Appomattox by Christopher Hampton is a play in two acts, currently playing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The first half of the play is set during the American Civil War with all the main players of the time, President Abraham Lincoln, Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and their wives, generals, soldiers and slaves. The battle is raging to end slavery, save the union, and end oppression.
The second half of the play is set 100 years later during the Civil Rights movement with all the main players of the times, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Governor George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Lee Harvey Oswald and Edgar Ray Killen, and citizens who march, protest, and die. The battle rages on to end oppression through desegration of schools, elimination of Jim Crow laws, and voting equality.
I expected this show to be filled with strong scenes of war, racism, and fight for justice. I prepared myself for an intense night of theater where history would come alive. I got glimpses of it. For the most part, though, it was all exposition. If I wasn't leaning forward, trying to catch all the lengthy dialogue, I was sitting back, wondering how late it was getting. The show runs two hours and 55 minutes, on a good night. We did not get a good night. The stage "broke" towards the end of Act I, and they halted the action. They pulled the curtain and gave us an early intermission. After we finally saw that scene, we wondered if they couldn't have acted around the set moving glitch and finished Act I. But, who knows. It might have messed up all sorts of blocking and prop/set moving. Either way, it added at least 35 minutes to an already long night. Since we had over two hours drive back north when it was done, and I'd brought my 14-year-old son, I was cringing. He had been interested in seeing this play. He's interested in history and politics and has dreams of becoming a lawyer. He said the show was hard to follow and was annoyed with President Johnson, calling him obnoxious. He said, "After the stage broke, I kind of wanted to go home because I wasn't following it very well." Although, we agreed that the second Act was better.
The play consists of scenes pulled out of history. What I like is that Hampton brings us into the intimate settings and conversations of those main players. We see their struggles with decisions about the wars, Civil and Vietnam, and the people who fought them, and why. We see them trying to make the right decision regarding people of other races. We see them as flawed human beings who were placed in positions of power. I really liked the scene between Generals Grant and Lee. They show great respect for each other and compassion for the soldiers. Grant knows that in order to heal the nation, he needs to show the Confederate soldiers that they can go back to their farms and businesses with their horses and their dignity. Lee says something like, oh, we could pull back and hide in the hills and continue this fight through gorilla warfare, but for how long? And, to what end? Our men are starving, now. What will they do? So, they sign their treaty at Appomattox, hoping for a peace-filled future.
Act 2 starts out with a video clip of President John F. Kennedy on television stating that it is time to end oppression and give full freedom for voting, education, and job opportunities for all people, black, white or otherwise. At the same time, we see Lee Harvey Oswald spewing out obscenities towards the president and his N-loving ways. (We heard the N-word and the F-word many times in this play.)
The language is harsh in this play, coming from some hate-filled people, as well as those trying to sound powerful. I expected intense drama, scenes acted out that would cause an emotional reaction. What I got was more exposition and a telling of what happened. This play lacks action. Maybe they were trying too hard to make it look good and forgot to give the actors power to tell the story through their characters. Moving the set pieces off and on, while the actors rode on them, limited the action even more. We heard about Lincoln's death. We heard about Kennedy's assassination. We heard about the killings of the civil rights workers. In the final scene, we had to listen to two hard-hearted bigots talk of their killings and how they didn't even see them as crimes, even though they were in jail for committing them. It leaves you with a bleak picture of human beings, especially Americans, who live and die with hate. That no matter how many wars are fought, marches made, or laws enforced, hate lives on.
I did have a few favorites scenes, however. One was when the slaves learned that they'd been freed. They walked on singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." They saw President Lincoln, called him "Father Abraham" and kissed his hand in gratitude.
Photos from the Guthrie media page.
The other scene that really drew me in was when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is speaking to a crowd before the March from Selma to Montgomery. The actor Shawn Hamilton became Dr. King. I felt the energy in the room rise. I had goosebumps on my arms all the way down to my toes, and we clapped along with the cast when he was done saying, "No lie can live forever. Truth crushed down to earth will rise again. We shall overcome...Mine eyes have seen the glory!" Oh, ya. I caught the connection. The battle rages, and we will march on. It is worth going to the show to see that performance in person.
I also enjoyed performances by Harry Groener as both President Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson, and Mark Benninghofen was excellent as General Grant and Nicholas Katzenbach, Johnson's attorney general. He actually had some stage movement and his face and body language helped to tell the story.
The female characters are horribly under-represented. They seem like just extensions of their husbands and have few lines. Perhaps Hamilton is trying to show how voiceless women were then. Even President Lincoln blows off the idea of women's right to vote. I'd like to see a play about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Sojourner Truth. I love her famous line, "Ain't I a woman." Hampton touched on that for about one second of his play.
Appomattox is playing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis through November 11, 2012. Go to their website for more information. Also to note, tickets are now on sale for A Christmas Carol, a great play for the family, but not the youngest ones. Appomattox is definitely for an older audience, as is Tales from Hollywood, which I enjoyed much more.
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Journaling Prompt: What main players from history would you like to see come to life on stage?