I cannot be neutral about Gore Vidal. It’s a condition shared by a great many of his readers and detractors. Establishment figures of both parties (which Vidal views, aptly, as two wings of the same organization) either dismiss our greatest essayist as an addled gadfly or demonize him as a kind of ideological heretic; during the Iraqi invasion a reactionary web site issued its own deck of “most wanted” cards, with Vidal the King of Clubs.

If America has an unaffiliated official historian, it is Gore Vidal. His series of connected historical novels (Washington DC, Burr, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and The Golden Age) limn the entirety of the American experience from the Revolution onward with both an unerring sense of drama and an enlightened view of the democratic experiment gone hopelessly (and Ben Franklin would say, inevitably) awry. Vidal’s masterful novel Lincoln fully re-imagines our most enigmatic President even Richard Nixon was more immediately comprehensible and his The Best Man is arguably the finest (and funniest) political play ever written in this country.

Vidal was the first popular American novelist to publish a novel (The City and the Pillar, in 1948) unapologetic about its homosexual protagonist’s obsession with his boyhood lover, a move that got his future work banned from review in The New York Times a reprieve Vidal endured with considerable success. Hardly daunted by the experience, Vidal went on to publish, in 1968, the uproariously incisive sexual satire Myra Breckinridge (the last name suggested, perhaps, by a notable Hollywood transsexual?) and its equally devastating 1973 sequel Myron, in which the author memorably replaced “obscenities” with the names of then-current Supreme Court Justices. A penetrating critic of religious hysteria, Vidal is also the author of two extraordinarily savage and prophetic novels: Messiah (1954) and Kalki (1978), the latter eerily prescient: its central notions were born out, not much later, by the Jonestown Massacre.

As an essayist and social critic, the man has no peer; his 1993 collection United States: Essays 1952-1992 would be an essential Desert Island tome, in tandem with his luminous 1995 memoir Palimpsest. Naturally, Vidal’s social-political-historical oeuvre (as Polonious might term it) is incessantly even obsessively picked at by those academicians Vidal refers to, deliciously, as “scholar squirrels” as well as by his contemporaries. (William F. Buckley, piqued by Vidal’s trenchant analysis of that perennial Harvard man’s “crypto-fascism” during a live 1968 debate, threatened to punch his opponent “in the goddamn face.”) When the History Channel broadcast the British-made “Gore Vidal’s Presidents of the United States” a few years back, the network assembled a cohort of talking heads, including the dread Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., to refute at length nearly all of Vidal’s conclusions a display of public cowardice and pre-emptive self-censure pretty much unparalleled in the history of American television.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Vidal’s newest work, the invigorating Civil War play On the March to the Sea, currently on display in a thoroughly satisfying staged reading as part of Theater Previews at Duke (March 1-6 at the Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on the University’s West Campus) is an event of enormous significance and dramatic integrity.

Adapted, and expanded, by Vidal from his 1955 “Playwrights 56” television drama “Honor,” On the March to the Sea is especially relevant now, given the Imperialist adventures of the present presidential administration in what Vidal rightly calls this nation’s “perpetual war for perpetual peace.” (If there was ever a time to rediscover the beautifully astringent 1964 Paddy Chayefsky comedy The Americanization of Emily, and its exaltation of cowardice as the universal antidote to warfare, this is it.)

I won’t take away from your experience of Vidal’s brilliance here by divulging the plot, save to note that it concerns the seizing by Union troops of a Georgia mansion during Sherman’s infamous 1864 campaign, and a communal promise reneged upon for possibly ignoble reasons. What matters is the work in itself.

I am bored to tears by the vogue, beginning in the mid-1970s and continuing, seemingly without surcease, ever since, for what I think of as “elliptical theater.” This will doubtless get me into a world of trouble, but what I feel is missing from the incoherent flailings of David Mamet, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, and others of their ilk is the traditional theatergoing pleasure in hearing language luxuriant with literacy and character, spoken by dramatic figures of great richness and complexity. This sort of generous, full-bodied playwriting still exists, of course, but much less ink is dispensed extolling its virtues. (Although I take the popular and critical success of the movie Sideways as a hopeful sign.)

On the March to the Sea abounds with wit, metaphor, keenly human observation even poetry. To sit in a theater and let this sort of erudition and feeling wash over you is to experience one of the great joys available in life. I’m tempted to quote from Vidal’s vigorous aphorisms and pointed exchanges endlessly, but will make do with two, one humorous, the other dramatic.

The first, a beguiling defense of preparing one’s words: “Even Cicero rehearsed his speeches especially the impromptu ones.” This is pure Vidal, impressing with historical acumen, then disarming with an ironic fillip. (The line is pronounced, appropriately, by the character most closely resembling the author himself.)

The second, a strand of dialogue that both illuminates its characters’ impotent fury on the one hand and resignation on the other, and serves as a heresy that will be shocking to those convinced that all good Americans are, and ever have been, solidly Christian. No, on second thought, I’ll let you discover it for yourself.

While there is heroism as well as villainy on display here, no one is either wholly good, or wholly evil. That may not be an attribute a vast public can swallow in our time of instant human codification, but it is at the core of great drama, from Shakespeare to Shaw. The Southern merchant Hinks, unable to restrain himself from profiting even at the expense of friends, is in many respects complimented by his captor, the Union Colonel Thayer, a man so deadened by the “wearisome pursuit” of killing men that he longs only to be cruel. And caught between them is a wife who has grown to hate the word duty.

In a large (and remarkably stellar) cast, Chris Noth and the great Harris Yulin conjure figures worthy of comparison with Willy Loman and Stanley Kowalski. I don’t mean that either role is imitative, merely that both can stand with the finest characters in American theater. (Although I suppose it could be argued that Yulin’s John Hinks shares with Loman a certain self-delusion, and that Noth’s Col. Thayer matches Stanley in the area of deliberate malice.) These are bold, complicated, contradictory figures, fully and pitiably human, whose dimensions are as beautifully evoked by Noth and Yulin as the characters are brilliantly invoked by the playwright.

Michael Learned does wonders with the relatively minor role of the Hinks’ social dragon of a neighbor, and the splendid Charles Durning exhibits a graceful civility in both triumph and defeat. Richard Easton is stunningly effective as the Vidal prototype Grayson, affably discursive one minute and barely suppressing a seething rage the next. Isabel Keating is a revelation as Mrs. Hinks. Not for her (or the author) the simpering, honor-corseted Southern belle; this is a role, and a performance, of searing dimensions. Vidal knows, as Euripides before him, that the greatest atrocity of war is what becomes of its vanquished women.

The young people in On the March to the Sea are wonderfully written, and equally well acted. Indeed, in a play less dominated by its older characters, the performances of Cheryl Chamblee, David Turner, and Corey Brill would be star making. They are utterly, and devastatingly, there.

The play’s director, Warner Shook, preserved from the distractions of set, lights, and costume, has been free to work with his actors on the nuances of character and dialogue, and it shows. At the improbable age of 79, Gore Vidal says he’d “rather give up sets than give up actors.” Change “Actors” to “authors” and, on evidence the feeling is, pretty obviously, mutual.

Theater Previews at Duke presents On the March to the Sea Tuesday-Thursday, March 1-3, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, March 4, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 5, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, March 6, at 2 p.m. in the Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, North Carolina. $20-$39, with discounts for students and groups. 919/684-4444 or http://tickets.duke.edu/. Theater Previews at Duke: http://www.duke.edu/web/drama/events/PR/Vidal12152004.html. The Gore Vidal Index: http://www.pitt.edu/~kloman/vidalframe.html [inactive 11/05].



PREVIEW: Theater Previews at Duke: During Sherman’s Famous March to the Sea, Georgia Families Faced Painful Choices

by Robert W. McDowell

In my family, Sherman is still a four-letter word. The depredations of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-91) and his 62,000 “bummers” during their triumphant 1864-65 march across Georgia and up through the Carolinas are still a hot topic, perhaps because Sherman’s firebugs reduced so much of my hometown of Columbia, SC, to ashes.

So, the announcement that Theater Previews at Duke would host a staged reading of the world premiere of the latest revision of Gore Vidal’s 1960-61 War Between the States drama On the March to the Sea, with a stellar cast head by Chris Noth, Michael Learned, and Charles Durning, made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention. Surely, the 79-year-old author of Burr (1974), 1876 (1976), [and] Lincoln (1984) was not going to celebrate the brutal conquests of a ruthless pioneer of modern warfare against the civilian population. (Most famous for declaring that “War is hell,” Sherman set out to make sure that every Georgia cracker, Sandlapper, and Tarheel experienced the fiery furnace firsthand.)

The good news is, Sherman’s audacious March to the Sea (Nov. 15-Dec. 21, 1864), from Atlanta to Savannah, merely forms the backdrop for a drama set in a small Georgia town occupied by the invading Yankee hordes whose commander had promised his commander-in-chief in Washington, DC, that he would make the civilian population in his path “howl.” Vidal’s current work-in-progress is a radically revamped and expanded version of an old 47-minute teleplay called “Honor” that the American literary lion originally wrote in 1955 as an episode of the “Playwrights 56” television series, expanded to a full-length play, and produced in 1961 in Hyde Park, NY, before bad reviews scotched a possible Broadway run.

Fresh from a developmental reading of On the March to the Sea in Hartford, CT, director Warner Shook and his all-star cast will perform in the Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus. In addition to Broadway veterans Chris North, Michael Learned, and Tony Award® winner Charles Durning, who all performed in the 2000 revival of The Best Man, Gore Vidal’s 1960 drama about presidential politics, the current show’s cast includes Tony winner Richard Easton, Harris Yulin, and Isabel Keating, as well as Corey Brill, John Feltch, and David Turner.

Director Warner Shook staged the 1993 Broadway debut of Robert Schenkkan’s six-hour Pulitzer Prize winner, The Kentucky Cycle, which received three 1994 Tony nominations, including Best Play. He served as artistic director of the Intiman Theatre in Seattle from 1993 to 2000.

Yale University School of Drama alumnus Chris North played Mike Logan on “Law & Order” and Mr. Big on “Sex and the City” and won a 2001 Theatre World Award for his performance as U.S. Sen. Joseph Cantwell in the 2000 revival of The Best Man. Broadway actress and four-time Emmy Award winner Michael Learned played Olivia Walton on “The Waltons” and Mary Benjamin in “Nurse.”

Charles Durning won the 1990 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance as Big Daddy in the revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Richard Easton won the 2001 Tony for Best Actor in Play for his performance as A.E. Houseman, aged 77, In the Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard and the 1958 Theatre World Award for his performance as Mr. Harcourt in the Broadway revival of The Country Wife by William Wycherley.

Harris Yulin is a another Broadway veteran, seen most recently as Judge Brack in the 2001-02 revival of Hedda Gabler. Isabel Keating was a nominee for the 2004 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and she won a 2004 Theatre World Award both for her performance as Judy Garland in The Boy from Oz by Mark Sherman (book) and Peter Allen (music/lyrics).

At a Feb. 18th press conference, Zannie Giraud Voss, producing director of Theater Previews at Duke, the professional producing arm of Dukes Theater Studies Department, characterized the staged reading of Gore Vidal’s latest theatrical work “a momentous event” for the Duke and said, “We have the great honor of having an international literary legend, one of the great writers of the 20th and 21st century, here with us at Duke University.”

The American literary lion said the highly successful 2000 Broadway revival of The Best Man encouraged him to take another whack at On the March to the Sea. “I had forgotten how much I really liked doing plays. What you [will be] seeing here is the ultimate version [On the March to the Sea].… It’s a very different play [from the 1956 teleplay and the 1961 full-length play published in Three Plays in 1962], because it’s a very different world.… We [now] have perpetual war for perpetual peace. Since we are going to eliminate tyranny everywhere in the world, we have or work cut out for us.”

Why perform the play at Duke? “I didn’t choose Duke,” claimed Gore Vidal. “Duke chose us. They saw [On the March to the Sea] in Hartford and invited us down.”

“It’s an important play,” explained Zannie Voss, “and I think it’s going to be a great American classic. [Its theme] of integrity in time of war is very timely.”

Vidal said On the March to the Sea dramatizes “what happens when a small town in the South becomes occupied by Union troops.… It’s a Southern play …. The Gore family my mother’s family is from Mississippi by way of Virginia. My great-grandfather was wounded at Shiloh and taken prisoner.”

At the beginning of the play, Vidal said, “The South is collapsing, and Sherman has come out of the West and begun his March to the Sea. En route, [Sherman’s troops] take over a small town where the protagonist, John Hinks [Harris Yulin] and his two children live. It’s sort of the last gasp [of the Confederacy].”

Gore Vidal said On the March to the Sea is “the story of a family called Hinks. He’s a self-made rich man [who has] just built a beautiful mansion.” As the Union army approaches the fictional town of Waynesville, Ga., Hinks and his neighbors have to decide whether and how to resist, Vidal says.

Chris Noth will play Thayer, a war-weary Union colonel who helps Sherman slash and burn his way through Georgia. “I’ve never seen a character like Thayer,” claimed Noth. “He articulates very well what war does to people and what people do in every war.”

Noth added, “[Thayer] is a very complex guy and someone who’s seen the very worst of war for awhile and is hanging on to his sanity … before he goes over the edge from having seen what he has seen.”

Harris Yulin will play John Hinks, and Isabel Keating will play his wife, Minna. The Hinks family includes sons Aaron (David Turner) and Grayson (Corey Brill). When Union troops occupy Waynesville and evict its residents from their homes, Yulin said, John Hinks implores his neighbors to burn their houses, but cannot bring himself to set fire to his brand-new mansion.

Isabel Keating said, “Minna has a curious relationship with [Union Colonel] Thayer. She is a woman torn between her love for, and devotion to, her husband and having one son sent off to war and another who may or may not be sent off to war.”

Richard Easton will play Mr. Grayson, whom the actor describes as “an old-school aristocratic Southern gentleman who has ideas of honor that he’s passed on to [John Hinks].” Charles Durning will portray Confederate Colonel Sutcliffe.

Michael Learned will play Mrs. Blair, a Hinks family neighbor whose daughter, Amelia, wants to marry Aaron Hinks. “As long as people find war glamorous and exciting and somehow noble,” Learned said, “we will always have it.”

By staging a theatrical concert reading of this Civil War drama, playwright Gore Vidal and director Warner Shook will get a firmer handle on the play’s possibilities of eventually moving on to Broadway. From Durham, they said, the play may move on to Seattle and/or Los Angeles.

Vidal said there will be no scenery, costumes, or props in the staged theatrical concert reading sponsored by Theater Previews at Duke. “We’ve got a gun,” he said, “just a gun.”

According to Harris Yulin, “A lot of plays lend themselves to the [concert reading] format. It concentrates the mind on the text. There is something pure about it.”

Gore Vidal noted that, even at age 79, he relishes the developmental process for each new play. “There’s a great excitement to it,” he said, “in watching actors find what they do find in a play.”

The prolific novelist, playwright, essayist, and caustic commentator on current affairs added, “The costs [of staging a full-scale production] are prohibitive now. It’s a big cast, for one thing, 13 or 14 people. I’d rather give up sets than give up actors,” he declared.

Chris Noth said, “I think [On the March to the Sea] shows you what war is.… Here’s the reality of war. There’s your son with his legs blown off or dead in a casket.”

Gore Vidal assured Triangle theatergoers that they’ll get their money’s-worth when they attend his new play. “What you’ll be seeing here are performances,” Vidal said, “not just a staged reading.”

Theater Previews at Duke presents On the March to the Sea Tuesday-Thursday, Feb. 22-24 and March 1-3, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 25 and March 4, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 26 and March 5, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 27 and March 6, at 2 p.m. in the Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, North Carolina. $20-$39, with discounts for students and groups. 919/684-4444 or http://tickets.duke.edu/. Theater Previews at Duke: http://www.duke.edu/web/drama/events/PR/Vidal12152004.html. The Gore Vidal Index: http://www.pitt.edu/~kloman/vidalframe.html [inactive 11/05].