The play is the tragedy, "Man,"
And its hero the Conquering Worm.
--Edgar Allan Poe, "The Conqueror Worm"
When the space shuttle Columbia blew up last month, the party line--that the astronauts' deaths should inspire rather than discourage manned spaceflight--drew sneers from those who thought sending people into space was reckless, not heroic. Whatever turns out to have been the cause of the disaster, the risk of death is an unavoidable aspect of humanity's drive to expand into uncharted territory--whether on land, in the air, or under the sea.
What makes someone a hero? That's the question asked by playwright G. Riley Mills in his new historical drama, Raising Blue. Workshopped last summer in Prop Thtr's "New Play 2002" festival, it's now receiving its world premiere in a production that--in light of both the Columbia tragedy and the Bush administration's drive toward war--is strikingly timely. Based on a true Civil War incident, Raising Blue focuses on the crews of the C.S.S. Hunley, the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship during wartime. Almost every one of its men died in the line of duty. The nature of their heroism is an enduring mystery. Mills presents some clues to the puzzle but ultimately suggests that we raise more questions than we answer when we consider "the tragedy, 'Man.'"
Set primarily in Charleston during the Union blockade of 1863-'64, Raising Blue is extensively researched, though--as the program notes--Mills has taken liberties with the actual events and personages involved. He invents a connection between the sub's chief financial backer and namesake--Horace Hunley, a privateer and speculator--and George Dixon, the young captain who commanded the Hunley's final mission. In Mills's account, Hunley and Dixon are social acquaintances and rivals for the affections of Queenie Bennett, Dixon's fiancee. Dixon is a veteran of the bloody battle of Shiloh, surviving it because a gift from Queenie--a gold coin--in his pocket deflected a bullet. (This remarkable element of the tale is true; the coin was recovered when the wreck of the Hunley was discovered in 1995, after a 20-year search.)
Suffering from battle fatigue, Dixon is enlisted by Hunley to train a crew for the Confederacy's underwater "secret weapon." But Dixon's insistence on a cautious, time-consuming series of test runs finally prompts Hunley--under pressure from another Shiloh survivor, General Pierre G.T. Beauregard--to take over command of the sub himself. When it sinks on its maiden voyage, killing Hunley and his men, it must be recovered and refitted. Dixon then takes back his command despite the protests of Beauregard, who's come to view the sub as a "murdering machine" more dangerous to his own men than to the enemy. The result is the Hunley's single, successful attack on an enemy ship--the U.S.S. Housatonic, which it rams with a torpedo. The Housatonic was destroyed in February 1864, but the Hunley was lost with all hands; this quixotic victory was not enough to turn the tide of the war, and Confederate forces surrendered a year later.
Mills's play is intelligent, evenhanded, and happily free of politics. He doesn't preach an antiwar message, nor does he demonize his characters--all of them white Confederates. He doesn't tell us what to think or feel, as so many young playwrights are inclined to do. Instead he lets the story speak for itself, inviting us to consider heroism as a fascinating muddle of motives and impulses. Dixon and his comrades are driven by devotion to a cause--"southern rights"--and by the deep belief that this cause is not only righteous but divinely protected. They see themselves as fighting a war of independence, just as their ancestors had done 80 years earlier. Queenie wonders whether it's a sin to consider slavery "a curse upon the land," but hers is an oblique, lonely perspective shaped not by principle but by her response to her family's suffering in blockade-strangled Charleston.
Ideologies are only part of what motivates Dixon and his friends, however. Mills--whose authentic-sounding dialogue incorporates passages from letters, memoirs, and other contemporary sources--suggests that the characters, most of them soldiers or civilian volunteers, are influenced by a stew of other factors: a passionate need to prove themselves, brotherly bonding, a boyish sense of adventure, ambition, greed for a privateer's bounty, and the innate urge to forge a new path for humanity. "It's gonna sail us straight into the history books," Dixon says of his improbable new craft. Putting a noble idealism in the service of an evil, doomed cause--secession and slavery--they're also paving the way for a technology and mobility that we take for granted today. Their deaths both ennoble and squander their lives: these men are courageous and foolhardy, ridiculous and inspiring.
Where this production falls short is in conveying the claustrophobic horror of the Hunley itself. About 25 feet long but only about 4 feet high, the sub was hand-cranked by men who had to sit in what one historian described as "almost a fetal position," unable even to stretch their legs if they got a cramp; navigated by compass, the craft was lit by one candle, which further drained an air supply that lasted for not much more than an hour. The two scenes set inside the sub only begin to suggest how terrifying the Hunley must have been to operate.
But though technical limitations hamper this aspect of the play, director Adam Theisen has otherwise mounted a splendid low-budget production in Prop Thtr's storefront space. The auditorium's intimacy places the actors close to (and sometimes in) the audience, emphasizing these strong young men's physicality as well as their vulnerability. The excellent ensemble bring an understated intensity to roles that could have come off as war-movie cliches. Particularly good are Matthew Brumlow as Dixon; Christopher Gausselin as shrewd, arrogant Hunley; Benjamin Newton as the scruffy young scavenger Augustus Miller; Ryan Pfeiffer as eager, knuckleheaded teenage soldier Thomas Park; E. Vincent Teninty as burly bully Robert Brookbank; and James Wm. Joseph as Frederick Wicks, a religious man shaken by the brutality he observed during guard duty at the Andersonville prison camp who nonetheless remains dedicated to the Confederate cause.
Best of all is Jason Denuszek in the play's most difficult role: William Alexander, Dixon's right-hand man and the play's narrator. Denuszek combines plainspoken honesty with a craftsman's impeccable timing as he negotiates difficult transitions between rebel-boy high spirits and bittersweet elegiac eloquence; it's an amazing performance, especially in such a small space, which would magnify every false or unsteady beat.
Raising Blue is not cutting-edge work; it's a solid, well-made drama that should have a long life in regional and academic theater circles--not to mention its potential as a film or TV property. And Mills's thoughtful scrutiny of what one character calls "martial ardor," which both nurtures and wastes men's potential, gives it a terrible currency. "We got a lot more of the same in store for tomorrow," says Dixon after one harrowing munitions test. It's hard not to think he's right.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Benjamin Newton.