There might not be a more (terrifyingly) apt moment to talk about Dixon’s 1905 play, which provided the basis for D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation.1There’s a legend surrounding a presidential endorsement of the film: after the viewing of the movie, President Wilson supposedly declared that it was “like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” 2 And, of course, the Ku Klux Klan endorsed the person being sworn into the office of the presidency today. There has been a lot of talk about how we cannot – must not – normalize white supremacy: but the KKK has been normalized – even romanticized – in popular culture since its founding in the Reconstruction period – and Dixon’s play is certainly an instance of this.… Read more
I remember a time when I said I was going to try and do a Bad Play Friday once a week. That was hysterical.↩
Melvyn Stokes, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”: A History of “The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 111. The film was screened for Wilson on February 18, 1915. ↩
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 Universitymight 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 But it seems that a lot of unpublished typescripts are squirreled away in odd places/papers, or haven’t been catalogued, or the finding aids aren’t digital/online, so I could be wrong on this front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).… Read more
Each week, I will share some quick thoughts on a late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century US play. 1 This series is really a way of keeping me honest as I work through my monograph on Civil War memories; because it is monograph-related, the play will somehow touch upon the war, slavery, or Reconstruction. I’ll be revisiting some plays I’ve already read/written about, but many will be texts I just recently acquired, thanks to a generous PSC-CUNY grant. The grant sent me to the Sherman Theatre archive, part of the Morris Library Special Collections at Southern Illinois University this past February.… Read more
My commentary will most likely be rife with sarcasm because it’s my second language, although my doctoral program would not accept it as one of the language requirements. ↩
I parked my rental car along West Confederate Avenue this morning in Gettysburg National Military Park, racing to get to the outdoor amphitheater. I could hear a small horn band playing, and I didn’t want to miss the sermon: my host – Walt Powell, PhD – was the speaker at this inter-denominational service. 1 Walt began his speech by explaining how he had considered using the words of Reverend James Brand, a veteran of the 27th Connecticut, who had delivered a rather political oration at a monument dedication for his regiment in 1885 – wherein he talked about corruption and the “liquor oligarchy.” Instead, Walt discussed the sacred ground of Gettysburg, and what it meant for us today.… Read more
Walt and Sue Powell are incredibly plugged in to the Gettysburg community, and as Walt is also a reenactor (though mostly colonial things these days), they have been invaluable resources during this research trip. ↩
I’m not doing the speech full justice here, but suffice to say it eloquently wrestled with the overlap between memory, history, commemoration, and what we should take away from the war and the sesquicentennial. ↩
When I arrived at the reenactment at the Redding farm this morning, I was determined to spend more time with the living historians, who had seemed – overall – quite a bit more chatty and willing to engage with the spectators than the reenactors in the camps. This is part and parcel of the division between reenacting and living history though as I understand it: reenactors may engage with the performance for a variety of reasons, but living historians have a pedagogical interest. Yesterday, tintype photographer Rob Gibson suggested the main reason people began re-enacting was “99% fun” from what he’s gathered in his many encounters.… Read more
It was the second day of the official reenactment at the privately-owned farm, but I did not sally forth to witness another battle today. Instead I went downtown to get a sense of the local market: some of the museums, the businesses, the institutions and individuals that profit from and cater to the visitors to Gettysburg. While I did get a sampling of the wares, I also finally found a way into the big issue that had been looming – largely unspoken – over the past couple of days. Slavery, finally, was front and center in the narratives and places that I encountered today.… Read more
Though the main celebrations won’t kick off until tomorrow – July 4th – there have been plenty of living history/reenactment events throughout the past couple of weeks in Gettysburg building up to the official 150th of the battle. This afternoon was the Pickett’s Charge commemorative march, and as I made my way through the streets of downtown Gettysburg (slowly, every so slowly in the traffic), I couldn’t help but be struck by theodd juxtaposition of Civil War-era costume and modern day trappings as reenactors and interpreters ambled through town. It was jarring; women in hoop skirts and men in wool uniforms draped themselves over meticulously restored porch railings while tourists with fanny packs drifted by.… Read more