An investigative history of the Hartford Circus Fire of July 6th, 1944. Nominated for a Fringe First at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In the twilight of his life, famed photographer Matthew Brady must choose between the life he has built and the legacy he wants to leave behind.
Renowned prose author Joyce Carol Oates explores honesty, perspective, and denial through one couple's harrowing attempt to save the person they love
Friday, December 21, 2007
Return of the Dramaturgical Detritus
Instead of a list, I would like to tell you a story about Charles Lindbergh's grandfather. Actually, I would like to tell you two:
Lindbergh's paternal grandfather, Ola Mansson, was a 19th century Swedish politician. In 1858, it came to light that Mansson had used his appointment in the Riksdag (the Swedish parliament) to secure a position as an officer in the State Bank of Sweden and was quite possibly embezzling money from the Swedish government. An investigation was ordered, and the case went to Sweden's Supreme Court. Things weren't looking good for Mansson at this point and so, when he was presented on the stand with a fairly damning document of his wrong-doing, he grabbed it from the lawyer, tore it up, and wiped his ass with one of the pieces of paper. In the middle of the Swedish Supreme Court.
Unsurprisingly, Mansson immigrated to America soon thereafter.
After coming to America, Mansson and his wife changed their surname to Lindbergh and soon settled in Melrose, Minnesota, where they lived the lives of American pioneers. On August 2, 1861, while milling wood for his house, Mansson/Lindbergh got too close to the exposed saw. The machinery caught his cloths and tugged him into the spinning blade. The saw took off part of his left arm, tore his back open, and then hurled him across the mill. The gash was apparently so deep that his resucers claimed they could see his lung and his still beating heart. Somehow, he survived.
Wait, it gets better.
Medicine being what it was at the time, in the end, they had no choice but to amputate Mansson/Lindbergh's left arm at the shoulder. But once Lindbergh was able to get out of bed, he asked the doctor for the arm. Holding the lifeless fingers of his left arm, Lindbergh was alleged to have given the following eulogy:
"Gootbye, mine dear hand. You have been a goot frent to me for fifty years. You haf always been goot and true to me, but you can't be viv me anymore."
"...an event of such magnitude that it can grind a clear lens on history into a prism that bends facts here and there"
For me, one of the one most attractive aspects on working on a play about Charles Lindbergh was finally have a lot of reliable primary and secondary sources. Prior to What I Took in My Hand, my dramaturgical research resembled nothing so much as a scavenger hunt. The charm of We Can't Reach You, Hartford was in exactly how little we can actually know about the Hartford Circus Fire. (So little we even decided we should advertise the fact in the title.) And do you know how much information there was about Mathew Brady? Three books. One of which was poorly-written and riddled with errors and another a picture book. And don't even get me started on Juliette Brady, about whom exactly two sentences have been written about since the Civil War. Lindbergh presented a chance to work on a subject people actually knew something about, a chance to write about one of the most famous men in 20th century American history. You would think information would be easier to come by, the truth a little clearer, everything a little less impossibly relative and postmodern.
Well, yes and no.
The chief difficulty in working on a subject so well-known is deciding who among your sources to trust. Researching a play about Lindbergh isn't so much a scavenger hunt as it is like that time in 4th grade when you accidentally threw out your retainer with your lunch tray and had to dig through a dumpster looking for it. I'm going to be honest with you here, there's a lot of crap in the world about Charles Lindbergh. Some of it is poorly written, some of it hopelessly naive or partisan. Most of it is wrong. But if you do history and try and work with primary sources, I imagine you have to get used to this. Mistakes are made in a world of relativity. Bias, access to materials, perspective, the infallibility of memory. There's plenty of factors working against the poor playwright trying to reconstruct history with a dramatic arc.
It's inevitable that in the moment, we make mistakes (intentional or otherwise) in documenting events. That's forgivable. But what isn't forgivable is to knowingly create a false history 75 years after the fact. And for what reason? So that a bunch of old people can get a certificate saying that they were somewhere that both the historian and the alleged witness know they were not. Was it really necessary to give every person who claimed to be at the take-off a certificate verifying this? I know I sound cranky saying all this, but it matters. It may not matter now, but years (decades? even centuries?) down the road, its going to give some poor researcher a headache if it ever comes time to sort out who saw Lindbergh's take-off and who didn't.
So please please please, don't rewrite history just to make somebody feel better because they bicycled six miles to Roosevelt Field on the wrong day and didn't get to see Lindbergh.
And on another point, for the love of Pete: "some confusion also persists over the exact location of the takeoff!?!" [exasperation my own]. His takeoff was filmed (in fact, the first newsreels with sound were of Lindbergh's takeoff) so you would think we could at least nail that one down. Sometimes history is an elegant and revelatory act of remembering, and sometimes its just a bit embarrassing.
And don't even get me started on how Curtis Field (the runway where Lindbergh took off) is now a Best Buy and a parking garage.
Since we now know that the Time Person of the Year for 2007 is Vladimir Putin (Al Gore is robbed once again!), I figured this would be as good a time as any to revisit the first Time Person (or "Man" is it was known in the days before women were apparently capable of doing something noteworthy) of the Year: Charles A. Lindbergh
Quite a looker, no?
For anyone that's interested, here's the article that ran inside the issue. (The entire beginning where they give his statistics and characteristics is pretty priceless, but my favorite part is where his feet are just described as "large.") Reading the article, what's most interesting is how, by the end of 1927, Lindbergh was already a national treasure, something too precious to lose. That there even was a debate over whether "the interest accruing to the national welfare by his flights is worth the calamitous crash of principal which would accompany his death" is telling in these modern times where the public actually takes a sick pleasure in watching its celebrities self-destruct. Different times, my friends, different times.
We had a great (though surprisingly long) production meeting for What I Took in My Hand last night. At one point in the evening, we inevitably got onto the topic of Lindbergh's politics before and during World War II. Predictably, nothing was resolved (oh, History!) and we concluded the conversation with an agreement to all read more about this controversy before deciding anything.
To that end, I've spent a good part of the morning reading other speeches Lindbergh gave before the war, as well as looking at his involvement with the German Luftwaffe. But it's the weekend and we don't need to get into that now. Instead, on a lighter(?) note, I've collected some political cartoons about Lindbergh authored by none other than Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss). As I'm sure many of you know, prior to being a famous children's book author, Geisel was a political cartoonist for the New York City daily newspaper PM. What you may not know is that Geisel hated Charles Lindbergh with a firey passion.
Here, take a look:
It's hard to see in this one, but the name at the bottom of the sign is "Lindy Ostrich Service, Inc."
So I'm betting the Lindbergh children never got Horton Hears a Who! as a bedtime story growing up.
-Time editors created the Man of the Year Award in 1927 and awarded to Lindbergh specifically to make up for the fact that they had failed to feature him on the cover when he completed his trans-Atlantic flight. Lindbergh was not only the first person to be featured, but he is also the youngest. ("You" doesn't count.)
-The first person to achieve powered controlled flight was actually Richard Pearse of New Zealand. The Wright Brothers' flight occurred several months afterwards.
-On November 3, 1926, Lindbergh became the first aviator in America to have his life saved by a parachute on four seperate occassions.
-The 1927 Tin Pan Alley song "Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.)" features the first audio sound effect on record. At the beginning of the recording what sounds like a propeller is in fact a deck of cards being struck by an electric fan blade.
-Greek aviator Arniotis Karamanlakis holds two claims to fame: the first private aviator in Greece and the first aviation-related fatality in Greece. (That is, if Icarus doesn't count.)
So on Monday night, Jess, Erin and I went to the Short Form meet-and-greet. Towards the end of the night, I got into a conversation with Peter, one of the curators, about Lindbergh. After a little back and forth about all the weird dramaturgical detritus I was collecting, Peter told me that he'd always thought of Lindbergh as one of the great villains of American history. This wasn't the first time I've heard this. In fact, nearly every time I tell someone my new play is about Charles Lindbergh, the Nazi question comes up. There's been a real backlash against Lindbergh in recent years, the most visible example being Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. The 2003 revelation that Lindbergh had a secret German family probably didn't help matters much either.
But was Lindbergh actually a Nazi? Well, no. But he came pretty close.
Here's the deal: In 1938, Lindbergh co-wrote a book with Dr. Alexis Carrel that more or less promoted eugenics. Later that same year, Hermann Göring (yes, that Göring) presented Lindbergh with the Service Cross of the German Eagle. Once World War II started heating up, Lindbergh still refused to return the medal because he thought it would be an insult to the German government. But most damning, on September 11, 1941 (eerie how history seems to echo sometimes), Lindbergh, as a spokesman for the non-interventionist America First Committee, gave the following speech in Des Moines, Iowa:
I've listened to this speech over and over again. This is the man whose story I want to tell?
It's certainly no secret that our plays are attracted to historical figures with severe dichotomies (see: Mathew Brady: a pioneer of photography and a terrible husband; P.T. Barnum: a wise, omniscient spirit and flippant jackass), but an anti-Semitic aviator might be taking things to a new low.
And yet, I'm not satisfied with simply writing Lindbergh off as simply anti-Semitic. Even though I wholly reject hero worship and the Great Man theory of history (more on this later, I imagine), I can't help but be amazed by Lindbergh's story. His journey across the Atlantic is a gripping narrative even when you know he's going to make it safely in the end, the loss of his son is certainly heartbreaking, and his later work with Dr. Alexis Carrel has a certain quixotic pathos to it.
I listen to his America First speech and I try to square that voice with the boy F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing about when he said: In the spring of '27, something bright and alien flashed across the sky. A young Minnesotan who seemed to have nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought their old best dreams
On a good day, I can reconcile the two in my mind for a moment.
When my 80 year old Iowa-bred grandmother heard about my new play at Thanksgiving, she begged me to leave the America First speech out. She told me that I should treat Lindbergh like a hero, not the villain historical revisionism has made him out to be. I don't know if I can do that. But I don't know if I can condemn him either.
Now that we've gotten the title and the dates out of the way, I suppose its time to actually talk about the plays themselves. Per the Short Form format, What I Took in My Hand will be comprised of four smaller 10-minute plays. After each of the mini-plays is workshopped, we will eventually combine all four plays and end up with a longer one (in theory, at least). As we continue to develop What I Took in My Hand, we will, no doubt, discuss the challenges and rewards of writing four thematically-linked 10 minute plays in four months. But for right now, maybe it would be more helpful to talk about the tentative overall plan for this project. Jess has already briefly summarized the overall arc of the plays, but I think its high time we break things down a bit. As of right now, here's the titles and summaries of each of the four plays:
In The Spirit of St. Louis
On May 20, 1927, a 25 year old Charles Lindbergh began a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. 33 hours, 30 minutes and 29.8 seconds later, he was an American hero. This is the story of those hours inside the cockpit, a story of velocity and of moving, irresistibly, towards your life.
First He Giveth
On March 1, 1932, Charles Lindbergh’s son is kidnapped from his second floor nursery. On May 12, someone finds the baby dead in a ditch. There is a suspect, a trial and an execution. This isn't that story. This is the story of an empty bassinet and the grieved father who rocks it to sleep every night.
E pur si battimenti!
Collaborating with the revered surgeon, Dr. Alexis Carrel, Lindbergh begins work on a pump to keep organs alive outside of the human body. His intention is to put a human heart in a jar and keep it beating for one night, and thereby conquer death. Alone in the lab, Charles begins to tell bedtime stories to the beating heart.
As long as the heart beats, Charles is winning. The heart eventually stops.
Maui, 1974. Diagnosed with lymphoma, the failed Immortalist prepares himself for death. He carves his own gravestone. He picks out his grave site under a tree and begins to dig it himself.
And then something magical and impossible happens.
Of course, this is all subject to change at the slightest whim. Stay tuned as we tear our hair out trying to make it all work.
For serious. As sort of an introduction into "What I Took in My Hand" (and a way for me to buy more time for the impending Dramaturgical Presentation™), let's start by talking about the title itself, which comes from a beloved Robert Creeley poem (or at least beloved by those of us who love one-eyed poets).
Song by Robert Creeley
What I took in my hand grew in weight. You must understand it was not obscene.
Night comes. We sleep. Then if you know what say it. Don't pretend.
Guises are what enemies wear. You and I live in a prayer.
Helpless. Helpless, should I speak. Would you. What do you think of me.
No woman ever was, was wiser than you. None is more true.
But fate, love, fate scares me. What I took in my hand grows in weight.
Now, I know this a poem about women (I know this because one time I said this was a poem about a man afraid of responsibility and Jess told me that it was actually a poem about women. I didn't have the heart to tell her that most of the responsibilities that men are afraid of involve women, but that's a story for another day), but in thinking about Lindbergh, I'm struck by that last stanza. Our first play begins mere hours before Lindbergh lands in Paris and, to quote a passage from A. Scott Berg's phenomenal biography of Lindbergh that I've been reading as of late:
For several years, Lindbergh had lived according to one of the basic laws of aerodynamics-the need to maintain balance. And so, in those figures [the crowd waiting for Lindbergh on the Paris landing strip] running toward him, Lindbergh immediately saw repercussions. At first he feared for his physical safety; over the next few months he worried about his soul.
(Lindbergh, pg. 6)
To go from a mail-route pilot to an American hero in 33.5 hours has got to be a sobering prospect. How does a person deal with this? What do we do when what we take in our hands grows in weight? What do we do when it grows far heavier than we ever imagined?
It's been a while, we know, but here's a bit of a sneak peak at what TASP is up to now:
1. The American Story Project was accepted into the Ontological-Hysteric Theater's Short Form series, where we will develop our newest piece, tentatively titled "What I Took in my Hands" (formerly "These Wings of Lead"). Beginning inside the Spirit of St. Louis midway through its trans-Atlantic journey, as Lindbergh grapples with the idea of his oncoming fame, "What I Took in My Hand" follows Lindbergh through the death of his son, his manic attempts to build a machine to cheat death, and his eventual reconciliation with his own mortality as he digs his own grave. Far from a sober retelling of the facts of Lindbergh's life, "What I Took in my Hand" also features time travel, phantom children, metaphysics, and a metronomic human heart. Basically, TASP is afraid of growing up. And we want to talk about it. WITIMH features many of the TASP usual suspects and some new faces. Casting mostly TBD, although Mike James is slotted to play Lindbergh 1: The Spirit of St. Louis. The play will be presented at the Ontological theater in May and in smaller installments beginning in January.
2. TASP is also planning an upcoming collaboration with current P73 Fellow Krista Knight.
So brush up on your Walter Benjamin, folks, we're back in action.