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Acting in the Night

Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War

Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Acting in the Night
    Book Description:

    What can the performance of a single play on one specific night tell us about the world this event inhabited so briefly? Alexander Nemerov takes a performance ofMacbethin Washington, DC on October 17, 1863-with Abraham Lincoln in attendance-to explore this question and illuminate American art, politics, technology, and life as it was being lived. Nemerov's inspiration is Wallace Stevens and his poem "Anecdote of the Jar," in which a single object organizes the wilderness around it in the consciousness of the poet. For Nemerov, that evening's performance ofMacbethreached across the tragedy of civil war to acknowledge the horrors and emptiness of a world it tried and ultimately failed to change.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94744-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. Introduction: A Drop That Dyes the Seas
    (pp. 1-6)

    This book grew out of my wish to study a single night’s performance ofMacbethfrom sometime in the mid-nineteenth century in some American city.My plan was to understand events of that day in that place by the light, or darkness, thrown by the play, and I hoped newspapers, letters, and diaries would help me along. I wanted to see how a performance of the play might have shaped a world around it. The idea came from Wallace Stevens’s poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” with its famous account of the centrifugal powers of aesthetic acts, the power of even a...

  4. ONE A Stone’s Throw
    (pp. 7-58)
    Charlotte Cushman

    Charlotte cushman arrived in washington, d.c., on the evening of Friday, October 9, 1863, to play Lady Macbeth later that month. She had returned to the United States earlier that year from Rome, where she lived, to deliver a series of benefit performances ofMacbethto aid the United States Sanitary Commission. A fiercely pro-Union native of Massachusetts, age forty-seven in 1863, Cushman had already performed in Philadelphia and Boston by the time she got to Washington, and she would go on to take the stage in Baltimore and New York. Her five-city tour resulted in a donation of more...

  5. TWO The Flame of Place
    (pp. 59-93)
    Abraham Lincoln

    Abraham lincoln had a power of being in one place only. He believed in a here and now of experience, a form of presence. In such moments he would gather and crush down his sight into single places and single visions of extraordinary and lonely intensity—melancholic, ecstatic, or both. How was this sense of presence manifest as the president sat at Grover’s Theatre on October 17, 1863? One can only guess, since the accounts of Lincoln at that event are limited, and since Lincoln himself provided none. But he might have watched that play as though the theater, the...

  6. THREE The Glass Case: Interior Life in Washington, D.C.
    (pp. 94-136)

    Did the performance of the play relate to other happenings in Washington that day? The readiest answer is no. Attending a play by the 1860s was an increasingly private experience, a ceremonial occasion when spectators were cut off from one another, left to lose themselves in their dreams and meditations about what they saw, and largely cut off from the world outside as well. Lincoln was not the only one to draw inward. Audiences observed “new codes of politeness,” according to Bruce McConnachie. “The manners of the genteel parlor, first regularly enforced in museum theatres in the 1840s, had overtaken...

  7. FOUR Acoustic Shadows: The Battle of Bristoe Station
    (pp. 137-160)

    The diary of william owner, a resident of Washington, D.C., opens in December 1860 with a description of “Distances marked on a map of the world in the Capitol”:

    On Saturday, October 17, 1863, Owner was thinking about a much nearer location, a few miles across the Potomac. “On Thursday there was considerable skirmishing ‘all along’ the front of the army which occupies in part the Old Bull Run battlefield and accounts state that the enemy are moving a force on Leesburg. The army all night were in line of battle anticipating an attack by the enemy, and rumor has...

  8. FIVE Center of Echoes: Castle Murray, Fauquier County, Virginia
    (pp. 161-179)

    Within a few miles of bristoe station is Castle Murray, a Medieval Revival home designed and built for Dr. James Murray in 1857–58. Gouverneur Kemble Warren used Murray’s home as his headquarters on the night of October 13–14, 1863. At 2:00 A.M. on the fourteenth a messenger rode up to the castle with Warren’s orders from General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac. Warren and his staff reviewed the orders, deciding to move his men toward Confederate positions at dawn—starting the events that would culminate in the Battle of Bristoe Station late that afternoon....

  9. SIX Ghosts: The Death of Colonel Thomas Ruffin, October 17, 1863
    (pp. 180-199)

    Across the potomac, in Alexandria, Virginia, the Confederate colonel Thomas Ruffin died the nightMacbethwas performed. Wounded in a skirmish at Auburn, Virginia, near Castle Murray, early in the morning of October 14—at the start of the fighting that ended later that day at Bristoe Station—Ruffin had been taken to Alexandria as a prisoner of war and died there at Grace Church Hospital.¹

    Ruffin’s death had no bearing on the performance on the other side of the river. Probably some people in attendance knew who he was, but few knew that he was a prisoner, and no...

  10. SEVEN Sound and Fury: Nature in Virginia
    (pp. 200-226)

    The play that night sent its signals into nature. As much as it hoped to affect the world around it—the city of Washington, the buildings and battlefields of Virginia—the play tried also, strange as that might seem, to imprint itself on the very leaves and streams of the natural world. To consider how it did this, and failed to do this, is to think of the work of art in the age of evolution, especially in a time of civil war. Under such pressures, nature would either be hospitable to human acts or would increasingly crowd around those...

    (pp. 227-228)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 229-266)
    (pp. 267-284)
    (pp. 285-288)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 289-299)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 300-300)