11/20/2020 SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY Merely Players
Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.
Long before Thornton Wilder gave the dead of Our Town a voice, Edgar Lee Masters published a book of “epitaphs,” Spoon River Anthology. First published in 1915, it was based on stories of people he knew (or had heard of) in his hometown of Lewistown, Illinois. So vivid were the “portraits,” so accurate were the descriptions, that the book was reviled (and in fact banned) in Lewistown itself (*), but to the “outside” world of early 20th-century America, it was a resounding success, and its 1963 stage adaptation by Charles Aidman remained one of the most-produced plays for High Schools and Community groups until the late 1970’s. In fact, it was the very first play I acted in after my 1975 college graduation.
After 1980, though, it faded into oblivion, and an answer on a recent Jeopardy game about it went totally unquestioned by all three (young) contestants. Yet it remains a favorite of mine, and I have often pulled my dog-eared script off the shelf to re-acquaint myself with the characters Aidman selected for the stage version. Which is why I was so happy to see that Merely Players decided to include it in its fall on-line season.
Just to be clear, this is not the Aidman stage version; director Amber Brown went back to the original book of poems (and its sequel), and waded through over 300 monologues to select the 20 or so that comprise this brisk 75-minute production. Truth to tell, I recognized only a few and only one that rang 45-year-old “I had that line” memory bells. Also truth to tell, Ms. Brown has done a most excellent job with her adaptation, keeping interrelated characters in proximity, enhancing the “entwined lives” (**) aspect that makes Spoon River Anthology resonate, which keeps it alive, which reminds us of why it was once-upon-a-time so popular.
Even more that Our Town, the collective epitaphs heard hear weave a tapestry of small town America that would be recognizable at any time, in any state. These townspeople are good and bad, extraordinarily flawed and slightly flawed, happy and not-so-happy, resentful and grateful, old and young, gossipy and private. This is another of the strengths of Ms. Brown’s adaptation – we only see a fraction of the characters created by Masters, but they, as a group, display a range of attitudes and characteristics that belie the small “sample size,” giving life to that part of the prologue that tells us
One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife –
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.
One died in shameful child-birth,
One of a thwarted love,
One at the hands of a brute in a brothel,
One of a broken pride, in the search for heart’s desire,
One after life in far-away London and Paris
Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and Mag –
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.
Because I did not keep notes during the live-streamed performance, I can’t share the character names (other than Fletcher McGee whose epitaph I once voiced), but the characters themselves were more than memorable. The young fallen woman. The doctor whose one mistake cost him reputation, family, and life. The “Old Maid” – at 25 – schoolteacher and the young man whose life she changed. The farmer who hated his farm. The poetess. The Dentist. The lawyer buried with his dog and his harridan wife who forced him from their home. The McGee’s, who blame each other for their care-ridden and haunted old age. All can now speak without lying, without fear of gossip or censure, free of the facades that seemed to be part and parcel of their lives.
To give a sense of the time and place, the production includes a number of “interludes” created by the cast – a “silent movie” based on a Norman Rockwell painting, a flute-and-guitar performance of a song popular at the time, a soldier’s duo-logue of his time at war and his time after (which succinctly encapsulates all of Masters’ soldier epitaphs).
I would love to praise the cast, all of whom played multiple roles (sometimes in consecutive monologues), but I can only track down the names of a few – Rich Gibson who played all the “mature” men, Abra Thurmond and Fatimah Pounds who gave us several women past-their ingenue days, Sormeh Sanaseri and Erin North and Jessica Givoino who gave life to the younger women, Emmanuel Lyons and Aaron Andrews and Bradley Johnson who were the younger men. Everyone gave clear and memorable performances, even if their names slipped through my head unimpeded, and I apologize to all I have slighted here. It should be noted that everyone converted their personal living spaces and wardrobes into backgrounds and costumes that enhanced their characters and brought these residents of the cemetery on the hill back to vibrant life.
Kudos also need to be given to stage managers Margaret Moore and Savannah Rootes, who successfully wrangled all the actors’ video feeds, creating an unimpeded stream that commanded attention and kept the entire production on an even keel.
As I mentioned, Spoon River Anthology is a personal favorite, and my biases here are clear. It brings the past to life in ways no history book can attempt and taps into the inner lives of an entire town. Merely Players has taken these epitaphs and created portraits so alive they leap off the computer screen and into our memories.
If I could choose one monologue that encapsulates the complexity and depth Edgar Lee Masters’ achievement, it would be this one (Knowlt Hoheimer), not included by Ms. Brown:
I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.
When I felt the bullet enter my heart
I wish I had stayed at home and gone to jail
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,
Instead of running away and joining the army.
Rather a thousand times the county jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words, “Pro Patria.”
What do they mean, anyway?
-- Brad Rudy ( @bk_rudy #MerelyPlayers #SpoonRiverAnthology)
(*) As a sign that time heals all wounds, Lewistown now embraces its “favorite son,” and its cemetery has both a statue of Masters and a self-guided tour of the gravesites of the characters of Spoon River.
(**) The late songwriter Steve Goodman recorded a nice little ballad about the poems that includes the lyrics
All of our lives were entwined to begin with
Here in Spoon River
I recommend giving it a listen -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcKcECMKYas
And here’s another version by Michael Smith – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dv4nwWyXbM8