CHARLES TOWN – John Brown has been called many things. A monomaniacal terrorist. An idealist and zealot. Psychologically unbalanced. A great American who gave his life to a cause to which he subscribed.
Indeed, Brown, who arrived in the quiet of night to lead a violent assault on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859, defies easy classification. Northern Republicans distanced themselves from his fiery rhetoric of a violent insurrection – even Frederick Douglass regarded him warily – while Southerners despised him; he was buried with the noose used in his hanging still fastened to his neck.
And there are no easy answers provided of him in ‘The Anvil,’ the two-act play written by West Virginia writer Julia Davis for the Civil War Centennial Commission in Charles Town and first performed here in 1961 in the same location where the historical events unfolded – the Jefferson County Courthouse.
In her foreword, Davis said the play, which is an abbreviated re-enactment of the actual court transcripts of Brown’s weeklong trial and conviction, was intended to allow Brown to be revealed in his own words.
“Right or wrong, he should be played with nobility, and with the respect due a man willing to sacrifice his life for an idea,” wrote Davis of her interpretation of Brown, which is set to be performed Sept. 21 to 23 as part of this year’s annual Charles Town Heritage Festival.
Indeed, the title of the play suggests that Brown was just an empty vessel to whom destiny attached a role much greater than the man’s life itself.
“Sometimes in history there comes a man, pointed like a compass at one star, a man of iron, an anvil on which God beats out his purposes,” wrote Davis, an award-winning novelist and playwright who was living in Jefferson County when she died in 1993.
While Davis’ script galoshes about in the ambiguity of a moral injustice going toe to toe against a violent insurrection, the producer of this year’s performance, Harpers Ferry resident Jerry Bayer, rejects equivocation.
Bayer, who last produced the play in 2009 with his wife, Marianne, calls Brown a domestic terrorist.
People look upon John Brown as a savior, Bayer said. He was a homicidal maniac. This guy was nuts. He came to Harpers Ferry in the dead of night and the first person they shoot is (Hayward Shepherd,) a freed black man. One of the ladies in the play is Mahala Doyle. John Brown killed her husband and her two sons. He took them out of their house and hacked them to death. If Charles Manson had an ancestor, its John Brown.
Because the play is taken from the actual trial, Bayer said there is little room to romanticize the fiery abolitionist.
Theres nothing done here that legitimizes his efforts and makes him to be some kind of hero, said Bayer.
In the play, Bayer also portrays Browns appointed defense attorney, Thomas Green. Marianne Bayer will play the part of Browns wife, Mary, one of only two female roles in the play.
As in years past, including in its original 1961 production, all the roles are taken up by area residents.
Shepherdstown resident Joe Yates has participated in the play many times, and this year reprises the part of Brown himself. Yates is also making his directorial debut with this years production.
Yates said he has come to see Brown as someone who lived during a very violent period in American history, to which he responded in kind, but for a just cause.
Despite the fact that he had the ability to kill people, which is not a sane act, he was devoted to a cause that you could hardly argue was not a just cause, Yates said. I often ask the question: is it wrong to do wrong for the right reason?
Yates said the infamous Pottawatomie Massacre that resulted in the slaying of members of the Doyle family is better explained as a response by Brown to pro-slavery forces.
Dig into history a little and you see they were planning to do the same thing to him, Yates said. It was a very violent time in our history.
Echoing Davis, Yates said Brown cannot be easily summarized, but noted that once he was faced with a conviction, made his trial a statement about the evil of slavery, thereby seeking to transcend his own crimes.
Clearly he was sorry people were killed (at Harpers Ferry), Yates said. But he also reaffirms the fact that theres a higher cause at stake here. John Brown cared deeply about the abolition movement, and he cared deeply enough to sacrifice himself so that slavery would end.