Staging the Civil War

APR 14, 2015

A note from choreographer Liz Lerman

I have always had an active imagination, by which I mean images, objects, pictures, and—because of my dance training— rhythms, energies, and spatial projections fly through my mind at all times. For me, this brain movie is like a second universe, accompanying me everywhere and available to me if I remember to pay attention and look at what is there. So when I heard that there was a consortium of museums in Washington, D.C. preparing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, the fact that I had an immediate picture in my mind of a series of performative events was not a surprise. What was curious to me is that when I thought about it more, and analyzed the pictures, I realized that I was also imagining new ideas about the Civil War. It seems I had already assessed and internalized the idea that there was new knowledge about the war years because a whole new generation of scholars was asking the questions. Many of these academics were coming at the War from the new perspectives of their own life experiences as well as using current technologies to access different data. More women, more people of color, more first-generation Americans asking questions of the war years. It was bound to be exciting.

I was very interested in finding out how other artists hear, see, and listen to these stories, and how they would translate them to the stage. So it was my hope that through The National Civil War Project the various theaters and universities would assemble and hear from scholars all kinds of data, and that the commissioned artists would also be able to talk to each other about how we heard and felt and saw the emergence of these ideas.

Healing Wars, the piece I made for the Project, was initially an investigation of what happened to women in the war. As my research developed, I began to pursue the cross-dressing soldiers, the nurses and nuns, and the ways in which female protagonists wrote about their experiences. A trip to The National Civil War Medicine Museum in Frederick, Maryland moved me to examine the world of amputations, which was a prominent part of the Civil War and a grim reminder of the nature of long-lasting wounds as our own men and women returned from Iraq with fewer limbs.

I was fortunate to get to spend the fall of 2011 at Harvard as Artist in Residence. While there, I spent a bit of time with President Faust. We talked about her own book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, including some specific images that I was beginning to consider as background for Healing Wars. But more importantly, the conversations led me to perceive an overall tone and emotion which eventually underscored all the stories I put on stage for Healing Wars. In addition, I participated in several of the roundtables that the A.R.T. organized for The National Civil War Project. All were quite moving as we listened to scholars and artists alike describe their research, their approaches, and their ways of trying to comprehend and understand the vast subject of the War and its consequences.

Here is one moment from those conversations that might shed some light on how the bringing together of scholars and artists works. Robin Kelsey, the Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography at Harvard, gave a wonderful lecture on one of Alexander Gardner’s famous photographs from the era, this one showing recently emancipated men getting ready to bury fallen soldiers whose bodies had decayed on the battlefield. The ambiguities inherent in the photograph, along with the long and twisted interpretations about race post-Civil War, led to a character in Healing Wars who stepped directly out of this image. I did additional research in order to discover the actual truth of the image, and the circumstances of the men in the photograph. Since I was making a piece of dance theater, I was able to synthesize the various threads of those mysteries into a character that, at least to me, represents and reinterprets the extraordinary meaning of a freedman burying the dead of the Civil War as both a job and as a sacred act.

I believe the Civil War is in our bones. I know that for every decision I made in Healing Wars there were countless roads I might have taken filled with grief, valor, cynicism, and hope. The compelling and torturous reasons for the War’s occurrence, the amazing and unique writing of its inhabitants, the spiritual nature of its combatants, and the extreme carnage surrounding all the stories have somehow made their way into our own narratives. It is a backdrop to so much of our contemporary life, in part because we are still fighting it. It gives artists and our communities of family, audience, and citizens much to ponder.

As audiences encounter the work of the many artists commissioned as part of The National Civil War Project, they will be able to consider some of these ideas: that we have entered a period of endless war, that the themes of reconciliation and emancipation, of debts never paid and forgiveness, of trauma taken on by many who must then re-enter the so-called normal world are stories from our past, but also part of our lived experience today.

Liz Lerman is a choreographer, performer, writer, educator, and speaker. The inspiring force behind The National Civil War Project, she is the recipient of numerous honors, including a 2002 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship.

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