"1776": A Closer Look!
“I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a disgrace; two are a law firm; and three or more become a congress.”
—John Adams, “1776”
Don’t be fooled by the subject matter; this play, under Stage Company perennial Ron Gilliland’s deft direction, offers laugh-out-loud moments throughout—and even a generous dollop of romance, to boot!
But for now, picture the genteel, the be-wigged, the be-stockinged, the deeply annoyed and the highly nervous coming together from all over the land to chart a course for a new kind of political entity. Of course you’ve worked out the play’s title year and its significance; well, physically, the action in 1776 is set almost entirely inside chambers of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where delegates representing the 13 original U.S. colonies are battling it out—figuratively and musically, for the most part—to advance their positions on the advantages and disadvantages of independent rule.
Central to the process is an overbearing and opinionated John Adams (played by David Carroll), whose opening line in the year 1776 may strike some as possessing an unfortunate agelessness: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a disgrace; two are a law firm; and three or more become a congress”.
The ideological and tactical clashes between John Adams and fellow congressional delegate Benjamin Franklin (director Ron Gilliland) drive the action forward; as colonial relations with “the mother country” deteriorate rapidly, these men and their colleagues virtually cloister themselves in chambers for a debilitating round of debates at the height of a sweltering summer, leading up to the July 4th signing of their newly-drafted Declaration of Independence. (They periodically burst into song no doubt to offset the tension—wouldn’t you?—making wry observations about politics, themselves, and each other in the process.)
As presented by this skilled and cohesive troupe, the staged signing of the Declaration does not scream “theater!”; rather, there is a palpable emotional quality to this climactic moment, suggesting both the gravity and the excitement of a choice that could see the delegates all hang for treason—or see them enshrined in the history of a nation that would be like no other.
The hard-charging John Adams is forced to mature during the course of this long, hot summer, and actor David Carroll manages this transition with a knowing touch. Almost to the end, his Adams has imagined himself to be in support of independence at any cost—until his resolve, and his moral fiber, are shaken to the core by the slavery-related demands of the southern contingent. Benjamin Franklin, as depicted here, is more philosophical about the price he is willing to pay to bring a republic into existence before addressing the internal problems of its territories.
However, as viewers capable of seeing ahead from 1776 to the 1860s, the audience knows something of the eventual cost, in blood, of the untenable political arrangement perpetuated when Thomas Jefferson’s pointed (if ironic) denunciation of slavery is struck from the Declaration.
But we realize at the same time that, even had it been retained, it would have served no purpose whatsoever in the practical sense at the time. We are invited to consider here the complexity of statecraft from a perspective that offers no tidy, peaceful solution once “the die is cast”—even when instinct might suggest clearly the location of the moral high ground.
Our knowledge gives this eleventh-hour confrontation between Adams and Franklin added depth, and the power to disturb. Enhancing the encounter further for viewers is an unexpected development between the two long-time “foes”: Having been chastened by the slave-holding Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Brett Russell) for northern hypocrisy in this matter, the two statesmen now find themselves relating, in the wake of sudden exposure, not as ego-driven adversaries, but rather as men; men now wordless, yet bound, in their complicity, weary with resignation, with dread for what surely lies ahead on his front.
Delegate John Dickinson (Mike Malone), Abigail Adams (Ali Coates), and Martha Jefferson (Blythe Richardson) all figure prominently and have wonderful songs in 1776 as it unfolds. Look for musical moments in the spotlight for Thomas Jefferson (Matt Clanahan) and Richard Henry Lee (Joe Warren); and there is a perfect, doleful gem sung by the nameless young courier to the congressional chamber (Jessie Greer), during a moment of rest after the delegates have finally left for an evening. The courier, the chamber custodian (Jim Culbertson), and the “Leather Apron” (Maggie Cathey) go through their days largely unnoticed due to their modest station. When they come together in a private moment during their “down time”, they cannot avoid heading straight to the topic of the intensifying war, and its devastating effect on boys who are so very young, and on mothers who seek to identify and collect their own from among the dead in the field.
Let me assure you that 1776 ends on the upbeat, with the delegates, exhausted from bitter and divisive debate, gradually regaining their composure and good humor—now joking especially frankly about having possibly signed their own death warrant in the form of the new Declaration of Independence. Joking about being summarily dispatched as traitors to England, yes, but hoping beyond fear—and surely beyond reason—that the vision that drove them to sign the new document might be dignified, and uplifted, by a higher authority in the fullness of time.
NOTE: My apologies for the not-brilliant quality of these photographs, and for the fact that I had more images that were of even less marvelous quality. Not only am I not the Mathew Brady of southeast Missouri, my modest apparatus of the moment ensures I will do more poorly still in low-light settings than in others. BUT SEE THE PLAY for the full effect!
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