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  • A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration
  • Miriam Chirico
A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration. By Paula Vogel. Directed by Tina Landau. Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, CT. 14 December 2008.

Over the second half of the twentieth century, historians have worked toward writing texts with more inclusive depictions of the varied peoples and cultures that constitute the United States. Rather than provide a linear narrative of conquerors and colonialists, these texts now reveal stories about marginalized groups and peripheral personages, often told in sidebars and box insertions. Portraying the Civil War from this fragmented, multicultural perspective, Paula Vogel’s ambitious musical captures a crucial twenty-four-hour period during the nation’s divisive war. Referring to herself as a “historian-playwright” at a post-show symposium, Vogel deliberately portrays the Civil War from a multicultural perspective. A Civil War Christmas offers a panoramic view of Washington, DC, and its surroundings at Christmastime, depicting runaway and freed slaves; white, black, and Native American soldiers; women serving as nurses or as soldiers in disguise; Union and Confederate leaders; and Quakers, Christians, and Jews. It is a synchronistic snapshot of the ordinary people who comprise Civil War history, but who often are overshadowed by historical figures such as Lincoln, Grant, and Lee.

Vogel’s apparent objective—to retell history both accurately and equitably—succeeded, but just barely; the episodic structure of the play’s narrative kept the audience at an emotional distance. Offering an American counterpart to the familiar A Christmas Carol, as stated in the program notes, she denied the play the affective resonance that comes from focusing on a singular character like Scrooge or George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. Her approach is somewhat academic. The program provides the audience with crucial information, such as timelines, dates, and notes that explain historical personas, as well as a schematic design that categorizes the various locations the characters inhabit: the White House, the Armory Hospital, or Mary Surratt’s H Street boardinghouse. Consequently, with so much information to master, the musical’s overall impression is dazzling, but dizzying; coherent, but not always cohering. [End Page 629]

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The cast of A Civil War Christmas. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson.)

The balance between historical accuracy and artistic license undergirds this endeavor, and Vogel, as a historian-playwright, resolved the dilemma for herself by focusing on plausible events rather than precise details. As she noted during the post-show talk, she often would question historians and colleagues about whether scenes from her play were credible, even if they were not necessarily true. But when facts proved otherwise she amended them, such as altering a scene in which Walt Whitman visited soldiers at the Armory Hospital in Washington; when documents proved him to be in Brooklyn at Christmas, Vogel had the soldiers dream about him instead. More important than focusing on verifiable details was her desire to acknowledge the period’s social diversity, and to that end she presents plausible encounters among historical figures. “I wanted to know what it was like trying to light the lights [for Hanukkah] in the field,” she explains in the program notes. “I wanted to find one Native American who was there on this Christmas Eve. So that the children in [my] family who trace back that heritage can point and say, ‘OK, we were there.’” Vogel includes well-known stories such as Grant’s letter to Lincoln upon conquering Savannah, as well as ones she mined from archives and biographies: for example, Mary Todd Lincoln’s spending sprees, and the two African Americans, Decatur Dorsey and James Bronson, who received Medals of Honor.

In order to tell a comprehensible story, extraneous details are by necessity left out; to reveal too many details is to dilute narrative power. Vogel deserves credit for interweaving multiple lives convincingly. Ely Parker, the Seneca Indian from New York who assisted Grant as his military secretary, serves him coffee. John Wilkes Booth, along with two accomplices, plots to assassinate Lincoln. Moses Levy lay dying after the Battle of Bull Run and listens as Mary Todd sings “Silent Night” to him; his mother...


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pp. 629-631
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