Commentary Magazine


“The Old Glory” Reconsidered

When The Old Glory, Robert Lowell’s trilogy of plays, was first produced in 1964, it appeared to offer a new direction in American theater. Concerned with the materials of American history and literature, brooding, intellectual, yet punctuated by eruptions of violence, The Old Glory promised to satisfy the requirements of both intellectuals and theatergoers. Moreover, as Robert Brustein put it at the time, Lowell’s plays also seemed to fulfill the requirements of literary modernism. They had “the thickness and authority of myth.” In them, “ritual and metaphors abound; traditional literature and historical events begin to function like Greek mythology, as the source and reflection of contemporary behavior.” Lowell, Brustein predicted, “may very well come to revolutionize the American theater.”

Viewed at its recent revival by the American Place Theater, The Old Glory proves to have been prophetic enough, and not only of developments in the Amercian theater, but of cultural life in general. In fact, it anticipates the bitter anti-Americanism that seized hold of American writing for the remainder of the 1960′s. Felt in these plays is the first shock of liberal guilt in response to the black protest movement and the beginning of the Vietnam war. Though inevitably, for a modernist like Lowell, the favored vehicles of expression remain those of ritual and myth (along with the verse techniques of T. S. Eliot’s poetic dramas), The Old Glory gives evidence of an abandonment of the modernist values of difficulty and complexity in favor of espousing a cause.

In The Old Glory Lowell adapted three short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and a short novel by Herman Melville. Interestingly, all of the tales represent attempts by two writers of the mid-19th century to comprehend “contemporary behavior” by exploring American history and myth. Like Lowell, Hawthorne and Melville adapted their sources, but, on the whole, they also adhered to them with remarkable fidelity. Just as the changes they imposed have long served scholars as measures of their intentions and accomplishment, so the changes made by Lowell in his materials serve to measure his intentions and accomplishment.

The first play, Endecott and the Red Cross, combines Hawthorne’s “Endicott and the Red Cross” and “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” Both take place during the first years following the Puritan settlement of Massachusetts Bay in the 1620′s. Lowell has well caught Hawthorne’s implication that here are to be found the origins of American culture. Stretching the facts a bit, Hawthorne posits a rivalry between the stern Puritans of Boston and Salem, and the pleasure-loving followers of Thomas Morton at nearby Merry Mount. In Lowell’s version the opposition is made obvious in the confrontation of the Puritan, Endecott, with Morton himself. Hawthorne, more symbolic in his method, never introduces Morton, expressing the opposition instead in terms of the contrasted behavior of the two communities.

Lowell’s Endecott is a tired, cynical totalitarian whose hardness can be traced to sexual deprivation. He rides into Merry Mount (as in Hawthorne) to break up its May Day festivities. But once there he takes up the rest of the play with his musings. In these he appears much as one of Eliot’s “hollow men.” In contrast to Endecott, Thomas Morton is an expansive, pleasure-loving character who is yet a shrewd realist about human nature. By implication, Lowell’s Morton is a racial egalitarian. He justifies the drinking, debauchery, and intermarriage with the Indians that goes on at Merry Mount as necessary outlets for human nature. Lowell, here employing not only Hawthorne but Hawthorne’s sources as well, somewhat balances his approval of Morton by revealing that the guns he has sold to the Indians have been used to kill settlers. But this fact, which serves the Puritans as their excuse for invading Merry Mount, is dismissed by Morton’s argument that the Puritans are as guilty as the Indians.

“I know you Puritans,” says Morton. “You only care for profit; your holy thirst for mink and beaver-skins drives you mad.” The Puritans themselves, Morton suspects, have sold guns to the Indians. Their hypocritical persecution of Morton is, then, simply part of the Puritans’ impulse to eliminate the Indian race.

As in Hawthorne, Lowell’s Endecott shows some mercy to the Merry Mounters, even though egged on by a fanatical Puritan clergyman to punish them severely. In each of his plays Lowell introduces such an extra character to provide an interlocutor for his protagonist. Instead of using figures to draw out the moral complexities of the American character, however, he conveniently makes each of them an exacerbated reflection of the protagonists’ ugly Americanness. Endecott has a prophetic dream of mass killing that all too obviously refers to America’s future. Then, at the end, he summarily orders that the Indians he has taken prisoner be brought out and shot. In this first play, as in the last, a violent ending serves to display a prototypical American as the murderer of a subject race.

The contrasts between the humorless Puritans and the playful Merry Mounters, between the wintry prayers of the former and the summery dancing of the latter, all come from Hawthorne. But where Hawthorne looks at his oppositions with a questioning eye, Lowell points a finger of accusation. In each of his stories Hawthorne explores a second side of Endicott. In one case he endows him with that soldierly bravery which made America strong enough to withstand British control, and in the other he shows him moved by ideas of religious autonomy that may be linked directly to the American Revolution.

On the other hand, Hawthorne shows the Merry Mount flower children to have been as fanatical as the Puritans, just as their spiritual descendants proved themselves to be in the course of the 1960′s. In Lowell’s version, which is filled with innocent dancing, there is no hint of Hawthorne’s reminder that “it was high treason to be sad at Merry Mount.” The fate of America, for Hawthorne, lay in the manner in which its combination of cruel and admirable qualities would work themselves out. To symbolize the possibilities, he had Endicott place a wreath on the Merry Mount king and queen of the May and bring them to live at Salem—presumably to soften America’s Puritan gloom. In Lowell the contrast is black-and-white, with the Puritans representing American greed and racism. His dramaturgy returns us to the manichean spirit of the Puritan imagination he had set out to reject.

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In Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” a young man from the country arrives one evening in early 18th-century Boston to look for the house of his wealthy and influential uncle. He asks his way of several people but finds himself mysteriously rebuffed by all—despite his explanation that he is come to make his fortune and that his uncle, Major Molineux, will reward anyone who shows him the way. His experience is rendered by Hawthorne as a phantasmagoric dream, though the real explanation proves to be a simple one: everyone he has met knows that Major Molineux is going to be tarred and feathered that night. The story ends with the young man witnessing his uncle’s humiliation of being carted through the streets.

Modern critics have worked out the symbolism of this tale as a prophecy of the American Revolution. The young boy represents young America, which must break away from its dependence on a fostering England, represented by Major Molineux. In fact, the boy does join in the crowd’s revolutionary frenzy (the tale is set some years before the actual Revolution). In one of the strangest and most compelling moments in Hawthorne’s works, he first stands transfixed as he recognizes his uncle and then lets out a shout of mad, derisive laughter. It is a kind of personal coming of age that is at the same time historically predictive. Its cruelty is the cruelty both of revolution and of the break from one’s parents.

Lowell’s adaptation captures the unreal atmosphere of the search and something of the ritual of usurpation shared by the crowd and the young man. He splits the central character, giving him a younger brother for the purposes of dialogue, and he makes the story’s theme explicit by setting it at the beginning of the Revolution, with British redcoats being taunted by the mob that later carts off Major Molineux. Molineux. a mysterious, unidentified figure in the tale, is made an outspoken Tory who has become particularly unpopular with the crowd. These changes obscure the personal theme of a young man’s coming of age, and thus remove another of Hawthorne’s fruitful ambiguities.

If Major Molineux is a representative of the establishment—to choose a term out of the 1960′s—then the crowd is justified in punishing him and the story becomes a ritual celebration of the overthrow of tyranny. Hawthorne, however, presents a ritual of succession: the transfer of power in the family and the state from one generation to the next as a process with built-in elements of revolution. This is a profound and troubled way to conceive of revolution. It attempts to probe the dark, unconscious side of the American Revolution, just as the Endicott stories examined both sides of Puritanism.

This second play of Lowell’s trilogy, by contrast, expresses the flirtation with violence that was indulged in by politically frustrated intellectuals in the 1960′s; in omitting the ambiguous significance of the young man’s experience as revealed in his horrid laugh at the end, it turns Hawthorne’s study into a celebration of youth, of going into the streets and humiliating the establishment. The literary result is a play uncritical of violence and prophetic of the literary mode of the rest of the 60′s.

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The last play in The Old Glory is about race, with Lowell again making explicit what is implied in his source: Melville’s Benito Cereno. Here too there is a mystery, with an innocent American unable to plumb it until at the end it violently stares him in the face. The time is he beginning of the 19th century. An American captain, Amasa Delano, brings a gift of provisions on board a Spanish ship in distress off South America. The Spaniard is a trader and a slaver. Drifting practically out of control, its human cargo strangely lolling about the decks, and its captain, Benito Cereno, apparently ill, the ship presents a mystery. The truth is that it has been taken over by the African slaves, whose leader, Babo, is pretending to be Benito Cereno’s body servant in order to keep next to him and control what he says.

Babu, as he is called in Lowell’s version, is played by Rosco Lee Brown, who also starred in the original production. With his elaborate, unctuous servility, Brown manages to convey an unspecified menace. Captain Delano’s suspicions, and the audience’s, are directed at Benito Cereno, not Babu. Of the three plays, this one has the strongest claim to permanence, largely on account of the dramatic possibilities inherent in the role of Babu. In addition, Lowell occasionally departs to good effect from the unemphatic language of the earlier plays, conveying the languid, threatening atmosphere with versifications of Melville’s own magnificent rhetoric.

But it is Captain Delano who speaks the poetic lines, and herein lies the problem with the play. The audience is not permitted to respond to Delano’s language or sympathize with his perplexity because Lowell has transformed him into an object of ridicule. Melville’s Delano is a forthright, unsophisticated American whose faith in the Tightness of things prevents him from recognizing the danger he is in. Lowell’s Delano is deceived because he is a smug bigot distracted by his Northern envy of Benito Cereno for keeping a body slave. The audience is held at bay from this Delano, for the purpose of the play is not to enable us to share his experience, as in Melville, but to condemn him as a representative of American racism.

Like Hawthorne, Melville offers a number of paradoxes regarding the American character. Captain Delano’s imperception, it is clear, symbolizes the failure of Northerners to come to grips with the presence of slavery in their nation. Yet, as Benito Cereno points out after Babo’s role has been revealed and he and Delano have made their escape, the captain’s innocence is what saves him. If he had betrayed a suspicion while in Babo’s presence, he would have been killed. There is a dark side of American life that must be brought to consciousness, Melville seems to be saying, yet there is also much to be said for its optimism and generous naiveté

No such duality is suggested by Lowell’s captain. His open-handed provision of goods is ridiculed as a gesture of American superiority. When at one point he nearly divines the mystery of the ship, it is not by beginning to contemplate the dark side of things, but as a result of his own greed. Like the Puritans he does everything for profit, and worries about what is going on only when it seems that he may not be paid for the food that he has brought.

Typically for the 1960′s, evil is here conceived not in moral but aesthetic terms. To climax his trilogy, Lowell presents in Captain Delano a figure to be despised chiefly for his vulgarity and his involvement in business. From these crimes it is but a short step to the racist murder with which the play ends.

In Melville’s version Babo is captured and sent to trial in Peru, where he is put to death. On stage, once the Spanish ship has been subdued, Captain Delano stands holding a gun on Babu. Unnecessarily, he kills him. Then he empties the remaining five shells from his very loud gun into Babu’s body. Endecott’s prophetic dream of slaughter has been realized, and the curtain falls.

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The Hawthorne and Melville tales selected by Lowell have for some time been recognized loci of modern literary criticism. By 1964, when he adapted them, they were well-known as “Kafkaesque,” 19th-century predecessors of the literature of the absurd. It is remarkable, therefore, that Lowell, rather than building on the proto-modernist subtleties of his sources, chose to flatten them out. It would seem that at its very moment of triumph, the modernist ideal of complexity was being abandoned by a leading modern poet. And others quickly followed Lowell in announcing their own conversions in the 1960′s: from fiction to non-fiction, from abstraction to representational pop art, and from criticism to a position “against interpretation.”

One of the symbols used by Lowell is that of the flag as an expression of national character. In the first play the British flag is cut from its standard, in the second the boy is asked to choose between the Union Jack and the banner, “Don’t Tread on Me,” and in the third the Spanish flag of “freedom” is used as a barber’s smock. Significantly, Lowell’s Endecott tears down the British flag as a simple gesture of revolt where Hawthorne’s Endicott performs a more complex symbolic act, cutting out from the flag only the British red cross, associated in his mind with Papacy. Hawthorne is suggesting that the American Revolution which this act presages was touched by religious bigotry—yet another complication of the sort that Lowell chooses to abandon.

There was much desecration of flags in this country after Lowell’s trilogy was first produced. He cannot of course be held responsible for those coincidentally primitive attacks on symbols of the state. Yet one cannot help thinking in retrospect that The Old Glory marked the beginning of a willful return to art as agitprop—and the beginning of a period that Richard Hofstadter was to call an age of rubbish.

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