Saturday, September 15, 2018

On the Dark Side of Twilight (Evolution of the Vampire)

Self as John W. Polidori
Ohio University, 1988
Thirty years ago this fall, I played John Polidori in the Ohio University School of Theatre production of Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry, directed by Alana Byington

The plot centers on the whirling personal and professional relationships of George Gordon Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, with particular focus on that unusually cold summer of 1816 they spent together at the Villa Diodati. It was there, one evening, after reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem "Cristabel" that this trio, Byron’s personal physician -- Polidori -- and Byron’s lover Claire Clairmont, challenged each other to write a ghost story.

Brenton’s work goes on to describe the crippling effects these artists’ attempts to love freely and fight against contemporary social norms of propriety and restraint had on their lives and work. The play also has a lot to say about men who dare to live life on the edge and the women who must deal with the consequences.

John William Polidori
F.G. Gainsford, circa 1816
What is only obliquely referred to in this work are the stories created the evening of that fateful writing exercise. Most famously, this was the night Mary Shelley would later claim she arrived at the idea for her novel Frankenstein. Like Bloody Poetry, her classic tale investigates themes of great risk and fantastic achievement, but also issues of abandonment and personal responsibility.

Less well-known is the ingenious idea Byron had arrived at that night; a modern re-imagining of the “vampyre.” Folk tales describe this monster as an outsider, living on the outskirts of society, feeding off blood and human flesh like a ghoul. Byron wondered what it might be like if such a demon could pass as human, even enter society? But he grew tied with his own fragment of a story and set the work aside before it was brought to any conclusion.

His doctor, who fancied himself a writer, had arrived at a story about a skull-headed lady “peeping through a keyhole” (we have Mary Shelley’s word for this) which everyone agreed was dreadful. A few short years later, Polidori chose to appropriate Byron’s idea of a gentleman vampire, producing The Vampyre: A Tale in 1819. The good doctor attempted to exact some artistic revenge on the lord who famously made a habit of crushing him with withering verbal abuse, by creating the rakish Lord Ruthven, a thinly-disguised parody of Byron himself.

The Vampyres: A Play
Dobama's Night Kitchen, 1997

Brian Pedaci (right) as  John Polidori
The joke was on Polidori, however, as when The Vampyre was first published, it was mistakenly attributed to Byron, a fact which each man found galling.

Then a twenty-year-old student, I researched the person of John Polidori for the performance, surprised to learn I was playing a man my own age. I was taken by not only his own brief unhappy life (he committed suicide at the age of 25) but also the legend of the vampire. Many abortive works I created that school year -- comics, short stories, scripts -- included immature and unfortunate ruminations on suicide. One idea was for a daily comic strip about a modern Polidori who, following a romantic humiliation and contemplating his own demise, is seduced by vampire.

If the idea of a vampire preying upon the despair and near-suicide of a young man sounds familiar, it is because I had started reading Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles.” The comparison to Louis and Lestat was purely intentional. In the following years I would read a few more vampire novels, but not an overwhelming number of them. I was more interested in the vampire as a metaphor than as a romance. More After Dark than Lost Boys. I prefer Throat Sprockets to anything by Poppy Z. Brite.

With director Andrew May
On the Dark Side of Twilight, 2010
My infatuation came to a head a few years later after the disillusion of both my first theater company and my first marriage, resulting in the script The Vampyres: A Play. Borrowing directly from Polidori’s tale, and using the name’s of all those at the Villa Diodati, a young doctor (John) enters a goth-themed coffee house, meeting an old crush (Mary) and two preening rockers (George and Percy) who may or may not be actual vampires. There is also a teenage barista named Claire, who is actually my favorite character in the play.

My first full-length work, I threw everything into it and it is one big angry mess. The original songs by Queue Up, however, are killer.

Anyway, ten or so years later, then-Director of Education Daniel Hahn was looking for a touring script to compliment Great Lakes Theater’s mainstage production of Bat Boy: The Musical. I made a mad proposal. The character of Bat Boy is some kind of mutant creature half-boy, half-bat. Its origins may be from the Weekly World News, but the story has much in common with B-level monster movies from the mid-20th century.

What if we created a brief history of the vampire in Western literature in four short plays, each describing a pivotal moment in vampire history? The greatest challenge, as I saw it, was how we could successfully incorporate that most recent trend in vampirism; sparkling. Yes, we would have to acknowledge the most controversial of vampire sagas, Twilight.

My working title was Evolution of the Vampire. Daniel suggested something more evocative. In the first chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Jonathan Harker begins his diary entry, "It was on the dark side of twilight when we got to Bistritz ..." It is a much, much better title.

The four scenes or “arcs” of On the Dark Side of Twilight play out like this:

Arc One represents Polidori’s The Vampyre. Set in 1810, we meet Lord Darvell (Byron’s vampire) and the callow Aubrey Porlock; his Christian name taken straight from the good doctor’s short story, his last a combination of Polidori and Orlock, the main character in F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu.

(It's is also a nod to the author of "Christabel," who ostensibly made all of this possible. A “person from Porlock” interrupted Coleridge as he was feverishly writing "Kubla Khan.")

Aubrey Porlock and Lord Darvell
(Dusten Welch & self)
As they travel the Continent together, Aubrey is set upon by a monster while trying to complete an assignation in the woods with a local girl named Xanthe, and neither he nor Darvell are ever heard from again.

Arc Two is an homage to Dracula, the text which set so many rules of vampirism (death by sunlight, aversion to garlic and mirrors, etc.) Here, at the turn of the twentieth century, a young society couple entertains a strange eastern lord who turns out to be Porlock, now a vampire himself, returning to London after nearly a century.

This scene includes a silent coda, a tribute to Murnau’s film, in which the “count” is tricked by his prey into feeding until sunrise.

Arc Three, set in the mid-1980s, is inspired by the work of Anne Rice. With her works, a vampire is now someone to be understood, one to be sympathized with. He is our hero. A fledgling vampire named Edwin is interviewed in New Orleans and we learn that his master is none other than Porlock, who has survived and immigrated to the Americas.

Arc Four, present day. Edwin passes as a teenager in an Alaskan high school. A romance develops between he and a fellow student named Lucy. Their time together is cut short by the arrival of Porlock, who receives his final rest at the hands of an old (very old) companion.

Edwin and Lucy
(Dusten Welch & Emily Czarnota)
The entire package includes a narrator who guides the audience through this two-hundred year journey by sharing found materials in the manner that Dracula is composed entirely of diaries, letters, newspaper articles, and other contemporary accounts.

Written to be performed by a company of three (though it could also accommodate a company of up to twelve or more) the premiere production was directed by Andrew May. I performed the older male roles, Dusten Welch the younger, and all of the female roles by Emily Pucell Czarnota.

Working with Emily for the first time with this production was a life-changing experience, and over the next several years she originated performances in several of my works, including The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the short play The Schoolboy (part of the Seven Ages anthology.) Most meaningful to me, I wrote for her the part of Beatrice in Double Heart, her wit and delivery foremost in my mind when composing verse lines for this younger iteration of Shakespeare’s great romantic heroine.

Emily as Xanthe
On the Dark Side of Twilight, 2010
In performance, On the Dark Side of Twilight is chilling, creepy, knowing, and also very funny. Plain Dealer theater critic Tony Brown found it "hysterical, campy fun." But is has a deeper relevance, as vampire tales have always been allegories, reflections of the fears and taboos of the time.

Polidori's short story portrays the struggle between propriety and the evils of Byronism. Stoker's is a thinly-veiled examination and reflection of sexual repression and xenophobia. Anne Rice created a homoerotic romance at the dawning of the AIDS crisis. And Stephenie Meyer brought the story full-circle, creating a novel aimed directly at teenage girls to promote and champion morality, chastity, self-delusion, and male dominance through emotional and sexual abuse.

On the Dark Side of Twilight tackles all of these issues, while remaining brisk and compelling, a compact and humorous horror story that would make an excellent high school, college or community theater production.

Read the play script for "On the Dark Side of Twilight" at New Play Exchange.

"Vampire play 'On the Dark Side of Twilight,' performed by Great Lakes Theater Festival, is campy fun" by Tony Brown, The Plain Dealer 2/19/2010

Monday, August 20, 2018

Shakespeare (Not) On Stage

Roderick Cardwell as Richard Burbage
in "The Great Globe Itself" (2015)
Photo by Ryan Labay
Several years ago I wrote a play about the Globe Theatre, one which described three different buildings which have used that name, from three different eras in two different cities, each which was built to feature the works of William Shakespeare. My play was titled The Great Globe Itself, and toured northeast Ohio, in libraries and schools and theaters.

Shakespeare does not appear.

Over twenty years ago, my wife and I saw The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan, a fiction inspired by the once long-forgotten-to-history accusation of “lechery” against Susanna (Shakespeare) Hall, eldest daughter of Stratford merchant and landowner William Shakespeare. The case was found in favor of the defendant, and the play begins as a bodice-ripper which soon evolves into the Puritanic courtroom drama not unlike The Crucible in its torturous circumlocutions.

Shakespeare does not appear.

This summer I read Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will, a fanciful imagining of the hands the collected, collated, edited and published the First Folio. inarguably the most significant publication in English literature. (see my blog post on The Book of William)

Burbage dies (almost three years after Shakespeare of Stratford) and it suddenly occurs to their surviving contemporaries that so much of what gave the work its power was locked inside the heads of those who spoke his lines. If not written down, they would be lost to history. The scramble to create a proper volume of the complete works -- in fact, determining what a complete works should consist of -- is as delightful to read as I am sure it is astonishing to witness.

Shakespeare, who as aforementioned was already dead, does not appear.

Finally, my brother sent me a play script from England for my birthday; I Am Shakespeare. Written by Mark Rylance, Oscar and Tony Award-winning actor and former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Rylance is also a notable Shakespeare-denier, an Anti-Stratfordian, one who does not believe the “Man From Stratford” (as they like to call him) wrote the works attributed to him.

And yet, Shakespeare does appear in I Am Shakespeare.

At least, a version of him does. Rylance’s play falls into that category of “debate” plays that Shaw was so fond of creating (see my blog post, Shakespeare On Stage) though is Shaw’s case the argument was on the works’ merit, not its authorship. Shaw was openly scornful of those who proposed or defended such theories.

In Rylance’s play, William Shakespeare, as a character, arrives in the present day at the garage of Frank Charlton, a man obsessed with the “Authorship Question” and who hosts an online chat program that would appear to have a small, devoted following. The program has also ruined his marriage.

(Rylance uses Charlton as his stand-in, and wrote the role for himself to perform. He acknowledges, it would seem, that many who share his unorthodox views are not successful and lauded actors and directors of stage and screen, but more likely to be tin-foil hat wearing losers.)

Shakespeare, the character, has arrived from the past or elsewhere to debate the legitimacy of his achievement. He is soon followed by Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and Mary Sidney, all to make the same claim. Attention is also given to Marlowe, who is obviously too cool to make an appearance.

It’s all a fun exercise, and very witty, though much of the humor stems from a wide knowledge of and deep appreciation for the works of Shakespeare. You already have to be in on the joke.

When writing The Great Globe Itself I had several agendas. The play was meant to illuminate the significance of the Globe Theatre (three Globes, as I said) as a unique acting space, one specifically suited to (most of) the works of Shakespeare.

I also wanted to tell the story of the theater Shakespeare’s made legendary in such a way that anyone without any knowledge of his life or work, could appreciate and enjoy it.

Ultimately, and here’s the kicker, I wanted to see if I could get away with writing a play about Shakespeare that also suggests the "Man From Stratford" didn’t write his own works -- but that no one would notice.

You didn't notice, did you? It was probably the impenetrable accents. My mistake.

Read "The Great Globe Itself" at New Play Exchange.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Single White Fringe Geek (blog)

American Theatre magazine produces a podcast I have been enjoying called Three On the Aisle, for which critics from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (Peter Marks, Elisabeth Vincentelli and Terry Teachout, respectively) weigh in on the national theater scene.

In this most recent episode, they began by discussing staff layoffs at the New York Daily News, and listeners were treated to the unusual sound of Marks losing his shit, loudly and profanely lamenting the fate of American theater criticism.

This is not a subject I am unfamiliar with. In this blog I have also asked what will happen when theater criticism is no longer a profession unto itself, but is a minor responsibility relegated to journalists who have numerous, diverse beats, freelance community writers, and blogging theater fans.

At the turn of this century, John Vacha wrote Showtime in Cleveland, the history of Cleveland theater up to the year 2000. For this book he leaned heavily on newspapers and the work of theater critics, not only to discover what details could be gleaned about specific productions and performances, but also the behind-the-scenes history of the business of theater in one large American city.

Without a written record, our work may be lost to future generations. And in the present, audiences and potential audiences suffer from a lack of sources of good theater criticism. And yes, we as artists miss out on having a variety of critical eyes assessing us, holding a mirror to our work.

Fifteen years ago today, we concluded our run of I Hate This (a play without the baby) at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. At this festival I attracted audiences, met new colleagues, and received plenty of praise and encouragement on the local online message boards.

I also received my first actual pan for this play. Matthew Everett had only just started the blog Single White Fringe Geek, a record of MN Fringe reviews he keeps to this day. On my way out the metaphoric door, I read his review and it was not exactly glowing.

Red Eye Theatre, Minneapolis, MN (2003)
Everett felt that, in spite of the play's unique male perspective on the subject of stillbirth, it suffered from not including the grieving mother’s voice.

He said that the narrator (me) was the only fully-developed character, and that of those other characters represented, the kind ones were casually dismissed while much more attention was focused on those who were unkind, insensitive, or -- to use my own word from the show -- evil.

“There was,” Everett wrote, “a lot of anger in this play. It bordered on being unsympathetic.”

This was a lot to swallow. When you stick your neck out to create something so intimate, you know you are taking a risk. And yet, you can’t imagine someone actually criticizing you.

I hadn’t read his review these fifteen years, though I never forgot the gist of it. Reading it again, however, was eye-opening.

Because now I understand it was the single most important review I think I have ever received.

Remember, this is was at the beginning. He attended the eighth public performance of a show I went on to produce regularly for almost five years, and have returned to several times since. And it was with comments like his in mind that I revised the script, and more importantly, modulated my performance.

I didn’t change a lot of the script, a few words, light editing, nudging the piece in a certain direction. What would have happened at the New York Fringe Festival the following year without Everett’s observation? If I had received a notice like his in the New York Times, instead the positive review I did receive, due perhaps to the changes I made at his suggestion? That might have been devastating to me.

I do not believe I am overstating this when I suggest that Matthew Everett's highly-critical review saved I Hate This.

We need criticism; thoughtful, engaged, intelligent, professional criticism.

"A Cornucopia of Questions," Three On the Aisle, 7/26/2018
"Closing the Fringe With Mom - Part 6," Single White Fringe Geek by Mathew Everett, 8/12/2003

"I Hate This (a play without the baby)" now available for Amazon Kindle.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Lincoln In the Bardo (book)

“We’re only tourists in this life
Only tourists but the view is nice.”
- Everybody’s Coming To My House, David Byrne

“And life is finite
But shit, it feels like forever.”
- tonite, LCD Soundsystem

“And when my time is up, have I done enough?”
- Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, Lin-Manuel Miranda

“We are blessed with love and activity, but not enough time.”
- Me, July 27, 2018

“We had again been granted the great mother-gift:
“More time.”
- Lincoln In The Bardo, George Saunders
In fiction, ghosts are a manifestation of regret. Can a ghost exist without a belief in the need for its own existence? And that need is to complete something that had not been accomplished in life, as though life itself is defined by accomplishment.

Because it is, really. That is how we as humans define it.

In his riveting, ruminative novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, author George Saunders argues that life is what it is. What we do or what happens to us cannot be judged, it was what it was. No need to glorify not denigrate. Do what you can. Succeed or survive. Strive to do your best, surely. But let no one describe to you what that may be. Then, let go.

I find myself lamenting the scarcity of time. But time is not a thing. Life is a thing, the world is a thing. These can be valued, in the moment or not at all.

Three days ago I was sitting on the porch of a rustic cabin in Maine, listening to the sounds. My son’s peculiar and delightful laugh, the unfamiliar voices across the cove. I recalled that breakfast diner in Charlottesville, last month. (I remember -- the Nook!) The brick wall, the delicious odors; the coffee, the hash browns.

Today I sit at my desk to make a note of the memory. I hear the ticket printing machine, the brief, almost imperceptible whine of the copier. All of these things are special. They are not special because of what they are, they are special because they are what is.

I think I may be Buddhist.

Friday, July 27, 2018

How I Am Spending My Summer (2018)

last nite.
And what's it you do again?
Oh I'm a reminder
The hobbled veteran of the disk shop inquisition
Set to parry the cocksure of mem-stick filth
With my own late era middle-aged ramblings

- tonite, LCD Soundsystem
Sitting on the porch of Barnstable (or to some, “The Barnstable”) on the day after my fiftieth birthday, I am weighted with a feeling of loss. Not merely the loss of an old friend, or that sorrow that has followed our family, like a train, as we have lost fathers and heroes and our sense of hope for the future.

It does not help that I am currently reading Lincoln In The Bardo.

Topsail Island
This place is filled with memories, but also doubts. I carry with me the fear that I have failed or continue to fail in my efforts to be an active, engaged parent. As years pass and traditions fall by the wayside, or as I watch the moments tick by in which I am not actively creating or facilitating an activity, like fishing, or a game, like a treasure hunt.

Those moments in which I have intentionally passed on the opportunity to hold my children in a form of stasis, have encouraged them to grow up too soon, to make their own play and not to lean so heavily on mine. It is like a crime. I have such regret.

Seriously, I may need to set this book aside.

Each summer is marked by moments, those events we have scheduled and look forward to, signposts which I see approaching fast by the side of the road, and then catch in the rear-view as they pass at one thousand miles an hour.

With Joseph Morales (A.Ham)
Theater camp, outdoor Shakespeare, then North Carolina and Virginia. Pre-college, Hamilton, and now Maine. My birthday come, now gone, and we, too, will go, in forty-eight hours time. One million miles an hour.

The women were unavailable to attend Girl Camp this summer, and so for the first time since my son was five we have no opportunity for Boy Camp, which has always been a strange mystery. We will make up for that in other ways, at least I hope we do.

And yesterday I was gifted with tickets to see David Byrne at Jacobs Pavilion in two weeks! Another signpost. I am looking forward to that. And then, more or less, our summer will conclude. We are blessed with love and activity, but not enough time.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Top Ten Life Lessons Pengo Learned From Fred

Me and Fred, from a lost "silent" film. (1986)
This was not the post I intended to write on my fiftieth birthday. But life rarely goes as planned, and birthdays are as arbitrary as any other holiday.

Fred Steiner died this morning from a massive coronary. Apparently he was looking out his window contemplating mowing he grass, which is as fine a way to go as any I can think of.

Fred graduated from Bay High in 1980, a contemporary of my eldest bother, Denny. But we spent a lot of time together, watching movies, engaged in RPG, and producing comedy television for the public access channel.

We haven't spent a lot of time together recently, the last time I saw him was at his mother's funeral, before that at my father's. But unlike some from those old days we never had a falling out, never really lost touch.

I was unable to attend his 50th birthday party, si years ago, but I did pass along a number of things I had learned from him, sincerely offered, to be read at the event. It was only appropriate to be produced as a Letterman-esque "Top Ten" list.

10. Do the best work you can. Don’t get uppity. Create low expectations.

9. Christian Bale was a grown man before he learned what I learned at age fifteen: Do not have a tantrum when the camera is rolling.

8. The cool person stays in his chair, and makes people come to him.

7. Turn TV-viewing into a contest. It's more fun that way.

6. Fred’s defense of The Creature from Alsace Lorraine sketch; “Nobody told me no.”

5. Be original. Avoid high-concept. Edit.

4. Make the Dungeon Master laugh, and you can get away with anything.

3. "I’m SO fucked in the HEAD!"

2. Women are people, not aliens. They are easy to talk to and if you want something from them, just ask.

1. [This one is private.]
When I was a teenager Fred treated me with respect and dignity, long before Denny did. He was one who taught me decency and humility, and humor. I am very sorry he is gone.

Friday, July 20, 2018


This is Monticello.
Eighteen years ago, my wife and I took a second honeymoon. We’d only been married a year, but through the five years we’d been together we had already taken several road trips. One of the great joys of my life was finding a partner who was as delighted by roadside attractions as I was.

For the year 2000 we would take the longest excursion we ever had, perhaps we ever will. Three weeks on the road, traveling south through Memphis and Asheville, taking a week with friends in a roundhouse on the Outer Banks before heading north again through the two Virginias.

Approaching Nashville, we spotted signs for Belle Meade Plantation and decided yes, we have time for this. This was before we had teenage children, whose vote would most likely be “no,” not for any unpleasant reason, but usually out of a desire to “get there,” meaning either our final destination or a hotel with a pool.

Like many stately homes of the old South that were not burned to the ground during the war, Belle Meade has been preserved as a museum, a celebration of antebellum gentility and prosperity. Owner John Harding bred horses, which is a fine thing to do.

The building remains, complete with bullet holes in the stone columns from a “skirmish” between Union and Confederate soldiers. What no longer remained was any evidence of where the 136 enslaved people who worked the plantation and kept it successful for the white family in the big house lived, and raised their families.

Thomas Jefferson
Statue by Alexander Galt, UVA Rotunda (detail)
At the turn of the 21st century, however, things were finally beginning to change. They acknowledged these enslaved men, women, and children -- with particular emphasis on the seventy-two who remained after the war to work as employees, as though that suggested slavery on this plantation was the “good” kind, and not that other kind.

The year before, in 1999, there was a screening of Gone With the Wind at the Cedar-Lee, celebrating the film’s sixtieth anniversary. That was the first and last time I will ever see that movie. AFI still rates it as one of the top ten films ever made, and for sheer craft and artistry, perhaps it is. I fucking hate that movie, one which minimizes the entire American slave trade with the phrase, “they weren’t miserable.”

At the tail end of our journey, we spent a night in Charlottesville and the day at Monticello. It was a lazy day for us, touring the house, yes but also strolling leisurely through the gardens. Our children are good travelers, but it has been a long time since my wife and I have taken a journey on our own, dined at our own speed, made appointments at our own speed, and were able to silently take in a garden, a view, a work of architecture or art without distraction or comment.

One feature she very much liked was the Garden Pavilion, a small room, made of brick, perched on the “little mountain” with a grand view of the valley, the land beyond. She fancied what a marvelous room that would be to sit in and think or write, for hours.

Now remember, this first visit was in 2000, only two years since DNA testing made scientifically evident that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least five children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved person who lived at Monticello. The white descendants of Jefferson were still not prepared to accept the results, many surely never will be. But already the message was being shared from the docents at the site that slavery was to be acknowledged, though that message was not yet very loud.

Garden Pavilion, 2000
We learned about Jefferson the statesman, the scientist, the scholar, the philosopher, the farmer -- though he never really got his hands dirty. We also saw that peculiar bed that opened to his changing room and his study, which used to seem cool but now all I can think is, well, that’s a difficult bed to make.

Of course, he never made it.

It was easier just to tell his story, because it is most evident. Not merely because he was the third President of the United States, but because all of his stuff is still right there, to look at. Following emancipation the housing for the enslaved people was destroyed, what little possessions they owned, lost.

This July 4th weekend, NPR rebroadcast a Studio 360 episode about Monticello, and having recently visited it seemed a bit tone deaf. When an historian described the many debts Jefferson left when he died, he mentions in passing the “contents” that were sold off to raise funds.

Historian Hugh Howard says, “They have an auction, and they sell much of the contents of the house, which don’t go for a lot of money. They sell the slaves, which do go for a certain amount of money. And they begin to think about selling the house.”

He just glosses over the slaves. They get sold. That’s over six hundred people with lives and families who were auctioned off to pay the debts of one man. This episode was a rebroadcast, actually recorded in 2012. Even as late as six years ago a white man can casually reference an obscene act of human cruelty as casually as he was reading a ledger.

The good news is that the tenor of the conversation at Monticello has evolved mightily over the past eighteen years. Today you can expect to hear the stories of many others who lived and worked at Monticello, people whose stories might otherwise have been lost to history.

Hemings Family cabin (reconstruction)
It was a hot day, a not atypical summer day in Virginia, when we visited late last month. Waiting for the house tour we took the “Slavery Tour,” a walk-and-talk along Mulberry Row, which was once a bustling engine of toil and industry, made of homes for those who worked there, as well as workshops and storehouses for the various trades that kept the plantation alive.

Some small buildings have been recreated during the past generation. But our guide mostly led us from one shaded area to another (where we were able to enjoy staggeringly beautiful vistas overlooking the valley) and told true stories of those who lived and worked the row.

Joseph Fossett, a member of the Hemings extended family, was one of the very few enslaved people granted freedom in Jefferson’s will. We heard of the arrangements Fossett made with individual whites to purchase his family members at auction, to be bought by Fossett (with interest) as he made his living in Ohio as a blacksmith. For his youngest, Peter, it was an additional 25 years in bondage before Fossett was able to bring him north to freedom. Joseph Fossett worked every day to pay for his own children’s freedom.

"They sell the slaves, which do go for a certain amount of money." Which. Indeed.

But our tour wasn’t some matter-of-fact description of a bygone era. Our tour guide had an agenda, comparing slavery to the modern prison system, reminding us that the scars of race-based slavery are with us today and are nowhere near invisible.

Because our tour guide, this young man, is from Charlottesville, raised in Charlottesville, this is his home. And he was present during the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in August 2017, and Heather Heyer, who was murdered by a Nazi-sympathizer during the rally, was a friend of his.

Taking the new house tour, we heard once again about Jefferson’s many great achievements, but also the names and the stories of those who worked below floors, exhibits which have also recently been developed to illustrate slave life at Monticello.

Garden Pavilion, 2018
Why so much emphasis on slavery? Isn’t that past? Isn’t it time to move on? That is an argument, but it’s a useless one. It is an argument of exclusion. Thomas Jefferson did a great many things, including lead a country, establish a university, write the Declaration of Independence, the foundation of our democracy. He would never have had the time, the wherewithal to accomplish any of these things without the toil of the six hundred and seven people whose work gave him the time to sit and write and think.

And so we returned to the Garden Pavilion, from which Jefferson would have sat and thought and wrote, overlooking Charlottesville, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Rivanna River beyond. And in his day, he would also be keeping his eye on the hundreds of men and women downhill, harvesting all of his valuable tobacco.

Telling the story of Monticello requires telling the story of the people who literally built Monticello.

See also: Monticello Is Done Avoiding Jefferson’s Relationship With Sally Hemings by Farah Stockman, New York Times, 6/16/2018