The Copperhead

Written by Augustus Thomas
Directed by Kathy Scambiatterra

At City Lit Theater in Chicago

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on May 14, 2011

A colleague recently opined to me that the American Civil War of the 1860s (with the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s) bears witness to the theory that human beings are genetically programmed to make war on each other. And until our genetic constitution changes, said he, there exists no escape from this grim reality. Depressing though his illation is, it isn't altogether unreasonable, given the tendency of people to leap at almost any opportunity to satisfy the evolutionary vestige of some excessive drive for self-preservation, such as greed, fear, hatred, or pride. But out of the thousands of wars that presumably have smitten humankind since the days of Ardipithecus, why did my colleague point to this one as evidence for his thesis? Is this particular war unique in its commentary on the bellicosity of our species? Although he left the question open, the germ of an answer unexpectedly started congealing as I sat watching City Lit's recent production of a play I'd never seen before.

Thomas' The Copperhead is about individual conscience in the midst of social pressure, although it's equally easy to see within the story an apotheosis of martyrdom, especially in the face of war. In either case, of course, the theme is hardly original, but then "original" isn't an adjective we could apply to the urge to take up arms. The historical context is the War Between the States and how it frames the characters in this play and their relationships to each other. The setting is a farm in central Illinois at three strategically chosen times: (a) April of 1861, as the war begins, (b) July of 1863, directly after the siege of Vicksburg, and (c) the spring of 1903, 38 years after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. The protagonist, one Milt Shanks, refuses early on to support President Lincoln's war to preserve the Union, though not because he reveres the South or its ways, but because he considers immoral the effort to force the South, against its will, to stay in the Union. In discussing the Civil War, it's difficult for Americans to divorce the question of state sovereignty from that of slavery, given that many regard the term "state's rights" as code designating either the right to enslave people or the right to segregate them by race.

Nevertheless, slippery is the slope into bifurcation. This play depicts the very human predisposition for seeing every question as binary, which is not surprising inasmuch as the ability to make snap decisions probably saved many a primitive human in sudden confrontations with outsiders or wild animals. In that very spirit, millions of years later, Shanks' family, friends, and neighbors label him a sympathizer (a "copperhead") for disapproving of the war. To them, arguing against prosecuting the war smacked of treachery: either a man was for the North or he was for the South. But Shanks, through his defiance, which borders on contumacy, argues for a principle higher than that of uncritical loyalty, a principle that he summarizes in calling the war an "unholy cause" because it pits Americans against each other. Upon being reminded that he willingly fought in the war with Mexico, he shapes the difference as a question of shared citizenship: Mexicans are not his own countrymen.

Shanks' words here obviously bespeak the categorizing of people by political borders, despite the practice of slavery in the South and its prohibition in the North. He reveals patriotism at its most puzzling -- or perhaps its most demanding -- by implying that the comparatively arbitrary, or accidental, criterion of shared citizenship supersedes all other criteria for deciding whom to defend and whom to attack, if one has even decided to defend or attack someone at all. Shanks is arguing that Southerners, whose collective culture differs dramatically from that of himself and his fellow Northerners, are still his "countrymen", despite their secession from the Union, an act that seems to indicate unequivocally their desire to nullify shared citizenship with anyone in the North. In his recent speech to the British Parliament in Westminster Hall, President Obama observed that the United States and the United Kingdom define citizenship in terms of shared values, specifically, the rights of individuals and the rule of law. This proposition is very attractive until the rights of one individual collide with those of another. But be that as it may, for Shanks, citizenship derives from a political contract that necessarily includes geographical boundaries, even if his countrymen practice slavery. President Obama has the benefit of a hindsight that Shanks does not.

As the story unfolds, we start to question the sincerity of Shanks' supposedly principled objection to the war. It seems he's gone so far as to join the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret society founded to promote Southern interests and one that gives material aid to the Confederacy in its military campaigns. After we make this unsettling discovery, he gives us some confusing evidence of being a double agent who's working also for the Union as a spy. But if he is a double agent, then is his anti-war attitude spurious? Copperhead succeeds on this very ambiguity. Shanks' recalcitrance and the resulting umbrage of those around him represent a real debate that we still rehearse today. And the very uncertainty swirling around Shanks' character on a matter of such gravity just makes him all the more interesting. Even if Shanks is deceiving us about his real sentiments, he gives us a coherent counterpoint to the conventional notion of patriotism and loyalty in time of war.

Unfortunately, the play fails in the fourth act, in which Shanks suddenly reveals to his friends and family that President Lincoln himself had recruited him to infiltrate the Golden Circle in order to spy and engage in subterfuge on behalf of the Union. Lincoln had warned Shanks that he would become "odious", while unable to tell even his own wife about his secret mission. It's at this point that the play redirects our attention away from the realistic issue of conscientious objection, and from the effect of Shanks' defiance on his various relationships, to something that changed the entire complexion of the story. We now wonder whether Copperhead is actually about the lifelong martyrdom of Milt Shanks. If it is, then do his lucid objections to the war, expressed so eloquently by his ineloquent rural vernacular, disappear as a diversionary tactic? Were his words heretofore hollow? Is the playwright telling us that Shanks' opposition to the war was nothing more than calculated posturing?

The fourth act is awkward, cliché, fluffy, and insulting. And the actors in this production couldn't overcome it. Upon discovering Shanks' "patriotism" and his personal sacrifice for the sake of the Union, happiness suddenly abounds. Sentimentality gushes. The peasants dance merrily. And Shanks utters one of the most maudlin lines I've ever heard in a serious theatre piece. It's as though the author is thumbing his nose at the audience to say, "All that ruminating over morality in the first three acts -- all that exploring of strained relationships in the wake of ideological clashes -- all that thinking I asked you to do -- I was just kidding." However, Thomas' audience of 1918 had a distinctly different mindset, with memories of the Civil War still strong, if no longer fresh, and with World War I just coming to an end. Their reaction to the fourth act, I'm sure, was no less different.

In the first paragraph, I mentioned the germ of an answer to my colleague's question about the Civil War. It's there. It's in Shanks' bold resistance and in the willing forfeiture of his reputation. It's in Lincoln's request that Shanks sabotage the Golden Circle's activities. It's in the tolerance, albeit grudging, of Shanks' nonconformism by those around him. It's in the practice of slavery and in its abolition. In short, it's in the fusion of civilization and barbarism, a dynamic fusion that shows the uniquely American push and pull of progress and regress. From slavery to the Emancipation Proclamation to Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights Act. From the Cult of Domesticity to the Declaration of Sentiments to the 19th Amendment. From Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam, to Lyndon Johnson's campaign position to reduce American involvement there, to the anti-war "teach-in" broadcasts, to the My Lai massacre, to the Chicago riots, to Nixon's "Peace With Honor". The answer's in all this, and more.