‘A Civil War Christmas’: Trying to mesh brutal warfare with sugar-coated holiday fun

The most ill-conceived aspect of the play was its portrayal of slavery. This play exists in a world where slaves are reunited with their families and are invited to spend Christmas at the White House with President Lincoln. (Photo provided by writer)

For the past seven years or so, I have been an avid consumer of Civil War history, with a particular interest in Abraham Lincoln. I’ve read multiple biographies on Lincoln, many books on the war (both in nonfiction and novel form), seen various documentaries and films on the subject, took a class on the war in my first semester and made my own short film set during this time period. I even organized a trip to the Gettysburg and Antietam battlefields with my Boy Scout Troop, so it’s clear I have great passion for this period in history.

I also understand how complicated of a subject the Civil War continues to be, as many Americans have still not gotten over its effects. For this reason, I was understandably concerned when I heard there was to be a play about the war in the form of a Christmas musical, a form which I thought sounded totally wrong for covering this subject matter. I was both dreading and excited to see how the Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) would pull this one off, though I must say, my expectations were low.

So, was it what I expected or did it surpass my preconceptions?

Well, before I answer that, I would like to preface my review by saying I have enjoyed all of the CRT productions I have seen. Both the actors and production crew clearly go through great effort to put on shows of the highest quality. Their summertime series, especially, was equal to any production I have seen in a major theater, both in terms of acting and visuals.

This is why it pains me to say this show was an absolute mess. To be clear, this is not completely the fault of CRT. The issue mainly rests in the script by playwright Paula Vogel, which is not only insensitive to its delicate historical subject but also unevenly paced and poorly written.

The most ill-conceived aspect of the play was its portrayal of slavery. This play exists in a world where slaves are reunited with their families and are invited to spend Christmas at the White House with President Lincoln. Instead of giving us an honest portrayal of the brutality and lack of empathy shown toward slaves, what we get is so sugarcoated and tame that it is almost laughable. There are a few attempts to dig deeper, a flashback involving the character Elizabeth Keckley for example, but those moments are fleeting and fairly inconsequential.

One of the most egregious moments is where human actors are used to portray horses and mules. While this would typically be an amusing source of comic relief, it feels particularly tone-deaf in a play featuring slavery, which is the mass practice of using human bodies as beasts of burden. Adding insult to injury, the actor portraying the mule also plays a slave in another scene, making the comparison all the more problematic.

On a personal level, I was most surprised by the play’s references to the Lincoln assassination. What is often viewed as a national tragedy is treated as a joke by the writer. Multiple scenes involve foreshadowing of the assassination, which is strangely played for laughs. There is also a running subplot featuring John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators. Booth is devoid of nuance, portrayed like the villain of a children’s cartoon. His plot goes absolutely nowhere and seems to exist only to remind the audience that Lincoln will eventually be assasinated (as it so often loves to do).

The scene transitions were another of the play’s weaknesses, with characters abruptly shifting from delivering dialogue to narration. In one of the most bizzare moments, a Union soldier cruelly blocks the passage of a slave woman and her child, suddenly turning to the audience and describing what happens next. Another scene ends with a Union soldier pointing his gun at a Confederate raider before jarringly transitioning into a light, musical moment. These sorts of moments plagued the entire production, giving the impression that the script was not given nearly enough time or thought.

While the show as a whole had many failings, there were some elements which stood out, primarily the performance of Erin Cessna as Mary Todd Lincoln and the opening scenes of Act II involving the conversations between Chester Manton Saunders (Tristan Rewald) and Decatur Bronson (Forrest McClendon). In what I had expected to be the rockiest element of the play, Mrs. Lincoln is written with a surprising degree of complexity and respect, highlighting her multi-layered personality and troubled past.

The scenes between Bronson and Saunders also do a compelling job portraying the lives of ordinary soldiers and the role race played in the war (the only time the subject is adequately addressed). Unfortunately, the scene is followed by a sequence of Confederate raids on the Union supply train (the only time the play comes close to portraying combat). Instead of realistic depictions of the animalistic brutality of the war, the scenes come off as childish, with playful Confederates stealing socks and handkerchiefs without any physical violence.

Surprisingly, the music is one of the most awkward elements of this musical. Instead of flowing organically from the drama, the play screeches to a halt whenever a song begins. Their incorporation ranges from mildly relevant in some spots to completely superfluous in others. It seems that Vogel is going out of her way to include Christmas carols, which should be a clear indicator this should not have been a musical. The use of Christmas music also lessens the drama’s impact, often undercutting serious moments with festive tunes that spring out of nowhere.

After viewing the show, I was left puzzled as to why Vogel chose this subject matter for her musical. If she wished to do a Christmas musical during a war, the 1914 Christmas Truce during the First World War would have been a much clearer choice. If she was dead-set on covering the Civil War, why not base the story around Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s writing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day?” Instead, Vogel gives us around 10 different plotlines which each receive very little attention and all end up feeling rushed and inconsequential with characters we know little about and care for even less.

If you want to see a dramatic telling of this time period which shows proper respect and authenticity to its setting and characters, watch Steven Spielberg's outstanding 2012 film “Lincoln.” Otherwise, I would recommend avoiding this production. If, however, you remain unconvinced after reading this, I would say only go to support the cast and crew of CRT and the hard work they put into all of their shows.


Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu.