An epic battle is being waged in Appomattox, Christopher Hampton’s new Civil War/civil-rights play, currently receiving its world premiere at The Guthrie Theater —but it’s not a fight between Yankee and Confederate soldiers.
No, the monumental struggle on display here is between the page and the stage, idea and execution, the desire for drama and the woeful lack thereof. In this time-honored conflict, the playwright desperately wants to write a grand, sweeping narrative that reaches across the decades to say something important on a subject about which no one has yet had the final word: in this case, racism as the fundamental flaw in the American character. The problem: it’s tough to crush 100 years of history into a three-hour melodrama. Two hours works much better, and in the theater game, as a rule, the less history one tries to cover, the better.
Now, I am fully aware that Appomattox is a “new play,” which is often code for “don’t get your hopes up.” And I have a deep appreciation for how plays are developed, and how fragile a play’s tender ambitions can be when exposed to the harsh judgment of a paying audience. Still, people who go see Appomattox are in for a shock. That’s because most plays at this stage in their development get seen only in someone’s garage by the playwright and a few of his or her closest friends—who, when the lights go up, suggest in the gentlest possible way that scrapping that first act would be doing everyone a huge favor.
Appomattox comes into two parts: The first act covers the last days of the Civil War, in 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee must finally admit that the war is lost and accept the conditions for surrender offered by Union leader Ulysses S. Grant. The second act occurs 100 years later, in 1965, during the race riots in Selma, Alabama, and president Lyndon Johnson’s ramp-up of the Vietnam War.
By placing these two eras in history side by side, Hampton evidently wants us to notice that parallels and ironies abound. To wit, African-Americans were “set free” in 1865 but still aren’t free 100 years later (who knew?). Also, the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution, ratified in 1870, gave African-Americans the right to vote. But in the mid-1960s, Lyndon Johnson still had to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voter’s Rights Act, because certain elements of the white population kept coming up with ways—poll taxes, literacy tests, etc.—to prevent blacks from voting. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? (It’s up to you to make the connection between then and now, as certain elements of the white population continue to work tirelessly—through the whole voter I.D. fiasco—to prevent poor, uneducated, powerless people from voting. That, and the fact that prisons are basically the new slave camps for African-American men.)
In any case, the fundamental problem with Appomattox is that anyone who got past the sixth grade in this country already knows all of this, and the play itself does not shed any new light on the matter whatsoever. Hampton is British, and clearly interested in American history—but his treatment of the material looks like someone who just learned the rules of football trying to explain a zone defense to Brett Favre. It’s enthusiastic, and there is information there—but you can’t blame Brett for stifling a yawn.
Not that Brits, in theory, can’t write insightfully about the American experience—it’s just a difficult trick to pull off, for reasons the British playwright can’t possibly know. The other factor Hampton probably isn’t aware of, but which colors the perceptions of Twin Cities audiences, is that the pre-eminent African-American theater in the country—Penumbra Theater—is in our own backyard, and for 30 years has been allowing us to view the African-American experience through the most knowledgeable, sophisticated lens in the land. On the very stage where Appomattox takes place, several brilliant August Wilson plays have been performed by Penumbra with genius equal to the material. It pains me to have to say this, but Hampton’s efforts to grapple with the African-American dilemma look childish by comparison.
Indeed, the first act of Appomattox looks like the sort of thing a high-school social studies class would write, but with fewer jokes. There’s something about putting great people onstage that diminishes and trivializes them, and Appomattox makes them about as small as they can get. Abraham Lincoln comes off as a nervous, hen-pecked husband. Frederick Douglass and General Lee are little more than caricatures, and—in what is no doubt a stab at authenticity—Ulysses S. Grant is a skinny, deferential man plagued by migraines. Shawn Hamilton’s interpretation of Martin Luther King has its moments, but too much of his performance looks as if it were guided by stage directions that read: “MLK should be played like an over-the-top parody of a southern preacher—so over-the-top bombastic and righteous that it’s almost offensive.”
Anyway, save for about 45 seconds of Sally Wingert’s bossy Mary Todd Lincoln, the entire first act could—to put it kindly—use a little work. There’s almost no blocking, very little movement, and precious little driving the narrative other than what we already know: that the war is about to end. In terms of battle, the bloodiest it gets is a polite, pompously worded exchange of letters between Generals Lee and Grant. But if you like speeches, this is definitely your play. Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy (via video) all give speeches—and rather long ones at that.
So thank heaven for the second act, or at least half an hour of it. That’d be the half-hour in the Oval office of the White House, when president Lyndon Johnson is slinging one-liners like Rodney Dangerfield on Twitter, and cracking jokes faster than a greased pig at a pancake breakfast. Or something like that. Hampton’s Lyndon Johnson has more bizarre metaphors than Dan Rather at a modern poetry convention. It’s a jarring contrast from the plodding moroseness of the first act, but this Johnson (played by Harry Groener, who also plays Abraham Lincoln) is truly funny—and be glad he is, because otherwise you’d have to listen to Martin Luther King for most of the second act.
But a few snappy one-liners and a couple of presidential potty jokes do not make a play. The ambition for Appomattox is extremely high; it is trying to gets its arms around an essential truth of the American experiment: that when it comes to living up to the clause “all men are created equal,” our treatment of African-Americans is and continues to be a glaring, embarrassing failure. But the tale gets mired in the conventional narrative of historical events without developing any characters (save perhaps Johnson) that are complex and interesting enough to drive the narrative. Instead of working through the characters, the play revolves around them—and in so doing it runs around in circles, going pretty much nowhere.
Appomattox continues at the Guthrie Theater through November 11.