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Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861

by Stephen B. Oates

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-06-016784-X
Publisher: HarperCollins

 Reconstructed first-person dramatic monologues by 13 characters in the first act of our nation's greatest tragedy. Novice playwrights learn that conflict makes for good theater but exposition doesn't. When the information that must be conveyed is as complicated as the Dred Scott decision or the Kansas-Nebraska act, it takes a consummate dramatist to hide the mechanics that make the stage magic work. Oates is an accomplished biograher and historian (A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, 1994, etc.) but a neophyte at stage business. Poor Jefferson Davis and Stephen A. Douglas especially end up having to fill in so much information that they sometimes sound more like readers of footnotes than on-stage characters. However, Oates is also obviously a quick learner. He acknowledges his debt to Hal Holbrook's performance in the dramatic monologue Mark Twain Tonight and Julie Harris's portrait of Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, noting that they proved that real-life characters can be a theatrical match for those drawn from a playwright's imagination. Oates has some wonderfully colorful, eloquent, and dramatic characters to work with, plus 40 years of action in which dramatic tension builds inexorably toward the monumental climax of the Civil War. There are moments of great theater in these interweavings of actual writings with imagined ruminations, in the doomed messianism of the abolitionist John Brown and the slave rebel Nat Turner, in the violent upheaval foretold by the great orator Henry Clay, and especially in the dueling monologues of Davis, Douglas, and Lincoln. If Oates's approach to history seems a frivolous tour de force at the beginning, by the end it seems the best possible device to prove his point: that the North and South eventually saw the world so differently that they stopped talking the same language. One eagerly awaits the promised sequel about the war years.