩
- William Haworth, The Ensign (unpublished typescript). c. 1892. Sherman Theatre Collection, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Special Collections Research Center, act I, 10. ↩
- Ibid., 14. ↩
- Ibid., act II, 4. ↩
- Ibid., 5. ↩
- Ibid., 6-7. ↩
- Ibid., 10-11. ↩
- Ibid., 12. ↩
- A huge, lingering question I have for Haworth, next time I am near a Ouija board: why did you specify that there were to be “two Negro sailors among the others” during the court-martial scene on the San Jacinto ? To what end? Was this just more black-face minstrelsy, or did you actually have some black performers onstage that I don’t know about? Was this just wishful thinking on your part, Bill? I know that you portrayed the KKK as jerks-for-hire in your 1894 play On the Mississippi, and supposedly almost got roughed up by some extras playing the Klan roles in Baltimore – extras who were actual Klan members. (See “An Insulted Super,” New York Herald, October 6, 1895, 4.) So, I gotta ask you Bill, WTF am I supposed to do with this casting/stage direction? ↩
- Ensign, act III, 8. ↩
- Ibid., act iv, 1. ↩
- Ibid., 4. ↩
- Ibid., 6. ↩
- Ibid., 10. ↩
- Ibid., act v, 2. ↩
- Ibid., 8. ↩
- Ibid., 10. ↩
- Ibid., act iv, 2. ↩