The model for modern outdoor theater, The Lost Colony combines song, dance, drama, special effects, and music to breathe life into shadowy legend. This rendering of the play's text, edited and with an introduction by Laurence Avery, brings this pioneering work back into print.
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The Lost ColonyA Symphonic Drama of American History
By Paul Green
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2001 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionAt The Lost Colony
At The Lost Colony, performed outdoors during the summer on coastal Roanoke Island, weather matters. The weather does not always cooperate. Occasionally it rains. Sometimes it is hot and sticky. Every few years a hurricane blows through. But usually by 8:30, when performances start, the weather is tolerable. Once in a while it is perfect.
July 20, 2000, was one of those happy evenings. The morning had been overcast, but a breeze in the afternoon cleared the sky and the temperature rose to 77 degrees. Around 8:00, when people began finding their seats in the Waterside Theatre, the temperature was 75 degrees (and would drop to 70 degrees before the show ended at 10:50). Many people came in from the beaches in shorts but with pullover sweaters or windbreakers tied around their waists. The man next to me, from Long Island, was at Nags Head for the week with his wife, seated on the other side of him. She was the member of the family who wanted to see The Lost Colony. He declared himself more at home in Broadway theaters. I watched the first stars appear while dusk still held enough light to outline the stage against Roanoke Sound. In the row behind me a little girl, maybe four and wearing a yellow dress, climbed into her mother's lap and wondered when the play would begin.
The Lost Colony began in 1937. That was the 350th anniversary of the earliest attempted English settlement in North America, on Roanoke Island in 1587, and people in eastern North Carolina had long been frustrated by what seemed to them the neglect of that important event by historians and in the popular mind. Knowing the religious pageant at Oberammergau, Germany, they thought of staging a pageant themselves to raise awareness of the colony (the anniversary would provide a needed rallying point) and turned to Paul Green to write it. Green, who had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for the first of his several Broadway plays, was a natural for the job. Steeped in North Carolina history and lore, he had in fact dreamed of writing a play about the Roanoke colonists since his college days in the early 1920s.
Everyone associated with the project knew it was a long shot. (The sponsoring organization, the Roanoke Island Historical Association, led by W. O. Saunders, editor of the Elizabeth City Independent, and D. B. Fearing, wholesale grocer in Manteo and a state senator from Dare County, was hesitant at first about assuming financial responsibility for the production.) The question was, would people come to see the show? That is a worry anytime you put on a play, but it had real urgency when the play was on Roanoke Island. It wasn't because the area was densely populated that the Wright brothers had gone to nearby Kitty Hawk some years earlier to test their flying machines. Towns in the region were scarce (the makeup of Dare County suggests why: 300 square miles of land, 1,200 square miles of water). None of the towns at the time had a population of more than 10,000. Manteo, on Roanoke Island, its streets paved with shells, was closest to the site of the colony and the play, and home to 547 people. About twice that many lived in Wanchese, a fishing village and the other town on the island.
So, for the play to prosper, people would have to come from far away (relatively speaking). The trouble was, there was no good way to get there. A contemporary document, North Carolina: A Guide to the Old North State, complied by the Federal Writers' Project of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) and published in 1939, gives details of life at the time. The route onto Roanoke Island from the north involved a ferry ride (seventy-five cents for car and driver, ten cents for each additional passenger), a stretch on something called "the floating road" (at the time - it had taken several forms over the years - a sixteen-foot-wide strip of asphalt suspended on steel cables hitched to pilings over several miles of swamp that would swallow up anything falling into it), the rest of the way on roads that were little more than packed sand. The other and easier approach to the island, from the west, consisted of miles of sandy dirt roads and two toll ferries, one across the Alligator River (so named because alligators frequented the water there), the other from Manns Harbor, jumping-off place on the mainland, a crossing of Croatan Sound that took thirty minutes. (The ferry made a round-trip every hour and a half between 7:30 A.M. and 6:30 P.M., so you might wait a while at Manns Harbor before departing for the island.)
Despite all of which, Fearing, Saunders, Green, and the rest went merrily on. A large contingent of so-called CCC boys was already encamped on Roanoke Island (men in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a forerunner of the WPA, who were building up sand dunes on the outer banks in one of the early futile efforts to stabilize those barrier islands), and Fearing got a crew of them, with mules and scoops, to work on the theater, grading the seating area and building up a stage at water's edge. Theater equipment came from the Rockefeller Foundation (an organ for musical accompaniment) and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (lights and related gear). The university also supplied the director (Samuel Selden) and several actors (numerous local residents also acted in the play, as did men from the CCC camp). Actors for the leading parts were professionals provided by the Federal Theatre Project. The U.S. Postal Department issued a Virginia Dare stamp to publicize the event, and the Treasury minted a Dare/Raleigh half-dollar, allowing the Roanoke Island Historical Association to sell the coins for $1.50 apiece to raise money.
The Lost Colony was a child of its era. At no other time could it have been gotten together in just the way it was in 1937. With its grassroots origin, community spirit, and celebratory aim, the production was precisely the sort of effort to attract national attention during the New Deal phase of the Great Depression. Paul Green recalls those early days in two essays included at the end of the present edition. The play opened on July 4 (a Sunday) with about 2,500 people in attendance, then played Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights through Labor Day. A leading drama critic, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, gave the play an enthusiastic review during the season. President Roosevelt attended a performance on August 18, birthday of Virginia Dare, first child of English parents born in America, and the play became a cause for Eleanor Roosevelt in her efforts to enrich the lives of depression era Americans through the arts. Exact attendance figures do not exist, since record keeping was not a strong point that first season, but people managed to get there. The best estimates are that the play had an audience of about 50,000 during the summer of 1937.
The performance I saw in 2000 differed in a number of ways from the performance people saw in 1937. The four-year-old behind me that July night pinpointed one of the elements that had changed over time. In the 2000 season the show opened with the whole cast on stage, engaged in choral speaking, some lines delivered by individuals, some by small groups, key words and phrases echoed for emphasis across the stage. Even with clear articulation and good timing, which the cast displayed, such speaking wants careful listening, and the little girl, attentive only at intervals during the evening, asked her mother in more than a stage whisper: "What are they saying?" Behind the question is the history of the narrator in the play, a kind of character always full of problems in the theater.
The narrator in The Lost Colony, called the Historian, is a natural response to the demands of the play. While The Lost Colony is a play rather than a pageant in the sense that it has well-developed characters and a plot governed by its theme, not by the sequence of historical events, it is nevertheless a historical play and episodic in structure. The action transpires over a period of four to five years, 1584 to 1588, sometimes in England, sometimes on Roanoke Island, and audiences need to understand the historical situation behind the action, particularly the rivalry between England and Spain in Renaissance Europe. A narrator is an efficient vehicle for introducing historical background and for bridging the gap between episodes a few months or years or an ocean apart.
The trouble with narrators is that they are not part of the action of the play but outside it. When they speak, they interrupt dramatic momentum, disrupt any sense audiences have of being caught up in the ongoing action. So narrators tend to be a drag on performance. The history of this useful but troublesome kind of character in The Lost Colony is a story of attempts over the years to hold onto the benefits of a narrator but to minimize the character's disruptive impact. The story so far has three chapters.
Production photographs and stage directions in the first edition of the play show that in 1937 the Historian's psychic separation from the action was paralleled by a physical separation as well. What audiences saw in 1937 was "a sort of niche or alcove built into the bank at the immediate left front of the proscenium. Here as if seen through a transparent gauze is a group of fifteen or twenty men and women who constitute the commenting and interpretive chorus throughout the play. They are dressed in gray smock-like vestments. Down in the middle forefront of them and seated at a little table with a light and a great open book is the elderly historian and chorus leader who is also dressed like the chorus. He begins reading aloud ... 'In the time of Queen Elizabeth ...'" (1937, p. 6). For several decades nothing essential changed in the situation of the Historian. The supporting group disappeared (as did two other narratorlike characters), leaving the Historian as the sole narrative voice in the play, and his alcove (literally a three-sided cubicle open toward the audience), at first roofless and rustic, grew grander over the years. But in grandeur or not, there he sat at his table to the left of the stage as audiences view it, reading from his book, his aloofness from the dramatic action signaled unmistakably by his isolation in the cubicle.
The first consequential change in the deployment of the Historian occurred in the mid-1960s, when the cubicle was done away with and the Historian became mobile. Stage directions in a text from 1980 suggest what audiences saw during those years: "(light) comes up at the front of the center stage to disclose the historian of the occasion who stands illuminated in a circle of light. He is a kindly, elderly man, dressed in a scholar's dark robe and carries a ledger book.... He opens his book, glances at it and closes it. Addressing the audience: 'In the time of Queen Elizabeth the First ...'" (1980, pp. 1-3). This is the way the Historian was handled for about three decades. Some years his costume was the scholar's robe, other years he wore Elizabethan garb or modern dress clothes. Usually, I think, he did not carry a book and addressed the audience with no pretense of reading. Whatever his costume and props, he delivered his lines from the sloping front of the stage (center, left, or right). This put him in the sight lines from audience to stage so that visually, at least, he seemed more nearly involved in the action of the play than when he was off in a side-stage cubicle.
The choral speaking of the 2000 season was introduced the season before. The basic step was to cut the Historian as a character and distribute all of his lines to characters involved in the dramatic action. Distribution was done with sensitivity to the nature of the characters. Lines having to do with the life of Native Americans, for instance, are taken by Wanchese and Manteo, principals among the Native American characters. Lines having to do with the dream of an English settlement in the New World are taken by Sir Walter Raleigh and his associates. And so forth. The lines beginning "In the time of Queen Elizabeth the First" are spoken by the Queen herself. At the opening of the play characters are disposed from one side of the stage to the other, more prominent characters occupying center stage. During the course of the play, when characters deliver lines from the Historian's speeches, they signal that they are momentarily moving beyond their own character by some physical orientation, such as walking briskly away from another character and speaking, as if delivering a soliloquy, at an angle to the audience.
These changes over time in the handling of the Historian show the impact of artistic directors on yearly productions. Joe Layton, a Broadway choreographer, began a long tenure as director of the play in 1964 and was responsible for moving the Historian from his side-stage cubicle to the forestage between the audience and the action. Drew Scott Harris, an experienced director in the current professional theater, was artistic director of The Lost Colony for the seasons of 1998, 1999, and 2000, and in 1999 introduced the choral speaking format.
The man from Long Island next to me at the July 2000 performance was better disposed toward the play at intermission than at the outset, when it seemed he had come only to placate his wife. His comment at intermission was that he had "always wondered what those Greek plays were like on stage, with their chorus and all, and now I have a sense of it." I remembered the comment when I looked back at the stage direction about the Historian in the 1937 edition, where he was thought of as the leader of a fifteen- or twenty-person group "who constitute the commenting and interpretive chorus throughout the play." Clearly, as he imagined his own play, Paul Green was thinking of those great tragedies from early Athens and how they were staged. However the Historian and his chorus were handled in the first seasons of The Lost Colony, the introduction of choral speaking in 1999 was a move in the direction of the original conception rather than away from it. In performance the choral speaking also softened the sense of suspension in the action, and of momentum lost, when the Historian's lines are delivered.
Other changes since 1937 are numerous, some made primarily to control the running-time of performances. Any production concerns itself with running-time because people can sit still only so long, but for a play done outside with a sizable number of family groups in the audience, limiting factors accumulate. Beth Stewart, associated with The Lost Colony for several years and in 2000 its production manager, told me they could not start before 8:30 without losing the effect of stage lights because of too much light still in the evening sky. And they felt they had to let out by 11:00 at the latest so families could get the children home and to bed. (In 2000, act 1 ran fifty-four to fifty-five minutes, act 2 sixty-one to sixty-two minutes. Starting between 8:30 and 8:35 and with a twenty-minute intermission, typically the play was over between 10:45 and 10:55.)
In the theater it rarely happens that scripts are too short, so control of running-time means cutting things. An example of things cut from the acting script of The Lost Colony consists of biblical allusions and folk sayings that enliven the language of Old Tom, an important comic character in the play. These sayings and allusions have been cut from the production script over the years mainly in the interest of moving the action along. Another example is the brief encounter between Sir Walter Raleigh and William Shakespeare in act 1, scene 4. The episode has been used in performance only rarely since the 1950s. A few moments of individual suffering among the colonists have also been eliminated in the final scene of the play.
The other basic reason for changes in the play over the years is that audiences change. The world today is a different place from the depression world of the 1930s. While core values may remain viable (in The Lost Colony they are love in various human relationships, courage, and an egalitarian social order), audiences bring changing experiences and expectations to the play every summer. Artistic directors can't look on the play as a museum piece, as a memorial to something grand in the past. They must deal with audiences in the here and now and make the play a moving experience for the audience that night. The Indians in the play - or indigenous people, or Native Americans - show how changing social attitudes can affect the play.
Excerpted from The Lost Colony by Paul Green Copyright © 2001 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
I first read Paul Green's The Lost Colony 55 years ago when I was 20. I was moved by it then, and I was moved by it again as I read this printing of the text. I was a member of The Lost Colony cast when I was 21. I played the first soldier in the scene with Old Tom and a colonist. Beginning when I was 23, I played Sir Walter Raleigh for 5 seasons. I had a great time and learned a lot. Thanks to The Lost Colony.Andy Griffith
Americans take great pride in The Lost Colony because it so brilliantly dramatizes the extraordinary courage, the depth of integrity, and the devotion to freedom that are the hallmarks of the American character. It is the taproot of our moral fiber. As Paul Green would have wanted, the play brings out the best in Americans. You cannot fail to be inspired and uplifted when you read this new edition of such a remarkable dramatization of our heritage.Scott J. Parker, Director of the Institute of Outdoor Drama, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill