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Welcome to The March
2011-2012, Volume 6
by Artistic Director Martha Lavey
We are honored to present the premiere of Frank Galati’s adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s The March as the fourth play of our season dedicated to our inquiry into the ways that ordinary lives are touched by war.
About six years ago, Frank called me and said that he was intrigued by Doctorow’s novel and that he had begun adapting it. Frank has a history with Mr. Doctorow—he directed the writer’s Ragtime, which began its life in Toronto in 1996, and that production went on to an illustrious life that eventuated in a Broadway production where it won Tony Awards for its score, book and orchestration. Like Ragtime, The March is a skillful weaving of history and imagination: Doctorow imagines himself into a crucial moment in American history and populates the world of known historical personages with a rich cast of characters who might go unrecorded in the official narrative, but who profoundly shape the American story.
Frank’s rendering of a first act sat in a drawer for several years while the rights of the play seemed inaccessible. Frank said he came close to throwing away his draft but hung onto it when he was moving house. Circumstances conspired to renew the possibility of getting the rights and Frank contacted me again. We were able to secure the rights and co-commissioned the adaptation with The Oregon Shakespeare Festival through their American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle. The Revolutions project is Oregon’s commitment to commissioning 37 new plays “sprung from a moment of change, inspiration or conflict in United States history.” They chose the number 37 to match the canon of Shakespeare’s work and The March is among the first ten of the plays they have commissioned.
The task of adapting a novel with the epic sweep of The March is a formidable one. On the page, the narrative voice can move fluidly over vast geography and the passage of time. On stage, all of the forces of the novel must be represented in characters and a physical setting—the stage requires stuff and demands a deft intelligence that can discern the appropriate elisions and compressions that both make the story vivid and allow it to move fluidly.
Frank has, I think, made a brilliant choice in seizing upon the characters of Arly and Will to move us through the story. One of the central themes of the novel is the way in which the demarcations that defined the Civil War—North/South; black/white; combatant/civilian;
high status/low status—are obviated by the relentless, consuming force of The March.
As the character Dr. Sartorius describes it:
Imagine a great, segmented body moving in contractions and dilations at a rate of twelve or fifteen miles a day, a creature of a hundred thousand feet. It is tubular in its being and tentacled to the roads and bridges over which it travels. It sends out as antennae its men and horses. It consumes everything in its path. It is an immense organism, this army, with a small brain. That would be General Sherman, whom I have never seen. All the orders for our vast movements issue forth from that brain. They are carried via the general and colonels and field officers for distribution to the body of us. This is the creature’s nervous system. And any one of the sixty thousand of us has no identity but as a cell in the body of this giant creature’s function, which is to move forward and consume all before it.
Arly and Will become the inscription of this will to survive: they are, variously: criminals, soldiers, Confederates, Unionists, medics, a photographer. They are whatever the circumstance requires to stay alive. This mutability of identity is echoed throughout the story in a host of characters. Pearl, for example, passes both as a boy and a girl; as African American and Caucasian. Emily Thompson is a Southerner travelling with the Union army; a woman of high social status ministering humbly to the infantry. Calvin is an African American assistant to a white man, more educated and erudite than the white man he serves. The March makes topsy-turvy of the world order and reveals the profound humanity of each individual obscured by the social conventions of the day.
Frank has captured the great tapestry of lives that Doctorow weaves in The March, pulling out the particular journey of Arly and Will to give us a ground’s eye view of the movement throughout. Against the wily, tactical, shape-shifting identities that they assume, he poses General Sherman whom he depicts, often in soliloquy, alone with his thoughts in the isolated and isolating gravity of leadership. Sherman can never shake off the identity of his leadership and must contemplate even the deeply personal despair of his son’s death in the solitude of this responsibility.
The March is Doctorow’s complex portrait of a war that is fundamental to our American identity, in which he problematizes every term of that identity. Frank has captured that tapestry with a keen eye toward how to bring those shifting, contrary forces to the stage. We hope that our production of The March will offer another opportunity to engage our nation’s conversation about our shared identity and the history that separates and unites us.