Friday, July 3, 2015

Remembering the Birth of the Nation

Revisiting the Second Continental Congress

Of all the shows I directed over that long span of thirty-one years which I am currently writing about, one that was in many ways unique was Sherman Edwards’ and Peter Stone’s powerful musical play, 1776.

It was performed by the community theater group I was part of for some thirty years, Pocono Lively Arts, in July of 1989. Casting the show was a challenge for a group such as ours, for it requires twenty-five men and two women. The play takes place primarily in the Chamber of the Continental Congress, with a few scenes in Thomas Jefferson’s room, and a few in the imagination of John Adams when he is dreaming of his wife, Abigail.

As I recall, throughout our rehearsals there was a sense of history being revisited, largely due to the strong script. The members of the Congress who are portrayed in the play became very real to all of us. I know the audiences became engrossed in what they saw on stage, and all of us were moved at the end of each performance as the actors portraying our Founding Fathers came forward to sign the Declaration of Independence to the continual tolling of a bell. It almost seemed as if the past were very present at that moment.

There’s a chapter about the production in my work-in-progress, “More Fog, Please!” Each chapter in the book begins with the director’s note I wrote for the printed program for each production, and in honor of the holiday and what it means, I’m including that here. My reference to “recent events in China” were prompted by what had transpired at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June of 1989. It was a sobering reminder of how precious freedom is, and how hard-won.

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     During the past decade two experiences have made me deeply aware of the debt we owe to the members of the Second Continental Congress. The first was standing in the Congressional Chamber in Independence Hall, Philadelphia; the second was becoming acquainted with this extraordinary play. In both instances, briefly in Independence Hall and during much of the course of the play, I had a sense of immediacy of what these men faced and their courage in accepting the challenge.
     All of what you will see on stage is based on fact. The weather in the late spring and early summer of 1776 was unusually hot and humid, resulting in a large number of horseflies incubated in the stable next door to what was then the State House. The description of John Adams as “obnoxious and disliked” was his own. Benjamin Franklin was prone to drowsing off in public. Stephen Hopkins always wore his round Quaker hat in the chamber, and was referred to as “Old Grape and Guts.” Thomas Jefferson, who actually was required to delivery daily weather reports, was deeply in love with his beautiful young bride. Edward Rutledge was the leading proponent of States’ Rights. General Washington wrote copious dispatches to the Congress – in fact, every word in the dispatches read by Thomson in the play are taken from them, or are words recorded as having been spoken by Washington. John Dickinson’s actions at the end of the play are recorded history.
     All of the dialogue and song lyrics in the scenes between John and Abigail Adams are based on, and in some cases taken verbatim from, their correspondence. The idea for these scenes occurred to the authors when reading these letters, and came from a line written by John: “Oh, if I could only annihilate time and space!”
     Certainly, we all realize there were many more delegates to the Congress than we see on stage. Also, in the interest of dramatic impact, (Sherman) Edwards and (Peter) Stone have made some changes in the actual sequence of events, though not in the events themselves.
     Most importantly, the authors have given us living portraits of this remarkable group of men, and brought to life those circumstances and passions which had such an impact on their lives – and ours. They were men of human shortcomings, yet they were undoubtedly the most extraordinary group of men in all of history to have gathered together in one place and at one time. According to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his book The Birth of the Nation, they were “… fearless, high-principled, deeply versed in ancient and modern political thought … convinced of man’s power to improve his condition through the use of intelligence, and unafraid of experiment. They were men of vision.”
     Recent events in China have no doubt renewed in us our understanding of our indebtedness to those men who adopted the Declaration of Independence. “To this day the nation and the world are committed to the unending quest to unfold the ultimate meaning of those quiet phrases, written over two centuries ago by a young man in a small room in an unknown city on the margin of Western civilization: We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”


1776, Final Scene
Pocono Lively Arts, July 1989