A Civil War Christmas has meaning for our time

Mary Todd Lincoln comforts a dying soldier in A Civil War Christmas

Behind a plain door on a narrow street in Greenwich Village, far from the glitter of Steven Speilberg’s Hollywood, my family and I watched Paula Vogel’s imaginative and lyrical play A Civil War Christmas unfold on a bare-bones stage. I sat down to enjoy a drama. I did not expect to be almost immediately moved to tears. What got me going, I realized, was the play’s masterful use of music.

The story is set on Christmas Eve, 1864, a few weeks before Lincoln’s second inauguration. The multiple story lines follow the lives of some pretty interesting characters in and around a turbulent and frost-bitten Washington, D.C. — fictional and historical, children and grown-ups, black and white, Jews and Christians, and even a couple of animals. (The talented cast of 11 play multiple roles.)

Their concerns are both lofty and simple: Abraham Lincoln wants to finalize a war and heal a shattered nation, and at the same time personally retrieve a forgotten Christmas present for his wife. Mary Todd Lincoln visits the wounded soldiers and tries to forget her own torments, and also wants to make the White House more festive with a Christmas tree, not an easily procured item in war-besieged D.C. A slave wants to get her child to safety and freedom. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who has bought her own freedom through her sewing and design talent, wants to overcome the guilt she feels over her son’s death in battle. A Confederate boy wants glory. A dying Jewish soldier wants to see his mentor Walt Whitman once more. Perhaps the most powerful character, a black Union sergeant called Bronson, wants to revenge the abduction of his wife by Confederate soldiers. He vows to “take no prisoners.”

What binds these disparate stories together is the interjection of traditional carols, hymns, spirituals and popular song of the time, in arrangements by Daryl Waters and keenly directed from the keyboard by Andrew Resnick. Sometimes dancing, sometimes accompanying themselves on the banjo, accordion and fiddle, the actors harmonize”God Rest Ye Merry Gentelemn,” “Silent Night,” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Oh, Christmas Tree.”   The spirituals “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Ain’t That a Rocking,” and “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” are powerfully delivered.

At the play’s climax, when Bronson spares the life of a Confederate child-soldier in an ingenious way, the melodious Longfellow carol, “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” with its message of “peace on earth, good will toward men” takes on new meaning. In light of the slaughter of young innocents in Connecticut just a week earlier, it was especially haunting.

A Civil War Christmas may never receive the publicity or audience numbers of Spielberg’s highly touted Lincoln, but it deserves to. I would like to see it performed every holiday season like The Nutcracker or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a part of our cultural tradition and dialogue, its drama and music passed with care from one generation to the next.

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