Ancestors in the room
Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s newest play, A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration set in and around Washington, D.C., on Christmas Eve 1864, brings together the Lincolns, soldiers, runaway slaves, and others in a celebration of hope amidst devastation. Here, in a September 2008 interview with Long Wharf Theatre’s dramaturg April Donahower, Vogel discusses joy and tragedy, the public and private, and why it’s imperative that we acknowledge our history.
AD: This play is a departure of sorts for you [in that it’s written for a family audience]. What has led you in this direction?
PV: I am always trying to get to a point where I’m sharing something with the community . . . something painful. And the reason I do that isn’t to hurt people or to dwell in the hurt; it’s to get past it. It’s to resolve it. It’s to change it.
The alchemy of an audience, with issues that hurt us . . . there’s an alchemy that happens and I think we can turn it to gold. And if that gold is hope, if that goal is action, if that goal is leaving the theatre and feeling as if the person sitting next to me in seat D4 is actually now a neighbor, that’s a huge step forward for me.
The word “family values” has been used so often, but I don’t see why we’re not saying “community values” because it seems to me every family is the community. Out of that — which I think has been in other plays — this thing came to me.
In the past 20 years, I’ve had children (some of them now are wonderful grown men) say to me, “Aunt Paula,” or “Godmother, when do I get to see one of your plays?” Usually this is a conversation that’s taking place over Christmastime. And I say, “When you’re 30 years old and you can go and talk to a therapist or talk to me afterwards, but you can’t come see my plays until you’ve reached the age of adulthood.” And it’s always been kind of a family joke.
But if I’m talking about family values, I should write something that I can say to my family, “Guys, I wanted to give this to you when you were five and I know now you’re 27,” or “Rebecca, you know, you’re six years old, and, you know, I just want you to know this and talk about it with you.” So I wrote [A Civil War Christmas] for my family. This is my Christmas gift. My Hanukah/Christmas — we’re very diverse — Kwanzaa gift to the family.
AD: I love your portrait of the Lincolns. We get both the family and the bigger picture.
PV: The Lincolns are our ghosts. We have many, many ghosts from the Civil War, and we have ghosts that we may not even name or know of the men and women who served. There are a lot of ghosts in this play. We have ancestors in the room at Christmas, or at Hanukah when we light those lights. We are thanking the ones that went before us, around our hearth. That, too, is a way that we examine who we are as Americans.
I’ve always thought that theatre is a form of patriotism for every one of us involved, including the audience. It’s a form of patriotism and service to the community to come together, to support the arts and culture, and to make sure that children have access to it so that it’s something that we enjoy and participate in for a lifespan. This, too, is serving our country. It’s a time for us to look at who we are. And in order to look at who we are, we have to recognize who we were.
AD: Can you talk about the collision of resurrecting the ghosts of the past with our desire to mythologize the past and put it in a safe place?
PV: We tend to tell the story of the Civil War as Grant and Lee and a certain part of Abraham Lincoln, but we’re not talking about merchants and women who were left behind and kept businesses, households, and boarding houses going. We don’t think about the role of children in the Civil War. And we have mis-remembered how active African Americans were in turning the tide of national battle. The monuments, when they were erected, were often torn down. There’s a certain point where we wanted to remember the embrace of Confederate and Union white soldiers without acknowledging African Americans.
We forget. We forget things that I knew in childhood, but never looked at. Our forgetting parts of the story is a perpetual disenfranchising of citizens living in our country. We forget as Maryland school children that our State Anthem is actually the anthem of a slave state that talks about Northern scum. There are remnants everywhere of this battle that still haven’t been resolved.
I wanted to know what it was like to be fighting in a war and trying to have a Seder. Or trying to light lights when you’re in the field. What was that like? I wanted to find one Native American who was there on this Christmas Eve. So that the children in the family who can trace back that heritage can point and say, “OK, we were there.”
AD: How did the characters emerge out of your research?
PV: They came first and the research came second. I just found them. We have to tell the story and the story has to be alive and active over the historical truth. There are times now wherein I forget if I made something up or if it actually happened because the characters feel so real to me. I just know them.
The question isn’t “What is historically true?” It’s “What can we believe?” When we walk through the lobby at the end of the evening, do we believe something different about ourselves? I’m sure that there are historians that are going to come in and they’re going to just think, “Oh, Clara Barton wasn’t in Washington.” And they’re absolutely right. I’m apologizing ahead of time.
AD: It’s a quest for a truth other than historical accuracy.
PV: I think as a country we have to acknowledge what happened in the Civil War and I think we have to acknowledge the role of slavery in the Civil War. Now it’s 2008. We need to bring it into the open and say it. This is part of our country’s past and history. How can we have a conversation about the country we radically need to shape if we don’t have that moment of acknowledgement?
AD: As hurtful as it may be.
PV: I think it’s healing. I believe it’s healing.