Reprinted from The New London Day, May 17, 1996
By Kristina Dorsey, Day Staff Writer
Copyright 1996, New London Day.
Firsthand accounts of Union soldiers facing the horrors of the battlefield, stories of politicians and generals bickering, songs written and sung during the Civil War—these are among the rich, original materials that have found a second life in a new dramatic musical.
Inspired by diaries, letters and memoirs from the 1800s, playwright Jack Kyrieleison spent four years creating “Battle Cry of Freedom,” which is debuting at the Goodspeed-at-Chester/Norma Terris Theatre.
“The more I looked into the [original work],” Kyrieleison said, “it dawned on me I could probably tell the whole story of the war using music alone and bridging it with these wonderful words of everyone from Lincoln on down to infantry soldiers.”
Kyrieleison created his first theater script with those songs and almost exclusively with words written by people of the Civil War era. “Battle Cry of Freedom” will run through June 9 at the Goodspeed Opera House’s second stage, which is dedicated to the development of new musicals.
Kyrieleison has described the show, with its six cast members, as “a musical epic in miniature.” The plots involve a company of touring actors telling their version of the war 15 years after the conflict ended. Told in songs and scenes set on the battlefront and on the homefront, the story follows the North’s fight to save the Union and abolish slavery.
Most of the characters are composites—a soldier embodies a number of soldiers, a nurse speaks the words of Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman.
With writing by Whitman, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Kyrieleison wasn’t tempted to use his own words, acting instead as an editor. He trimmed a six-page account by Alcott, who spent a half-year as a nurse in Washington, to three paragraphs.
Kyrieleison was amazed to discover how eloquent the Union soldiers were.
“The North had free public education, which was not the case in the South. While there were many beautifully written Southern letters, they tended to be from aristocratic Southerners. I think the illiteracy rate was [only] 4 percent among adult males in the North, which is amazing.
“Because they had no other way to communicate what they were going through, the art of letter-writing was the medium they used. They were all anxious to communicate this stuff either to themselves in their diaries or to their loved ones. And people saved those letters.”
Kyrieleison read a horrific story from one soldier at Antietam who described watching an injured soldier screaming for someone to end his misery. A lieutenant did—he shot the dying man. A cannonball then took off the lieutenant’s head.
Kyrieleison came upon the story of President Lincoln attending a performance in which John Wilkes Booth appeared before the assassination. Booth was playing the villain, and three times during the play, he walked up to Lincoln’s box, pointed at him and issued a threat from the play.
“Somebody in the party said to [Lincoln], ‘Mr. President, it looks like he meant that for you.’ Lincoln says, ‘Well, he does look right smart at me.’ It’s all there and it happened.”
When people, including politicians, write for posterity, a certain self-awareness tends to creep in, Kyrieleison said. That’s not the case with soldiers, whose writings, less self-conscious, “play very nicely against the pronouncements of the generals and the politicians.”
When generals write their personal thoughts—as Gen. George McClellan did in letters to his wife—their carefulness tends to disappear. McClellan, who is the antagonist of the play and one of the few historical characters to appear, detailed his private thoughts about Lincoln—whom he called a gorilla, among other things—and the other people he thought were trying to break him down.
Accompanying the play’s dialogue is music from the era. Ron Holgate, the director, commends Kyrieleison for his selection of songs, which reflect the progression of the war.
“When you put them in this context—they were written during the war or became popular during the war—it just has an emotional resonance that is what you go to the theater for,” Holgate said.
Holgate thought he knew all the songs of Stephen Foster, but he discovered otherwise when he heard the ones used in the show.
“The thing about this music is that if it’s done at all, it’s generally done in an archival, museum, let’s-preserve-the-flavor [setting]. That’s great,” Kyrieleison said.
“But what’s overlooked is these guys were writing for the marketplace. The American music publishing industry basically came of age during the Civil War, and they were writing this stuff to be sold and to be performed with performance values. So I thought it was perfect for theater.”
Theater also allows for ways to make a point quickly.
The production, for instance, uses techniques of the magic lantern—projectors that were popular at the time of the Civil War. In one case, pictures of newspaper headlines are projected, and the play follows “the progression of Lincoln from a candidate way down in the corner of a big field of candidates, to becoming the nominee without a beard, to becoming the Lincoln we know with a beard. Then you can superimpose that with a headline that says, ‘Lincoln elected! Let the people rejoice!'” Kyrieleison said.
“This is all done during a song, and in a way, it helps communicate the sense of almost the cyclone that overtook the country where this guy came from out of nowhere and in a very short space of time captured the imagination of the country.”
Kyrieleison didn’t know that much about the Civil War until he was drawn in by Ken Burns’ series that aired on PBS in 1990. Although “Battle Cry of Freedom” is his first script, Kyrieleison, who is from Washington, DC, has long been involved in the theater as an actor.
Kyrieleison felt that the Civil War was ripe for a theatrical presentation. “It really is like an epic poem,” he said. “It’s a narrative that’s complete in itself.”
Holgate said, “When I started getting involved in it (about a year ago), I kept finding out that people I’ve known for a long time are rabid Civil War fans. I thought the fact it is authentic material from that time would be very appealing to that kind of person. The trick of the thing was to make it appealing to everybody.”