Hello Appearing Locally readers. I’m Judy Hart Director of Angels Theatre Company and the Director/Producer of David Wiltse’s play Sedition – running at the Lied Center’s Johnny Carson Theater – October 25 – Oct. 28.
Sedition is a story about playwright Wiltse’s grandfather Andrew Schrag, professor of German at the University of Nebraska, and how he was charged with disloyalty and sedition during the Loyalty Trial held on the UNL Lincoln campus 100 years ago.
I’d like to introduce my collaborators Dr. Frank Edler and Dr. Mary K Stillwell who are my outreach teammates! They’ve created the literary and historical materials we are using for our extensive community outreach for this project.
JH: Frank and Mary K – what kind of doctors are you and why are you involved in the outreach for the play Sedition?
FE: Hi! It’s good to be with readers on Appearing Locally! My Ph. D. from the University of Toronto is in philosophy. When I began teaching at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, I realized that I was needed there more than at some research university. Teaching critical thinking to students has been one of my greatest passions. There is no greater joy than to watch students appropriate the tools of critical thinking and begin to think for themselves. What I like about Wiltse’s play is that he has thought long and hard about free speech and what happened at the university. In other words, critical thinking is evident everywhere in the dialogue and repartee. He has been able to reanimate that situation, pare it down to its essentials, and make it live again in his own way. It is a pleasure also to share whatever expertise I have of the period with interested audiences, thereby extending the dialogue.
MKS: Greetings to Appearing Locally readers! And thanks for the question, Judy. My doctorate is in English with a specialization in plains literature. My interest in theatre has been ongoing. I don’t know whether we can count my high school performance as Glenda, the Good Witch, in The Wizard of Oz. Later I studied acting at HB Studio with Bill Hickey and playwriting as well as poetry with Bill Packard, who wrote and translated plays, including Racine’s Phedre. I’ve written several plays, one of them, The Burden, was read by the Angels Company at the first Great Plains Theatre Conference. The Burden is a historical drama, though set in a more recent time, during the small farm crisis when so many family farms were bought up by corporations. One of my favorite plays, Antigone, written nearly 2500 years ago in Greece by Sophocles, and one I’ve been lucky enough to teach, touches on many of the same themes as Sedition, set one-hundred-years ago in Lincoln, Nebraska! I could not resist.
MKS: Judy, what spoke to you about this play?
JH: Great question – thanks Mary K. I love making theatre that starts a conversation. I also love to give theatre artists an opportunity to perform and create. I often have people hand me plays and say “this would make a great Angels production.” Thanks Eileen Durgan Clinchard and Amy Birkey for giving me Sedition. We presented the play as a reading in our 2016 Angels Salon Reading Series. The overwhelming response led to a 2017 relationship with AFCON and a short fall reading tour in Lincoln and Omaha. Which led to the 100th anniversary of the trial and Judy’s pitch to the Lied. None of this would have advanced without the early commitment of director Tim Scholl and actors Dick Nielsen, Tim Mittan or Bret Olsen – who agreed to see the reading through to production. It takes a village of passionate artists and audience to bring a script to performance.
JH: Frank and Mary K, can you tell us a bit about the culture of Nebraska in 1918? Was immigration an issue then?
FE: With President Wilson’s declaration of war on April 6, 1917, a new ideology was introduced into American thought that changed the whole fabric of nationalist thinking. That ideology can be summed up in one phrase: everyone had to become one hundred percent American. This ideology virtually eliminated freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. Anyone could be arrested for criticizing or embarrassing the president or the US. The problem with the ideology is that it equated loyalty with conformity. Germans composed the largest ethnic population in Nebraska after the English — about 18 percent of the population. Because war hysteria encouraged the belief that there were German spies on every rooftop, the German American population in Nebraska bore the brunt of the repression that included bookburnings, tar-and-featherings, horse-whippings, loss of jobs, or simply being shunned and called disloyal. Some were even hung simply for being German, as Robert Prager was in Collinsville, Illinois.
MKS: My stepfather’s parents were born in Germany and suffered discrimination prior to and during both world wars even though they lived in a German enclave in rural Richardson County (where David Wiltse and I went to high school). Their son gave his life as a soldier during World War II and yet bricks were thrown through my step-grandmother’s Lutheran church windows because services were still held in German.
My maternal grandmother told stories of going to school before she learned English and how frightening that experience was for her and her siblings. Her family had been in the US for generations, but they always spoke French on the farm and rarely got to town. That sensitized me, I think, to what immigrants must face, that is, the grief of losing the old country, the old ways, the old language even as they embraced and celebrated the new. Issues surrounding immigration often come to the fore during times of national stress (for many reasons), so it is not surprising, though disheartening, that it appeared prior to the country’s entrance into WWI. Stress seems to spark the need for scapegoats, and instead of loading our sins on a goat and sending it out into the dessert, we Americans (although we’re unfortunately not alone in this), begin picking on certain people: the “witches of Salem,” the Irish in Boston, the Greeks in Omaha, Germans and German-speaking Swiss throughout the Midwest during wartimes, for example. In my generation, it’s been toward Asians, mid-easterners, and Central and South Americans. We forget if it weren’t for immigrants, most of us wouldn’t be here. We forget immigration has enriched our families as well as our nation.
JH: Mary K. and Frank, why do you think that theatre is a useful storytelling tool when looking at an actual historical event?
MKS: Drama allows us to time-travel to another place and time in order to see the “flesh and blood” side of what we often see as one-dimensional “historical events.” We see the human spirit alive in a time not our own—which gives us an extraordinary opportunity to gain understanding of the events replete with human emotions AND at the same time, gain insights into ourselves and the times in which we live. As David Wiltse said about Sedition, “This play is a play that, in addition to being about characters and situation, is about ideas—very specific ideas that shape our lives.”
FE: Theater is one of those unique art forms that can present the illusion of reality in the flesh, so to speak. The presence of theater is like no other presence. Poetry has to do it through language alone. More importantly, theater can translate an historical event into a new idiom and new language that is immediately recognizable by contemporaries. Need I say more than refer to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. And it’s a musical to boot! The enthusiasm, interest, and historical discussion surrounding the play and that period in American history is nothing short of astounding.
JH: Frank & Mary K, what do you think we can learn about our contemporary free speech challenges by looking to the past?
FE: What I have learned in my life from politics and history is that almost no issue is ever completely resolved. This is especially true about free speech issues and the First Amendment. Similar issues are fought in different contexts again and again. The abandonment of free speech during World War I is a good example of how easy it is lose our basic freedoms. People say it can’t happen here — but it did. We may, once again, be sliding into a time period where many believe that autocracy is better than democracy. Ironically, Wilson himself stated that the main goal of the war was to fight German autocracy and make the world safe for democracy. To accomplish this, he turned the US into an autocratic state..
MKS: Sedition allows us to access characters grappling with issues of free speech and academic freedom a century ago in Lincoln, Nebraska. Through them, we experience various points of view that inform the situation and central drama (not so unlike ours). Harriet, for example, lives daily among people who judge her husband’s stand harshly and rebuke her for it. We can empathize with her position whether we agree or disagree with her husband. I think that is a major strength of the play, by the way. Each character is a lens through which we see the central conflict. We may take a side by play’s end, but we can also appreciate the view of others. This is so often lacking in our discussions today—so it is an extremely important lesson. We are a forgetful species and need reminders. Through the arts and the humanities, we are reminded of our history and gain balance and perspective from that reminder. Not long ago we were reminded that the First Amendment protects gestures as well as speech. When Ronald Reagan gave students the finger at Berkeley, he was well within his rights. We need to keep this in mind even though we might not use the gesture ourselves. In the heat of discussion, we forget that the people we may be differing with are like us. They have beliefs and they have feelings. They have jobs and they have families. They love and are loved. They experience pain. They are good-faith citizens defending the country as they see it. So, we need to pay attention. We might learn something.
JH: Thank you doctors Mary K and Frank.
Tickets for Sedition are available at the Lied Center Box Office. Call 402-472-4747 or visit their website at liedcenter.org