Every time I’m taught about the Civil War, it’s always summarized as the divisive event of our nation’s history. Yes, we learn about the abolishment of slavery, the female soldiers and nurses, a nation rekindling its lost connections, yet we’re always left with the remembrance of pain. In New York Theatre Workshop’s production of A Civil War Christmas, written by Paula Vogel and directed by Tina Landau, we’re forced to see a different kind of war.
It’s 1864. The soldiers and generals carry their rifles in unending preparation for combat. A runaway slave, Hannah, tries desperately to escape with her daughter, Jesse. Decatur Bronson, a Union blacksmith, hammers away to blair out the sounds of his lost wife’s voice beckoning out to him. A lanky college student leaves his education to join the army and believes it will make him a man. A mother remembers her son who’d died in the field and sews and sews and sews until she can no longer think about him. A young boy and his horse search for adventure when everyone else has had enough of it. President Lincoln searches for a present for his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Mary Todd Lincoln wants desperately to pause the war so she can just be – Mrs. Lincoln.
Paula Vogel intertwines each character’s story on the same wooden stage with one intricate link: it’s Christmas Eve and no one knows what that means. It was difficult to follow at times with each new story being introduced and each actor given an additional character to play. It wasn’t until I realized that the brevity was what gave the play its importance, did I understand what I was searching for. I’m used to stories with extensive development and characters that rise and fall with each plot twist, but war, although dramatic, isn’t meant for drama. The point is that we can never understand what it’s like to be the president or his wife, the boy who values battle over education, or the mothers who lost their children. We can never understand what it’s like to be in the middle of war.
What most do understand, however, is what it’s like to look forward to Christmas (or any other holiday). We know what it’s like to grow tired of conflict and stress. Paula Vogel’s war wasn’t about the military strategies or rifles or even history. Paula Vogel’s war was about the individual and his/her ability to forget political divisions for one night. To sit around a tree and remember that the soldier is a man, a teenager, a boy. The president is a husband and the first lady is a wife. The runaway slave’s daughter still longs for her mother. A mother still longs for her lost son or daughter. Yes, there’s a war going on and yes, this soldier is from enemy lines but tonight he’s hungry and tonight the war doesn’t matter.
It’s almost Christmas time, New York City. I suggest you and a friend go see Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas. And remember that even though the girl in front you is too tall or the guy sitting to the left of you laughs too loud, they’re just another person there for the same reason you’re there: to remember that it’s Christmas.