Mine Eyes Hath Seen
The producers behind the acclaimed Theatre Banshee—married couple Sean Branney and Leslie Baldwin—have been roundly praised over the last decade for their Celtic-centered shows such as The Weir and The Man From Clare. Their latest production is a total change of pace for the group: an examination of the complexities of the Civil War using first-person accounts from the time. Director Branney compiled the piece after he realized that his own knowledge about the Civil War had previously been limited.
"People go through school and learn about the Civil War," says Branney, "where the good guys beat up on the bad guys, and Abe Lincoln personally unlocked the chains that were holding the slaves down, and we've been happy ever since. That's kind of the story that people—particularly those who don't grow up in the South—learn. For me, the process of changing my conceptions about the war started [when I read] Michael Shaara's book The Killer Angels, which I read and went, 'Wow, I didn't know it was like that.' That discovery was really great and liberating, to suddenly go, 'No, it's a lot more interesting than good guys versus bad guys. It's a lot trickier to know who's who, and one really ought not simply write off the South as evil slavers. There's a lot more to it than that. What I did in doing research for this piece—it's been about two years in the making—was to look for things that would work in a dramatic and theatrical context, but what the [first-person perspective] has to say broadens and challenges our preconceived notions and paints that more interesting middle ground between the black-and-white good guy/bad guy type thing."
Although this new production marks a change of pace for Banshee, the show format is similar to one of the company's previous presentations. "Back in 2001, Theatre Banshee did a project as a fundraiser called Voices of the North," explains Branney. "Basically we took first-person writings about the war in Northern Ireland, all journalistic things, interviews, nothing that was intended for dramatic purposes. We mixed in some songs and cobbled together a theatre event that represented both the Republican and Nationalist sides of the Northern Irish conflict. It was kind of an experiment; it wasn't a full-blown big production. Audiences really responded to the dramatization of this first-person information and felt like they were getting a much better understanding of what's really happening over there. That's where the format notion came from. Leslie and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to do the same thing with the perspectives from the Civil War?'"
When asked what inspired this change from Banshee's usual Celtic fare, Branney points out the surprising contemporary resonance of the material. "The thing about the Civil War and this project right now is that it's so timely," he says. "America of 1860 and America of 2005 are so eerily and disturbingly similar in a lot of ways. Blue states and red states. There's a profound ideological schism, I think, between the two sides. Bush supporters and Kerry supporters think the other bunch is from Mars and is running the nation into the ground. I would never previously have considered the notion of secession, but now it's, like, 'If California and Washington and Oregon banded together, would they be better off not being part of this other thing that's going on in the Southeast?' It's not that I think it would work, but before I thought, 'Why secede? What's the point?' Where we're at now, between having an ideological rift in the country and then having a real live war with cannons and body bags going on, I think it's an appropriate time to look at the price of the Civil War."
While there are many challenges associated with this ambitious project, the task of putting it together was certainly the greatest. "Once I got the idea of doing this I looked at 4,000–5,000 pages of source material, stuff given to me by Civil War buffs and history teachers, and things I found on my own," says Branney. "I've just been reading and reading and educating myself and looking for things that would work in a theatrical context. After doing this for a very long time through late last fall, I started actually making the pile of things that might work. I narrowed it down to 300 pieces that seemed to have some potential, and I turned [the pieces] over to the cast of actors who were going to do the show and said, 'You guys take a look, see what really strikes you out of this.' These 300 pieces are maybe six hours of material, which is way more than we could use. Between my own directorial and editorial decisions and Leslie's editorial decisions and emotional feedback from the actors—'I really want to do this. This really speaks to me.'—we've culled it down to approximately 70 of these different accounts from different perspectives. Each actor ends up with about eight characters and pieces that they explore. Each actor ends up representing at least a Union perspective and a Confederate perspective. There's a lot of letters, journals or diaries or memoirs, a few speeches, and a few official documents. It's been nice to watch how the actors have been affected by this material. It's a very different thing to realize you're in an Arthur Miller play, and you're weeping over somebody who's died, and quite another thing to play [a letter from] a man who's standing in his son's grave at Gettysburg. That's real; they were real people. It's not cleverly thought-up things from a playwright: It's the real deal. It's a humbling thing."