The Best Show in Town! Spoon River, from Soulpepper of Toronto
by Edgar Lee Masters and Soulpepper
at the Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street
Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster
Albert Schultz, Director
Erin Brandenburg, Assistant Director
Ken Mackenzie, Set And Lighting Designer
Erika Connor, Costume Designer
Jason Browning, Sound Designer
Colton Stang, Sound Design Associate
Andres Castillo-Smith, Sound Coordinator
Mike Ross, Music Director, Composer And Arrangement
Andrea Nann, Movement Coach
Diane Pitblado, Dialect Coach
Kelly Mcevenue, Alexander Coach
Robert Harding, Production Stage Manager
Sarah Miller, Assistant Stage Manager
At some point, as I savored my memories of Soulpepper’s musical, Spoon River, I succumbed to the temptation to give this review the title you see above. As I began to put words together on my screen, I thought with regret of TFANA’s close-to-perfect Measure for Measure over in Brooklyn. But somehow this banal phrase, which does Soulpepper’s brilliant creation sincere but unworthy honor, jumped out of its hole, and I can’t chase it away. I hope I can do Soulpepper true justice below.
Soulpepper describe the show fairly as a musical. I detest most musicals, but this one I loved. The music was genuine and of high quality, not commercialized folk or country, and it was played on acoustic instruments, on stage, by members of a cast who could all sing, act, and dance at a high level—and some of the best were among the older ones. Not that there was any hierarchy in this production. It was an ensemble piece in the best Canadian tradition. Canadians have had an extraordinary affinity for performing as a group for many years, perhaps even surpassing their British fellows in this special art. And once again d, there was not a grain of commercialism in it. What I find repellant in the Broadway musical is that everything is for sale, standardized to bring backers, critics, and an unsophisticated public together in spinning a hit out of thin air and heavy investment, as if it were a hydrogen bomb over a culturally isolated Pacific atoll. I think the best of the genre, after the classics of the 1940s and 1950s, came out in the more intimate shows of the early 1960s, like Carnival and She Loves Me, and the rowdier, razor-sharp productions across the pond, like Lock Up Your Daughters at the Mermaid Theatre and Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What a Lovely War!
Soulpepper’s Spoon River has the same directness and honesty as the above, as well as an purpose to represent Edgar Lee Masters’ creation as truthfully as possible and to do justice to Masters and his one literary success, which earned him a secure place among the Prairie Poets, alongside Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay.
Born in Garnett, Kansas and raised in Petersburg and Lewistown, Illinois, Masters had midwestern small-town life in his marrow. California had Robinson Jeffers and Vermont had Robert Frost, but what could be more (U.S.) American than Masters and his brief, free-verse epitaphs for the deceased citizens of Spoon River, an invented name (derived from a nearby spring) for his conflation of the towns he grew up in? The Spoon River Anthology was a great success when it was first published in a volume in 1915—Masters’ only literary success although he was extremely prolific—excessively so. It was partly a succès de scandale, given the seamy tales of bad marriages, rape, prostitution, failure, murder and suicide it divulged, all based on the lives of people he knew growing up in small-town Illinois. Masters was fortunate to have an arch-gossip as a mother. However, he also told the story of the lives of these people in a truthful, unflinching way. His fellow midwesterners and all Americans were not the only people to appreciate this. The Spoon River Anthology has exported well. It has been extensively translated and set by French, German, Spanish, and Italian composers, among others, in their languages and in the original. The Anthology has also been adapted as a show on several occasions—for radio, the stage, and Brooklyn’s own Green-Wood Cemetery. For the energetic and imaginative Canadians of Soulpepper, it was neither an import or a shopworn adaptation, so fresh and right did it seem.
In a centenary podcast made by the Poetry Foundation in 2915, a commentator pointed out that Masters didn’t really know what he was doing when he embarked on what developed into a vast panorama of small-town midwestern life in 246 epitaphs. Masters had been in correspondence with William Marion Reedy, submitting conventional formal poems of a Victorian ilk to the St Louis weekly, Reedy’s Mirror. Reedy accepted none of them for print and sent Masters a copy of J. W. Mackail’s Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology as a hint on how Masters might proceed. In humorous irritation Masters batted out a few imitations of these ancient Greek epigrams and sent them back to Reedy, who promptly published them. That and that evening of gossip with his mother set him off. This is not the only instance of writers and poets finding their voices in this way.
Masters had already defined himself as something of a pagan at an early age. He studied Greek, as well as Latin and German in his year as a student at Knox College, without gaining any real proficiency, and he had a brief, intellectually intimate relationship with the sickly daughter of the local Presbyterian minister, who had learned Greek reasonably well from her father, enough to read the New Testament in the original. Marlowe and the Elizabethans were among her enthusiasms, and she may have inspired the nom de plume “Webster Ford,” under which he published some of the early installments of SPA in Reedy’s Mirror. Masters incarnated her in “Caroline Branson” and “Amelia Garrick” in the Anthology, along with Webster Ford himself, as a visionary pagan. It is of course entirely fitting that the creators of The White Devil and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore preside over the emergence of the Spoon River Anthology.
The fruits of Masters’ reading of The Greek Anthology, with its blocks of both funerary and erotic epigrams, are in full view in his own home-grown anthology, with its frank depictions of many of the ramifications of sexual relationships. The Greek Anthology would have had something of a reputation as a naughty book, given its adoption by the London homosexual aesthetes around J. A. Symonds and Oscar Wilde. J. W. Mackail, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a Fabian, believed there was much in the Anthology which shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands and tried to counteract its louche reputation in his selections, of which he published two versions, one of over 450 pages and another of barely over 200, representing a double process of cleansing, of making the Anthology fit for modern readers. As Gideon Nisbet has written, Mackail
…distilled the Anthology to a canonic 500 “best” poems in an edition-with-translation of 1894, Select Epigrams. Cephalas’s (the “original”) structure was rejected for twelve new thematic “Chapters,” devised by Mackail but billed as the natural categories of a timeless human experience. Select Epigrams presented this dodecalogy as a quasi-epic, quasi-religious document: “the book of Greek life”. […] With its emphasis on family and piety, and rhetoric of Liberal Imperialism, Select Epigrams was seized upon as the definitive Anthology for modernity. At the same time, though, a parallel tradition of dissident epigram-work, inspired by Symonds and inflected by Wilde, was making the most of the opportunities now made available by the burgeoning small press movement.
A reviewer in The Nation wrote:
The Anthology, as it stands, is not a selection, in any proper sense—it is simply a vast reservoir, with some subdivision, into which about 4,000 little poems have been thrown that bear a certain mechanical resemblance in brevity and in metre. So far from being a “garland of flowers,” a metaphor which was applied legitimately to the earliest selection by Meleager, it is a garden run to weeds, in which the weeds predominate with varying degrees of worthlessness and noisomeness. But the flowers are there; it would be the greatest mistake to despair in the search, and to miss the exquisite bouquet which Mr Mackail has culled from the wilderness…
It is interesting to reflect that both Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (published in 1896 and, with time, almost as popular) flowed from the same source.
I have a sense that The Spoon River Anthology isn’t read as much as it was in the past (what books are?), and since Soulpepper’s show is The Spoon River Anthology it would be well to begin with Masters’ collection itself, thoroughly modern in its free verse and uncensored view of American life.
Masters was a keen student of E. A. Poe, and our introduction to the world of Spoon River was entirely in that spirit. Entering the auditorium at the Signature Theater, we were ushered through a black passageway, first by an open coffin with an attractive young woman lying in it, and then by a line of headstones, as we made our way to the Hill, where the occupants of the graves, some holding musical instruments, made their ghostly presence known from the back of the stage, and the coffin, now closed, and accompanied by an older man, was carried up to the front, where it remained for the duration. A full moon dominated the background. The man stood over the coffin and commenced a funeral eulogy for the youthful deceased, full of the values which were to guide the next 90 minutes or so, based on a line in “Edmund Pollard”: “Is your soul alive ? Then let it feed!”‘.
He talks about the dead, and how they were known to sing as a choir. He was sure they would sing that night, and sound better than ever. At this point the ensemble emerge, accompanied by a mournful, yearning solo fiddle line, only to launch into a boisterous performance of “The Hill,” which Masters himself put at the head of his anthology, rephrased into the first person plural. So we meet the occupants of the graves as if we were all gathered in a tavern with all the whiskey, beer, wine, and high spirits we could muster—and lively rhythms to dance to. Clearly the composer, Mike Ross, is fully at home in setting Masters’ irregular free verse. There follows another invented poem, and drinking song in a country vein, to the effect that God is in all we love to drink and eat and we enjoy it until we’ve had enough, “and we recline.” This refrain alternates with actual poems of Masters about the drunks of the community, as the revelry of the “The Hill” continues. This cemetery is as convivial as any pub, and the show as much a party as a play.
Then things take an earnest tack. We meet a series of couples, both unhappy and devoted. The set begins in an elegiac, tender mood with William and Emily reflecting on death and love: “There is something about/Death like love itself! […] That is a power of unison between souls/Like love itself!” There follows a chain of the worst kind of marriages, with an invented character and poem leading off, Virgil Chubb, who voices Masters’ worst fears, as he was being divorced by his first wife, losing his copyrights in court, dying, and his ex-wife publishing a posthumous volume of collected with only the pious verse she had forced him to write. Then, from SPA: Tom Merritt and Mrs. Merritt, who at 35 took a 19-year-old lover, who shot Tom. And finally Mrs. Benjamin Pantier and Mr. Pantier himself, who disgusted his wife so much that she banished him to his law office, where he lived with his dog, Nig—a story of Bierceian ferocity. Then Fletcher McGee breaks into a bitter cabaret number about his wife Ollie, a hideous incubus to him.
She took my strength by minutes,
She took my life by hours,
She drained me like a fevered moon
That saps the spinning world.
The days went by like shadows,
The minutes wheeled like stars.
She took the pity from my heart,
And made it into smiles.
She was a hunk of sculptor’s clay,
My secret thoughts were fingers:
They flew behind her pensive brow
And lined it deep with pain.
They set the lips, and sagged the cheeks,
And drooped the eye with sorrow.
My soul had entered in the clay,
Fighting like seven devils.
It was not mine, it was not hers;
She held it, but its struggles
Modeled a face she hated,
And a face I feared to see.
I beat the windows, shook the bolts.
I hid me in a corner
And then she died and haunted me,
And hunted me for life.
Have you seen walking through the village
A man with downcast eyes and haggard face?
That is my husband who, by secret cruelty
Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty;
Till at last, wrinkled and with yellow teeth,
And with broken pride and shameful humility,
I sank into the grave.
But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart?
The face of what I was, the face of what he made me!
These are driving him to the place where I lie.
In death, therefore, I am avenged.
The spoken poems we highly effective, framed as they were by musical numbers, the first lyrical, the second bitter and sardonic, accompanied by growling brass. This set encompassed the most serene marital harmony and the most bitter mutual hatred. The various members of the cast showed what splendid, resourceful, gutsy actors and singers they are, as they led us to some very dark places.
Turning a corner, Soulpepper climbed into the higher regions of Masters’ consciousness. Not all of life in Spoon River is murder, adultery, and hate. A moment between Faith Matheny and an unnamed friend take us there, in one of the very beautiful poems of the Anthology.
At first you will know not what they mean,
And you may never know,
And we may never tell you:–
These sudden flashes in your soul,
Like lambent lightning on snowy clouds
At midnight when the moon is full.
They come in solitude, or perhaps
You sit with your friend, and all at once
A silence falls on speech, and his eyes
Without a flicker glow at you:–
You two have seen the secret together,
He sees it in you, and you in him.
And there you sit thrilling lest the
Mystery Stand before you and strike you dead
With a splendor like the sun’s.
Be brave, all souls who have such visions
As your body’s alive as mine is dead,
You’re catching a little whiff of the ether
Reserved for God Himself.
Then three others speak: Nellie Slack, who was raped at the age of eight, later married a newcomer to town, who didn’t know what had happened to her. When he found out, he felt cheated, since she wasn’t virgin, left her, and she died within the year. Margaret Fuller Slack, played with exceptional color and dimension by Jackie Robinson, who is renowned in Canada as a singer of gospel, blues, and jazz, had ambitions to write a novel on the level of George Eliot. Margaret married, had numerous children, gave up writing, and died of a pinprick. She was followed by Willie Metcalf, considered an idiot in other corners of Spoon River, who was lodged in stables and had the gift of communicating with animals and with nature.
There followed a group of people who profited or died by fire, like Silas Dement who served a prison term for arson, and Nancy Knapp, whose husband fought and won against his siblings for an inheritance which brought no prosperity or comfort:
Then the dreadfulest smells infested the rooms.
So I set fire to the beds and the old witch-house
Went up in a roar of flame,
As I danced in the yard with waving arms,
While he wept like a freezing steer.
Then we hear of the philosophical debates of Griffy the Cooper, who likens consciousness and a person’s life to a deep tub one won’t make the effort to see out of, and Roger Heston, who believes in free will and dies by the free will of a young bull who gets free of his bonds, with much laughter from both, as they remember it.
Masters, as I have mentioned, was as conscious of his classical roots as Pound, who appreciated Spoon River at once, and Eliot. Soulpepper—rightly, I think—chose to steer clear of most of this, but they understood that Masters’ debt to his predecessors was very much in the pith of his work. They chose to recognize this in poems which refer back to Dante…and Beatrice. The section began with Mrs Sibley singing of the “secret of the stars”. Does this allude to the magnificent first canto of Paradiso? It conjures it up to my mind, but there could well be another reference.
In a melancholy duet introduced by a plaintive harmonica Paul McNeely calls out for “Dear Jane,” who nursed him in illness and kept alive the hope in him that he would recover. He did not. In the next a barren wife and a fertile mistress mistress argue over their man.
A jaunty harmonica passage introduces a local Don Juan, Lucius Atherton, who, after seducing his share of young women and girls, is now old and despised by their daughters. It is he who arrives at the first understanding of why Dante called out to Beatrice—“the force that made him great drove me to the dregs of life.” Then we hear from some of Lucius’ marks, Aner Clute, Mary Howe, and Laura Santini’s vision of celestial beauty in his eyes, and she, cynically thinking of the holes in her stockings, understood why Beatrice smiled on Dante.
Then there is the story of the poor German girl, Elsa Wertman, who worked in a substantial household who protected her when a young man made her pregnant, and went on to marry Hamilton Greene, a pompous man of means and political ambition. There follows the theme of lost sons and war. Emily Sparks laments her boy, a young man takes a bullet in the heart in battle, and Harry Wilmans dies for the American flag in the Philippines.
One further masterpiece of the Anthology deserves quotation, the Widow McFarlane, sung with with vigor and bitterness by Jackie Richardson, with wild fiddling and stomping:
I was the Widow McFarlane,
Weaver of carpets for all the village.
And I pity you still at the loom of life,
You who are singing to the shuttle
And lovingly watching the work of your hands,
If you reach the day of hate, of terrible truth.
For the cloth of life is woven, you know,
To a pattern hidden under the loom–
A pattern you never see!
And you weave high-hearted, singing, singing,
You guard the threads of love and friendship
For noble figures in gold and purple.
And long after other eyes can see
You have woven a moon-white strip of cloth,
You laugh in your strength, for Hope overlays it
With shapes of love and beauty.
The loom stops short!
The pattern’s out
You’re alone in the room!
You have woven a shroud
And hate of it lays you in it.
The finale begins with Fiddler Jones reflecting on his past life and returning to the play’s theme:
The earth keeps some vibration going
there in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle–
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.
The old man returns to open the coffin, and the young deceased rises up to sing an invented, dreamy, lyrical number about life and its joys: “O life, o life, o beauty, to leave you!” There was no mistaking that for Masters, but it was what the moment needed.
Edmund Pollard then arrives to sing about the “light of life, the sun of delight”. Fully accompanied by plucked strings, fiddle, etc. this builds to a hymnic finale, which includes that moving line: “Is your soul alive? Then let it feed!”
This was a richly entertaining, deeply moving celebration of life, deeply treasured by the dead, even if it unfolded in this petty corner of the world, but not so insignificant, since Abraham Lincoln’s career began in nearby Springfield, a source of pride to the locals.
One cannot sufficiently praise the consistently brilliant and committed cast and all participants, including Albert Schultz, Artistic Director of Soulpepper and director of Spoon River. Soulpepper is great!
Soulpepper will take it back to Toronto soon. Don’t waste time getting your tickets!