A letter from American Playwright Paula Vogel
November 11, 2016
Paula Vogel is one of America’s most prominent playwrights. She has racked up a small mountain range of awards, including the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE. Just a few of the others are the Thornton Wilder Award, Lifetime Achievement from the Dramatists Guild, the William Inge Award, the Elliott Norton Award, two Obies, a Susan Smith Blackburn Award, the PEN/Laura Pels Award, and a Guggenheim. In 2013, she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, which recognizes a lifetime of achievement in theatre. And she is the first female playwright whose literary archive is housed in The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, alongside the papers of Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder. A. R. Gurney and John Guare. Theatre critic John Simon once wrote that Paula Vogel collects awards like “a black sofa collects lint.”
In addition to her extraordinary writing, she is also one of our most beloved teachers of playwriting. She led the program at Brown University for 24 years and then joined the Yale School of Drama as chair in 2008. She stepped away from the chair (and its attendant administrative duties) in 2012, but continues to teach and mentor playwriting students there today. Her mark on American playwriting has been profound: among her many acclaimed students are Sarah Ruhl, Nilo Cruz, Adam Bock, Lynn Nottage and Quiara Alegría Hudes.
Her most recent play, INDECENT, will open on Broadway in April 2017 – it will be the first Broadway play announced this season written by a woman.
A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS was commissioned by Arena Stage, and premiered at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in November 2008. We asked her to share with us how the project came into being.
Here are her thoughts:
I have always wanted to see an American Christmas Carol. It's bothered me that each season we watch Victorian London history rather than our own. I feel that there is a communal healing and outreach we need to do with our own history; although the poverty that underlies Dickens is something that has also been a burden (and continues to be a moral burden) here – to me our refusal to witness the sin of slavery is our Marley's ghost.
So: of course the piece functions as Dickensian in structure (although more like Nicholas Nickleby in structure than Christmas Carol; the multi-plotting of A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS is very much in line with melodrama and 19th Century structure.)
I wanted to focus on the citizens of Washington DC, the African American community, the merchants and seamstresses, and of course, the remarkable Elizabeth Keckley. The Lincolns, I thought, might be interesting as secondary characters to Bronson. And Decatur Bronson is a composite character of two merit of honor soldiers in the Civil War. (RAGTIME, too, by Doctorow was very much a model; and believe it or not, there are as many characters on the cutting room floor as in the play now)
I loved growing up in DC, and I think of the city as the protagonist of the play. I loved thinking that Walt Whitman would watch Lincoln ride to the Summer Cottage, that actors and spies passed each other by, and that the city itself that I knew was formed by an enormous tide of refugees fleeing slavery, so much so that there was no room at the inn in that bitter winter of 1864.
As for the piece itself, it came in a flash: the Christmas carols and the Civil War ballads, all following a single star. I knew all the ballads and spirituals well as a child, and our outings in my childhood consisted of packing a picnic basket and heading out to another battlefield in Maryland or Virginia, or
the consecrated ground of Gettysburg. (And I am the child of a catholic from New Orleans and a Jewish father from New York, so the War Between the States has always seemed personal to me)
I have been heavy of heart as I wrote it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the population of New Orleans, abandoned by our government and roofless; I have thought that we continue to fight the civil war in our politics. But on this particular Christmas Eve, the divide has become much more dangerous that it was in 2006.
I hope we can wrest some peace, some wish for community, this Christmas. And as Americans I hope we celebrate what we share in common.