News & Articles
2011-2012, Volume 6
Tragedy Has No Bias
by ensemble members Frank Galati and Ian Barford
Ensemble members Frank Galati and Ian Barford discuss The March, which Frank adapted for the stage from the novel by E.L. Doctorow. Ian plays Arly Wilcox, a soldier in the Confederate army.
Ian Barford: Something in the zeitgeist of an era brings certain stories about the past to the fore. What are your thoughts on visiting the story of The March today, particularly in an election year?
Frank Galati: We face some of the issues now that the country faced prior to the Civil War. Particularly in the area of states’ rights and the role of the federal government. But what I cling to in this contemporary world that we inhabit is the notion that history is literature and that, to a certain extent, literature is history. The historical record is a narrative. And the fictional evocation of the past by a novelist like E.L. Doctorow is also an effort to seek the truth. Truth, though, can be quite slippery. In Southern Storm, Noah Andre Trudeau’s history of The March, there are numerous reports on any given day that have conflicting notions of what the weather was like, if it was raining or if it was sunny—
IB: With me playing Arly, I think I’m going to have to get my hands on that one! That sounds like a great read—
FG: Most definitely, because in the play you spend a fair amount of time in the wet and in the mud and in the rain!
IB: Doctorow has both historical characters and fictional characters in the novel. What are your feelings about how he has woven a historical component with an imagined one?
FG: I think it’s through the fictional characters that Doctorow is able to reach into our own hearts and connect us to the events of the past. These fictional characters live a kind of italicized present; they stand out from the background of historical event. We all attempt to form a kind of order, a dramatic structure of conflict and climax out of the chaos of ongoing events. Look at Arly in this story. He constantly meditates on his own destiny while he is in the middle of the unfolding action. He appeals to God as an intelligence that knows what is in store for him.
IB: I think that when—the number is around 18% of Southern men of military age perished in the war—when death is so pervasive, that it is easy to imagine that your survival might have something to do with Providence.
FG: And Arly seems to crave that sense of divine intervention: it is a way of finding meaning in what he’s doing.
IB: You may not remember this, but a gentleman at one of our fundraising events, who I believe was from Atlanta, asked how you would be doing this play differently if you were in the South.
FG: I do remember that conversation a bit: the specific answer is simply that I wouldn’t do it differently. I don’t think that tragedy has a bias. I don’t think that an alliance to one side or another is in the equation of this narrative.
IB: One of the things I find so fascinating about the play is that it’s not about the Civil War as a whole; it’s very specifically about “the march.” I wonder if you could reflect on the march, this 60,000–man entity living off the land.
FG: After the taking of Atlanta, the Union forces were deployed in such a way that there was an opportunity to press on. Sherman chose not to take the usual number of commissary wagons that would support such a force. Instead he was going to lighten the load and forage out into the landscape in order to feed and supply the troops.
IB: And that was tactical.
FG: Yes, it was a way of deliberately scorching the land as was his stated ambition. Sherman stated many times that personal property was to be regarded. That the only thing to be destroyed was property of the Government of the Confederacy. But of course, his men got out of control. And he let it go. All of the towns along the way to Savannah were leveled, flattened, burned. The character Dr. Wrede Sartorius describes The March as a huge devouring insect, with a hundred thousand feet that crawls over the earth destroying everything in its way—
IB: And in its wake providing a path to freedom for many of the African Americans held in slavery.
FG: Yes, in the wake came the liberated slaves who by the thousands attached themselves to Sherman’s march. When Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton criticizes Sherman for his disregard of that freed slave population, Sherman issues an edict where he’s going to give 40 acres of land to every African American household to establish their own community in northern Florida and southern North Carolina. But Sherman was not an abolitionist. He was perfectly fine with the institution of slavery. And when he negotiated a separate peace with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, he wanted to return all property—including human property—to the people of the South.
IB: You’ve adapted many times, and I was just curious about what components of novels inspire your theatrical imagination.
FG: Well, sometimes a novel has a play kind of hiding inside of it. It was true of The Grapes of Wrath, and true in the work I did on Ragtime. That’s what I found here. It’s not just flipping the calendar from month to month to month; it’s really an architecture of action. Of character in action.
IB: I just can’t wait. I’ve been hounding everybody, “Have they had design meetings? There are entrances from the audience? Is there going to be rain?” And I’m going to try and go down to Gatlinburg before we start, to hike through the Smokies and soak up as much as I can of that area.
FG: That’s fantastic. I would love to be able to do that myself. I can hardly believe the opportunity we have: the good fortune, the privilege we’ve been given to tell this story. The fact that Doctorow has given us permission to do so is a source of tremendous joy.