A Civil War Christmas, written by Paula Vogel and directed by Tina Landau, which runs at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village until December 30, is set in many different places on the last Christmas Eve of the Civil War. The stage is big, with photographs of people from the 1860s on one side of the audience and costumes for the show hanging on the other. The scenes of the play blend into each other and each actor portrays several characters.
The actors have an amazing ability to give us the goose bumps quickly with powerful singing and stories of the characters’ struggles. Sometimes the music (much of which comes from the time period) and down-to-earth narrative style makes us feel warm; and sometimes the characters’ sadness makes us shiver.
Two of the most moving stories are that of Decatur Bronson (K. Todd Freeman), a black Union general whose wife Rose (Amber Iman) went missing after a battle, and Elizabeth Keckley (Karen Kandel), who lost her son in the war. Throughout the play, Bronson and Keckley brush away luminous (and in Bronson’s case mysterious) flashbacks of their loved ones until the end.
The play’s very large number of characters makes their stories hard to keep track of and connect with. There is Hannah, who wants to escape to the North with her daughter; Lincoln, who wants to get a Christmas present for his wife; Mrs. Lincoln, who wants a present for her husband; Mrs. Lincoln’s black friend Elizabeth, the one whose son died in the war; Robert E. Lee; John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators; Chester, the abolitionist son of a Quaker who drops out of college to fight for the Union; Raz, the Confederate teenager who goes on an adventure with his horse; and more. Each of these figures gets their own scene or song.
A message of finding common ground seems to tie all of their stories together. Walt Whitman gives the wounded soldiers at a Northern hospital presents regardless of their religion or race, and they decide that, “He’s got some powerful magic.” Lincoln’s power is not really shown, and one narrator interestingly tells us that in the 1800s anyone could knock on the door of the White House if they wished to speak to the president. Most of the characters also long for peace.
The problem is, while I admire its compassion, I am skeptical of the play’s message of unity. In A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn writes, “The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.” Once we are aware of these competing interests, we can choose a side that we feel is just.
This is why I think the play goes too far in blurring the lines between establishment and the people and moving the conflict of the Civil War to the sidelines. It is a little hard to believe when I see the freezing daughter of a former slave wrapped in the president’s Christmas present.