Thursday, April 25, 2013

Haste Makes Waste?

The Historic Washington State Park superintendent told me the other day that in about 1880 there was a trial and hanging at the 1874 court house that made news in several area papers, including the Arkansas Gazette and the venerable Washington Telegraph. Apparently there was a man living in Washington who brought his mistress into his home to live while his wife was living there. The wife was quite ill when the husband brought his girlfriend into the home and she continued to worsen until she died unaccountably sick and much too young. The superintendent said the man buried his wife with unseemly haste the day after she died.

Hearing about the death and hurried final arrangements, the owner of the nearby farm store got suspicious. He contacted the Hempstead County Sheriff and showed him a receipt for strychnine that the man had purchased not long before his wife’s death. The sheriff had the wife exhumed and checked for the poison, finding an abundance of it in her system.

The man was arrested and tried in the 1874 courthouse. According to the superintendent, he was found guilty and was executed by hanging in the usual place of doing so in the town of Washington. The newspapers reported that over 2,000 people attended the execution.

I was fascinated by the story but a bit puzzled about the urgency and excitement with which the park boss was telling me all about it. Puzzled, that is, until he said, “Dan, would you be interested in writing a re-enactment of the trial for production in the 1874 court house? We want to act it out in the 1874 court house periodically just like we do Washington’s first murder trial down at the 1835 court house.” That show is called “Trial by Jury.”

The superintendent knew about my published account of another court hearing entitled “Court of Inquiry” and he remembered my re-enactment as judge in Washington’s “Trial by Jury,” in which he, himself played the sheriff. My response as to my interest in the writing project was affirmative, of course. The park curator was sent to visit me that very evening and revealed some surprising details about that murder trial the superintendent had related earlier in the day. The culprit and his wife and mistress were African Americans.

Mary Madearis’ book on the Southwest Trail points out that people who had served in the Confederate Army were not allowed to run for nor to serve in the state legislature after the Civil War, so African Americans were often elected, and some of them later became county judges and clerks of court and held other local offices. Such was the case in Washington. As I work on the script, I will try to find out more history from court records if any exist. I know at least one really good local African American actor who would be perfect for the re-enactment. I’m sure the state park itself will provide an abundance of potential re-enactors for the play. What shall we call it? Haste Makes Waste?  It should be a challenging project!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bird in the Wind

We were living in the country early this century when the straight-line wind came. We had a home with a covered porch where I often hung the parakeet so the bird could enjoy the great out-of-doors. As far as I could tell, he liked it until that wind storm. You know where this is going, right? But first, let me give you a little history of us and parakeets.

We had enjoyed these little pets for a long time. One of my colleagues had Georgy Bird, a green parakeet that talked a blue streak. Some of the things he said were embarrassing, so I determined that if I got one, I would keep his vocabulary clean and avoid visits with Georgy Bird. Our first one, Alan, a green one, didn’t talk for quite a spell, but he eventually said, in my voice, “You crazy old turkey bird.” I recognized the statement as something I had called Alan repeatedly while playing with him. After that initial utterance, we could not shut him up. His repertoire included such statements as, “To be or not to be,” “Inside, Alan,” (I said the phrase every time I put him back in his cage) “I love you” and my favorite, “How unique!” You see, when people would visit and try to get him to talk by saying such common things as “pretty bird” or “Polly wants a cracker,” Alan would reply in a bored, somewhat sarcastic tone, “How unique.”

Our second bird, Horatio, also green and very friendly, didn’t talk much at all, but he could do the wolf whistle like nobody’s business. I kept him outside some, but stopped putting him out there when I overheard a neighbor saying, “Every time I step outside, someone whistles at me.”

Our third bird, Bird E. Birdy, was light blue and quite cranky. Maybe as parakeets get away from their native color, green, their personality changes. He never warmed up to handling and, unlike most pet birds, Bird E. Birdy preferred to stay in his cage. I could leave his door open all day and he would just sit there on his perch, munching seeds. He had very little curiosity about the world of humans.

Well, on the day of the great winds, we had a function at church, so we just left Bird E. Birdy hanging in his cage on our porch. During our church event, someone came in to report that a tree was down beside the parking lot and that the wind was blowing to beat the band. Oh, poor Bird E. Birdy, we thought.

When the wind died down some, we went on home, observing significant wind damage along the way. We dreaded the dire avian spectacle we might find at home. But, to our relief, Bird E. Birdy’s cage was intact and the bird was himself, unruffled, but seedless. He warmed up to us a bit after that experience. I guess the storm took the wind out of his sail. If Bird E. Birdy had learned the vocabulary of Georgy Bird, I’m pretty sure what he would have said to us.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Mack on the Melancholy Dane

I’m not really a Shakespeare scholar. I’m more of a fan of the great bard. I have been called upon to teach his plays in college classes, though, and it seems to get more challenging every year. I think that is because I so desire to see my recalcitrant students understand and appreciate the genius of Shakespeare as he unfolds an intricate and often illogical plot.

Maynard Mack, the great Shakespeare scholar and professor, often talked about Hamlet. He called the play “The Poisoned Kingdom” and described the work as three stories in one: a ghost story, a detective story and a revenge story.

Early in the masterpiece, the ghost of young Hamlet’s father appears to reveal that his brother, Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, had poisoned him to gain his crown and his queen. He tells his son that Claudius poured poison into his ear while he was napping in the garden. He explains that it is put out that a snake bit him but he tells Hamlet that the snake that bit him in the garden now wears his crown. This shocking revelation, coming as it does from a ghost, drives Hamlet to the very brink of insanity. From that point on in the play is sometimes indecisive, sometimes rash, sometimes jocular and sometimes melancholy.

What Mr. Mack called the detective story begins when the equivocating Hamlet doubts the identity of the ghost claiming to be his father. He knows the Devil can take on various forms. This may be the Evil One himself trying to trick him into killing an innocent man, thereby damning himself to sulfuric flames forever. So he tests it out to be sure of the veracity of the ghost: with Uncle Claudius in attendance, he has a group of touring actors play out the poisoning scene like the one the ghost described. Hamlet calls the little play within the play “The Mousetrap.” He and his good friend Horatio watch Claudius during the performance and when he reacts badly, he knows the ghost was truthful.

But Hamlet does not fly to his revenge. He has the opportunity to kill Claudius almost immediately after the mousetrap, but Claudius is in the chapel praying and Hamlet decides to put it off until he can catch him in the midst of a sin. So instead of killing his uncle when he had the chance, he equivocates and rashly kills the wrong man, The Lord Chamberlain Polonius, who was hidden behind a curtain. Polonius was his girlfriend, Ophelia’s, father and his death at the hand of her boyfriend drives her to insanity.

In the last moments of the play, Hamlet gives his uncle a dose of the same poison that had killed his father. This happens just before Hamlet himself died from, you guessed it, poison. Polonius’ son cuts Hamlet with a poisoned sword to avenge his own father’s death. Here ends the poisoned kingdom.

I so greatly admire Maynard Mack for his ability to simplify a very complex plot without sacrificing its marvelous intricacy. Professors faced with getting contemporary college students to understand and appreciate the play have a daunting task. Mr. Mack’s neat method of talking about the structure is certainly a way into the work.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Roasted Fox

About 15 years ago, I was elected to the city council of Washington, Arkansas. During my tenure there, I worked with a fellow councilman named Thurston, who was around 85 years old at the time. He has since passed away, but I shall never forget a story he told, because it had a perfectly unfolding surprise ending. To the best of my recollection, the story went this way. I’ll try to tell it in Thurston’s voice:

“When we were boys here in Washington, my brother and I used to make our spending money by selling animal hides to a company up in St. Louis. We would trap or shoot game, or beg hides from other hunters, scrape them and cure them and send them up there in a box with a notebook paper list of contents. We made four or five dollars for each box of possum, rabbit and squirrel hides. Also, Mrs. Black that ran the restaurant gave us a quarter for any edible meat we would take her. She was always wanting us to bring her a coon, but we never had been able to oblige.

“Well, one night in the wee-small hours, Daddy got up because the dogs were raising cane down yonder by the branch and he come stomping through the house saying that if any of us were going to get any sleep, he would have to go shoot whatever it was the dogs had treed down there. He grabbed his double-barrel .20-gauge and took off down the hill. Directly, we heard blam, blam then a pause, then another blam. He came back with the dogs behind him, carrying a dead animal we couldn’t make out in the dark. He throwed it into the box on the back porch and told us we could have the coon for the hide when we skinned it out in the morning.

“Strange as it may seem, my brother and I had never even seen a coon. There just weren’t any around Washington in those days. So we were excited that we would have some coon meat to take to Mrs. Black and a coon hide to send to St. Louis.

“At daylight, my brother and I skinned the animal, took the meat to Mrs. Black, who was really happy to get coon meat—she gave us 50 cents for it. When the hide was cured we packaged it up with a couple of possum skins, a couple of rabbit skins and a squirrel skin, made our list and sent the package off. Several days later, Mrs. Black saw us in town and she said that her customers loved the coon and that if we got any more she would pay us well for them.

“The next week, we got a letter and the best check ever from St. Louis. The letter said that we were right about all the other skins we sent but wrong about the coon skin. That was not a coon hide, they wrote, but a fox skin. We never told Mrs. Black.”