“Gettysburg” – A journey begins

[Editor’s Note: Below are author Elizabeth Dowd’s thoughts and comments in part about the process of writing her new English-language noh “Gettysburg,” with music by David Crandall. This commentary was written in November of 2016, and the piece had its recent premiere on August 6, 2017 as a work-in-progress performance at Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble’s Alvina Krause Theatre. Please click here to listen to an an interview with Elizabeth Dowd, David Crandall, and John Oglevee by WVIA’s Erika Funke.]

Contributed by Elizabeth Dowd

The michiyuki or travel song, is a unique feature of noh plays. It joins us with the waki on a journey. It lets us know that this experience will take us somewhere, not solely geographical, but spiritual as well. So it was fitting that when I resolved to write a noh play set at Gettysburg, I began with a journey – a trip to Gettysburg to see first-hand the exact spots where the events of my play took place. As a long-time resident of Pennsylvania I had been to Gettysburg several times before. Thanks to the Visitors Center’s electronic map, it was there that I first really understood the vital role that strategy plays in battle. But for this trip to Gettysburg, the journey to get there was as important as the destination because I was writing a michiyuki. As my husband, Rand drove, I took notes on what I was seeing, recording the visible signs of autumn in the passing farmlands and the passing milestones: Hershey Park, Harrisburg. It would be days before I would sit quietly to wrangle those images into the standard 7/5 syllabification used in noh chant. Here’s my first draft

(Michiyuki)

Heading South on 81, bound for Gettysburg
(uchikiri)
Heading South on 81, bound for Gettysburg
Green fields striped by dried corn stalks, Harvest Day is done
Foothills gently disappear behind billboard signs
(uchikiri)
Past Hershey Park
Then crossing Harrisburg’ s bridge of fifty spans
Eighteen-wheelers rumble past, pot holes shake the car
The highway ends, the narrowed road unfurls the past
Silent fields divided by fence of post and rail
Monuments pay mute tribute, ghosts speak loudly here
Monuments pay mute tribute, ghosts speak loudly here

David Crandall performs as mae-shite in Elizabeth Dowd’s “Gettysburg”

And here’s the final version after conversations with composer David Crandall to make adjustments to accommodate the utai and drumming:

Heading South on 81, bound for Gettysburg
(uchikiri)
Heading South on 81, bound for Gettysburg

Green fields striped by withered stalks, Harvest Day is done
Foothills gently disappear behind billboard signs
(uchikiri)
Past Hershey Park
Then crossing Harrisburg’s bridge of fifty spans
Eighteen-wheelers rumble past, potholes shake the car
Highway ends. The narrowed road unfurls history
Fence of post and rail divide gently rolling fields
Monuments stand sentinel, ghosts speak loudly here
Monuments stand sentinel, ghosts speak loudly here

Gettysburg had always been a sweep to me, several significant battles waged over a three day period – I knew their names; Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Seminary Ridge, Cemetery Ridge, Pickett’s Charge – and the broad outlines of their significance. But today, I came with a singular focus; to stand in the place where Confederate General Lewis Armistead fell; to look upon the open field that he and thousand of other soldiers marched across to attack the Union line under the command of Union General Winfield Hancock. Armistead and Hancock had been friends before the war, trained at West Point and fighting together in the War in Mexico.

Richard Emmert performs as waki in Elizabeth Dowd’s “Gettysburg”

Hancock was a golden boy. Nicknamed “The Superb,” he was well liked and distinguished himself in battle at an early age. Armistead was a man of few friends. Called a “rigid man,” he was known for demanding the impossible from troops under his command. My research led me to believe that Hancock was more important to Armistead than Armistead was to Hancock. I began to imagine the ghost of Lewis Armistead, restlessly roaming the scene of his last battle where he faced his closest friend, now mortal enemy. I wandered near the Angle, the stonewall which marked the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, until I found the marker erected where Armistead fell. Suddenly, immediately, Gettysburg was transformed by the power of the personal story. “Here. It was on this very spot. It happened. It all really happened.” I was knocked out by something every historian knows; how the force of history is revealed through intimate detail. Names and places and statistics can tell us facts – details make them matter. I looked across that open field and wept.

That autumn trip was years and several drafts ago. This past autumn I embarked on another michiyuki – driving to Rogue River Retreat in Grand Rapids home of TN member and Gettysburg composer David Crandall. I wrote much of Gettysburg in the peace and quiet of RRR. Now I returned to hear it set to music. With the intrepid, marvelous Jubilith Moore at my side, we traveled west for four days of work. Another step in the creative process that will undoubtedly present new questions and possibilities in my quest to bring this story to life through the poetic filter of noh.

David Crandall performs as nochi-shite in Elizabeth Dowd’s “Gettysburg”, wearing the mask designed and carved by Kitazawa Hideta

 

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About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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