Never Been Anywhere
Sandglass Theater, The Breeding Barn, Shelburne VT July 8th
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Monday, July 19 1999, 5:57 PM
American regional culture thrives on the marketing of memory. It's as old as Cable's stories of Creole New Orleans or Jewett's novels of the Maine islands, all of which contributed to local tourism booms in their day. In its Victorian version, regionalism called up stories, images, and historical associations to honor simpler pasts.
Today's regional culture is a postindustrial industry. The national landscape is littered with towns and regions where historical memory is the major economic product, replacing material products with a potentially even more profitable re-envisioning. Present cannibalizes past through storytelling and sympathy. So Lowell, Massachusetts becomes a living museum of textile industry history and a lost working-class culture becomes a tourist gloss.
Artistic culture plays a critical public role in this commercial reformulation of memory. State and federal arts funding agencies have dedicated large chunks of their meager budgets to arts projects that can ease themselves into a regionalist canon, while artists who lie at an inconvenient distance from this political rubric find themselves unfundable. Programs that fund clog-dancing groups to the exclusion of art that asks hard questions have contributed enormously to making regionalist arts into a repressive cultural backwater, one that relies on grantwriting keywords to generate an official credibility. Too often, regionalism means art that stays out of trouble.
Vermont and regionalism have a long history together, almost as long as the state has faced hard questions about its cultural identity. But Vermont regionalism never exported too well. Among the best Vermont writers, names like Rowland Robinson and Dorothy Canfield Fisher have pretty much sunk into obscurity along with the isolated rural life they described. Maine's recent neo-regionalist wave, featuring writers like Carolyn Chute and E. Annie Proulx, has been much more popular.
Rather, Vermont has been much more successful talking about itself to its own diverse selves as a way of resolving identity problems. Those problems have been plentiful. The state experienced depopulation during and after the Civil War so profound that it was not until the early 1970s that the population returned to its antebellum level. Tiny, poverty-stricken and lonely towns became a reason to flee elsewhere. After World War II, the ski industry boom created a new reputation while the state quickly lost another: the dairy farms that were the economic backbone of rural Vermont life began disappearing at a rapid rate. Out of 11,000 dairy farms in 1949, only 1,782 dairy farms are left in 1999. For a heavily rural state with only one city barely over 100,000 population, this meant a fundamental shift in economic and cultural orientation.
The state has come to be divided between the Old Vermont, reliant on declining agriculture and a traditional country mix of part-time jobs, and the New Vermont, composed of out-of-state immigrants who have brought professional and technical skills, together with a vast change in state politics. 'Granite-ribbed' Republicanism died by the early 1970s too, together with Walter Smith, an affable man who ran the general store in Post Mills and who I used to listen to vowing that Republicans would continue running the state for another century. Bernie Sanders, a professed socialist and Brooklyn-born 'flatlander', is the congressional representative at-large now and likely the most popular politician in the state. Old Vermont and New Vermont generally cooperate; they don't have much symbiotic choice. Desire in the relationship flows largely from New towards Old, and no small measure of have-not antagonism runs in the opposite direction.
The Barnstorming Tour, which features three made-in-Vermont theater performances touring seven barns throughout the state during the month of July, is a creature of that Old-New relationship. The tour is sponsored by Vermont Land Trust, a conservation non-profit that protects agricultural and forest lands against development, and Rural Vermont, a progressive grassroots organization promoting sustainable agriculture. It is an unusual source of sponsorship for theater work, but a fitting one for more than the reason that old barns can find new community uses. As Eric Bass observes, "artistic culture and culture of land use" share common bonds.
Bass, who co-founded Sandglass Theater with his wife Ines and who co-directs its puppet productions, is part of the New Vermont. Bass is a native New Yorker who spent years in Munich learning traditional puppet making and refining a personal style based on a hybrid articulated rod puppet. His puppets are characterized by an intense soulfulness, an onstage intimacy with their creator and co-performer, and masterful manipulation. Bass essentially achieved a new standard in puppet theater, both in depth of emotional aesthetic and in technical control.
In Europe, where puppet theater is taken far more seriously and is far more lucrative than in the United States, Bass and his productions are in constant demand. In the United States, by contrast, puppet theater languishes and probably fewer than ten artists make a living from puppet performances. Between the Sandglass Theater in Putney and Peter Schumacher's equally renowned Bread and Puppet Theater operating out of Glover, over half those artists live in Vermont. For a performer-director like Bass, who has appeared in twenty-two countries, a show with the down-home title of Never Been Anywhere has more than a dollop of aw-shucks irony. The show has appeared previously in Europe and has been performed in French, which highlights the question of what international baggage the term 'regionalism' carries.
The first stop for the Barnstorming Tour was the Shelburne Farm on the rich bottomlands bordering Lake Champlain, once a heart of Vermont dairy farming. The estate's palatial buildings were constructed by a wealthy family in the 1880s as a project to create a model of efficiency for modern farming. These days tourists and school groups travel to the farm to see the memory industry at work, recreating a smiling version of an agriculture that is remote from common experience, if not from common daily consumption. The farm's excellent cheddar cheese is a mail-order luxury item, reminiscent of 'old ways', and not much different on that point from an 'old style' puppet performance for an upscale audience. An educational farm and museum that advertises it doesn't use computers to monitor milking of its 100-head dairy herd has a rustic sense suitable for the craft aesthetic of puppetry.
The stage was dwarfed sitting in the middle of one of the largest of the farm buildings, the 150 yard-long, four-story tall Breeding Barn. An extraordinary investment of agricultural capital for nineteenth-century Vermont, the newly renovated barn and its high windows are still a magnificent sight today. As darkness settled in the expanse of the empty barn, a dove called from the high rafters and a small New Vermonter audience --- looking up from novels and with whispers of French, Italian and Spanish conversation running about --- settled down for the evening.
The two performance pieces, "That Is No Country for Old Men" and "Not Everyone Can Be a Soldier," were adapted by Bass from short stories by Vermont writer Castle Freeman, Jr. Both pieces pick their way between introspection and cultural observation. With gentle humor, they capture rural persona and the effects of generational turnover. The comedy leavened the evening.
"That Is No Country for Old Men," a picaresque study of life on the Johnson farm begins with the creation and death of a horse. Picking up split wood and logs from a woodpile onstage, five performers work in well-practiced coordination to create a horse that walks, prances and finally falls apart from a tug too many on its lead rope. Mister Johnson, a hard-bitten farmer played by Finn Campman with languorous gusto, directs his two hands to bury the horse. Erskine, a farmboy Elvis, and Huey, a crotchety old fellow whose major form of expression is a good spit, undertake the job.
A yawning gap between youth and age, between hard work and perceived uselessness, characterizes the exchange and dialogue between this odd pair. Huey, not far from his world's end, both envies and despises Erskine's youth. As they bury the old farmhorse, they figuratively enact the next gravedigging for Huey himself. In a surreal spirit dream that begins as he remembers his own once youthful and hardworking body, Huey finds himself riding a pitchfork through a gauzy blue screen in a world where memory and future combine. The dream suggests his own imminent departure from conscious materiality, with perhaps wonder at what will appear in the coming sleep. The story has no resolution, only a suggestive final question from Huey. "I know you're smart enough to dig," he tells Erskine, "Are you smart enough to walk?"
The coordination between the half-dozen performers, all dressed in country clothes and working on a stage littered with hay bales (almost an anachronism themselves since hay rolls), is neat and efficient. While handling Huey, Bass shows his mastery in his execution of minute and difficult details, like the expressive manipulation of the character's small straw hat.
The second act, "Not Everyone Can Be a Soldier," returns to memories of the World War II home front, days when Vermonters could feel they were participating in making real history-book history. Since Vermont most often behaves like it is a world to itself, leaving the valleys to enter the big world can be heady stuff.
Bass plays an adult and reminiscing version of Rob, a boy in his early teens, who discovers the complexities of his parents and their lives. His father, a hollow barrel of would-be Hemingway masculinity, desperately wants to join the war effort as a correspondent, preferably as an officer and not too close to the front lines. Rob's mother is less interested in the wide world. She's more concerned with where her plantings will go, alienated by her husband's philandering. The war is falsity and mother's garden is verity. Father despises Vermont and ends up after the war in New York City, while Mother and Rob live in Vermont closer to alleged 'truer' rural values.
An ethos of isolationism pervades as soldier-actors tramp the stage, while the false bravado of "We did it before and we can do it Again" blares over the radio. "Little boys like boats and planes" says a woman with contempt. In this aspect, the play reproduces Freeman's story closely and uncritically. That story is disturbing in its suggested preference for Little Vermont, for a small state that tends to its own gardens and views involvement in distant conflicts as only more male head-butting and another excuse for abandonment. The stage text quotes lines from the original Freeman short story:
"The war had a secret, and you don't understand anything unless you know it. The secret was this: it was fun. For a few years the great machine of history became visible, and millions of ordinary men and women were required to make it run and to look on. That same machine could grind you among its fearful wheels; it could take your life. But if you were lucky, if you stayed clear, nothing could be more exciting."
Freeman's story rusticates with historical luxury, a luxury then unavailable to those people underfoot of armies in such locales as Eastern Europe and China. Jeering at the 'excitement' of violence, in the figure of Father, Freeman overlooks its political origins and the human pain that generates resistance.
Little Vermont has never existed. During the Civil War, for example, when abolitionist and Unionist sentiment ran deep, the state's men volunteered for army service in extraordinary numbers. The cumulative effects of death and emigration by returning soldiers led to present-day tumbledown stone walls drawing lines through forests that have grown up in what were once fields and sheep pastures. Vermont's landscape and society changed radically in large part because of its political involvement with the world. Reinventing World War II for the benefit of neo-isolationism says much more about current than past politics. Lack of critical purchase on this revisionist aspect of the original Freeman story leaves an aftertaste that mars the play's idea.
As Rob, Eric Bass has the most difficult role of the performance. By marvelous turns from innocence to wisdom, Bass conveys an adolescent wide-eyed wonder and a reflective adult English teacher looking back at his memories. Bass has an open-eyed quality above his graying beard that enables him to get it right.
Discovering the stories of Sherlock Holmes for the first time, Rob also discovers the close-concealed signs and sights of an obscure emotional world surrounding him. His mother begins a love affair with her neighboring cousin, Willard Kent, a character from Old Vermont, separating herself from her husband whom rushes into the modern world. Willard's sculptured face, indefinite age, and young-old mop of white hair make him one of the most intriguing creations of the puppet cast.
After a cacophonous and near-tragic denouement, life and wistful memory continue quietly onwards. "Not Everyone Can Be a Soldier" has greater dramatic energy and more of a supple, suggestive mood than its preceding act, which focuses more intently on characterization in its puppet persona.
In their slower-paced and reflective fashion, both of these pieces ask questions about the relations of the Older and Newer Vermonts, which are struggling to reconcile change with tradition. By beginning with the effects of modernization on individuals first, Never Been Anywhere asks about the value of being swept into the whirlwind of change. Is anywhere worth going to?