John Brown's Body

"History," Will Rogers said, "ain't what it is. It's what some writer wanted it to be." Certainly everyday news reports testify to this: the CIA and the Army insist they provided no intelligence to justify the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, yet Bush and Cheney continued to insist that they had the evidence. In a year or so (well after the election), the President's self-appointed "investigation" will issue a report exonerating those who perpetrated this scam to steal 11 percent of the world's dwindling oil reserves—to keep the empire's engines running and gain geo-political advantage over Europe and the shrinking Russian federation—all in the name of fighting terrorism they allowed to occur.

This is not much different than the perspectives on our own Civil War. School children are taught that it was fought over slavery, but scholars will tell you it was political and economic forces that led to the confrontation. Lincoln, himself, was most concerned with preserving the union, only later using emancipation as a tactic. And of John Brown, the man whose actions hastened the conflict, some call him a terrorist, while others see him as a freedom-fighter and saint.

Yet while apologists for the various factions jockey for prominence in the historical record, attempting to position their perspectives as "objective," poets paint a much different picture. In the Denver Center Theatre Company's current production of John Brown's Body, adapted from Stephen Vincent Benét's 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic poem, each element on the vast canvas depicting the tragic conflagration is given its due.

Photo of John Hutton as Abraham Lincoln
John Hutton as
Abraham Lincoln
Photo credit: Terry Shapiro
The journey begins on a slave ship, takes us into the homes and hearts of common folk on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, and gives us glimpses into the minds of Lincoln, Lee, and other strategists. We visit antebellum cotillions, listen to the plotting of John Brown and his band, hear popular melodies and marching tunes, witness soldiers in battle, weather the hellfire and brimstone of preachers, eavesdrop on the arrogance of slave-owners, and share in the plight of slaves.

Given the scope and length of Benét's work, much of the credit for the cohesiveness of this production must go to director Laird Williamson who adapted it. But the craft work, particularly the detailed sound effects, adds immeasurably to the emotional conveyance.

Photo of Mark Rubald as Jack Ellyat
Mark Rubald as
Jack Ellyat
Photo credit: Terry Shapiro
Mark Rubald, playing both Jack Ellyat and Clay Wingate, the personification of Yankee and rebel soldiers, leads a cast of 20 actors who fill out 240 characters, each revealing glimpses into the lives and fortunes of the tens and hundreds of thousands they represent.

This panoramic montage of America during its darkest hour is both the play's strength and its weakness: Benét shows us the multifaceted complexity of a nation at war with itself without judging any of the elements, and we are moved as always by the struggle and sacrifice, but the sheer number of characters, and their abbreviated and fleeting symbolic appearances mitigate against a catharsis of the depth one experiences with an equally well-produced production of a Shakespearian tragedy or history, say King Lear or Henry V, which have fully developed characters.

Photo of Johanna Jackson as Bess and Keith L. Hatten as Cudjo
Johanna Jackson as Bess and
Keith L. Hatten as Cudjo
Photo credit: Terry Shapiro
Nevertheless, this is our story, and it is masterfully told. Like Shakespeare, Benét mixes blank verse, couplets, and prose to denote the refinement of ideas and the station of his characters. His imagery is vivid and his storylines are strategic and poignant. In the end, the picture he paints is more objective than anything published any newspaper or carried by any news program.

Photo of Robin Moseley as Mary Lou Wingate
Robin Moseley as
Mary Lou Wingate
Photo credit: Terry Shapiro
No doubt this noteworthy effort will broaden perspectives on the schism that nearly destroyed our nation. Let us hope that such a generous worldview does not lead us to appease leaders who would stifle our freedoms while pretending to bolster our security and save us from terrorists. Just who permitted what and for what purposes remains to be seen. Hopefully, there will be poets who live to tell the story and ameliorate the seemingly inexorable effects of corporate-state propaganda.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's stirring adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét's John Brown's Body runs through February 28th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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