Stanely Burnshaw reviews ‘Battle Hymn: John Brown of Harper’s Ferry,’ a play written by Michael Blankfort and Daily Worker writer Michael Gold first performed by the Experimental Theater of the WPA Federal Theater Project. The play was based on a series of articles written by Gold for the Daily Worker in 1924 and ran for 72 performances from May to July, 1936 with a multi-racial cast of over sixty.
‘Battle Hymn: A New Tradition’ by Stanley Burnshaw from The New Masses. Vol. 19 No. 13. June 23, 1936.
THE cheers and curtain calls that followed the premiere of Battle Hymn were not the mere excesses of first-night enthusiasts. Two days later more than 7,000 people had bought advance tickets, and the audience response ever since has been exceptional. Obviously there is public hunger for dramatizations of our revolutionary tradition, and however varied may be our judgments of it as drama, Battle Hymn (Experimental Theater) has securely registered itself as an event in the theater. Few writers of future such historical plays will be quite unaffected by its virtues and lacks; and audiences will have been given, to a degree at least, a framework for future reference. Such a pioneering attempt raises a complex of problems for the playwright, a book-long essay is needed to explore it. But some questions immediately suggest themselves to the spectator, and it may be worth while to discuss them in view of the enormous possibilities of this tradition in embryo.
Look deeply enough into any subject and you will eventually find a substream of poetry, according to many readers and writers. Is a substream of drama similarly accessible? On the surface much primary material in the revolutionary tradition would seem impossible to transmute into living theater; and this apparently is confirmed by the absence of satisfactory plays about Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson. None of these characters is dramatically interesting as an individual, and no clearer example of this could be wanted than John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln, which was generously praised a dozen years ago. Lifted out of the crucial context of his age, Lincoln emerges in the man-against-the-sky manner, a silhouette of solitary tragedy. It is a skillful dramatic pageant and a dead play; but it usefully epitomizes the sterile approach. Drinkwater looked into the Lincoln subject but stopped long before he had sighted the dramatic substream. The result is a character detached from the very masses he articulated, from the living force which carried him through the conflicts of history. Beholding the final man clothed in the garments of his time, Drinkwater was dazzled and he described the vision without bothering to understand its components. The result is a remote character-portrait irrelevant in its illusory timelessness; neither psychologically explorred nor memorably described from the outside. It differs acutely from the approach of Michael Gold and Michael Blankfort, whose emphasis on the social background of John Brown makes their subject practically contemporary.
In our review of a few weeks ago we briefly described the device whereby Battle Hymn is linked to the America of 1936. A prolog to each act and an epilog emphasize the general political situation of the John Brown period in a manner that has double effectiveness: the events contained in the three acts are situated in their socio-economic context and the major political issues of the 1850s-1860s are found sharply contemporaneous. This double timeliness stressed by the scenes adds enormously to the excitement of the play, but it is equally clear that such correspondence between two political periods will rarely be found. Ten years ago, for instance, the allusions to the Supreme Court, now so pertinent, would have been pointless to the then contemporary events pointlessness beyond the playwrights’ control. Judged intrinsically as drama, therefore, correspondence between political issues in a play and in its season of production is adventitious. But the fact about Battle Hymn’s method which can be generalized relates to its deliberate means of impressing audiences with the significance of the central struggles through an innovation in form. The action proceeds on two planes: the prologs and epilog which create the general background, the acts which present the particular struggle. Though they are parallel lines as they appear on the stage, the two planes of action meet and fuse in the consciousness of the spectator. Hence, what might appear to be a superimposed background becomes an organic part of a dynamic whole. The question of one or varied technics for the two planes is a subordinate one, though the expressionist prologs of Battle Hymn provided refreshing contrast to the conventional technic of the acts themselves.
John Brown’s career offers a superb opportunity for playwrights; here is an inspiring individual traveling from trustful passivity to impassioned action. The bare record is dramatic, in this respect apparently “easier” than Lincoln’s or Washington’s; and the original script of Battle Hymn in one instance was infinitely more effective than the current production. The final act was staged in the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry which Brown and his men seized and were now defending. The quintessence of Brown’s life is visible in this last desperate move to found a free Negro republic, in the hopelessness of his last stand and his final seizure. All this has been changed in the revision. The last act takes place before the final battle and there is only an epilog to bring one to the subsequent events- Brown’s trial and hanging. The spectator has to supply the most dramatic episode in the play.
The purposes behind this costly revision are especially puzzling because it breaks the method of construction: a pageant of key episodes externally observed. By substituting for the original battle scene a struggle of minds on the brink of action, Battle Hymn commits itself suddenly to an exploration of inner conflicts which it has hitherto avoided. Except for this inexplicable shift, Brown is consistently externalized. He is a firm spirit caught in his own inner thoughts- a picturesque figure, a provocative suggestion which risks tiring spectators who wish eventually to be let in on his secret. The question here is not alternatives of internal or external presentation- a character observed through action or through a subtle unburdening of his psyche. Both approaches offer opportunities; and once the playwright has chosen between them, he faces a sharper problem. Shall it be an orthodox dramatization of historical facts or an idealized product of wishes? No sensible playwright, of course, consciously chooses to create either an artificially-respired effigy or a fuzzy, fictive chromo. He knows he must strike a course safely between if he is to make a picture both compelling and truthful. Battle Hymn leans toward timidness in this respect; what Brown gains in restraint he loses in fullness.
The result is a somewhat lean characterization requiring a background of rich stuff which the authors and direction have supplied. Color and warmth flow through many scenes and summarize the mood in terms of the theater-sets, costumes, dances, significant phrases and gestures. These, if you will, are the poetry in the play; they even humanize the magisterial figure of Brown rapt in his wild silence.
The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1936/v19n13-jun-23-1936-NM.pdf