Rarely has a slice of history been as entertainingly portrayed as in Butler. Richard Strand’s play depicts an actual Civil War development with a creative imagining of how it might have unfolded. The circumstances and characters in Butler really existed. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the dialogue was lifted from an actual recording.
There was, of course, no recording device in the office of the Commanding General of Fort Monroe, Virginia on May 23, 1861, six weeks after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter precipitated the War Between the States. No, the dialogue between General Benjamin F. Butler and an escaped Negro slave, as he’s called, is fabricated by Strand, who, fortuitously, molded it into Butler, running through August 28 at the 59E59 off-Broadway complex, after premiering at New Jersey Repertory in 2014.
General Butler and his adjutant, Lt. Kelly, are astonished by the audacity of Shepard Mallory who, seeking sanctuary, “demands” to speak with the General. Fort Monroe, a Union facility, was in Virginia, which had declared itself a Confederate state. The Articles of War mandated that fugitive slaves, deemed “property,” be returned to their owners.
It appeared, under the circumstances, that Mallory could hardly be granted sanctuary, but the onerous Article was thwarted by General Butler through an intricate legal maneuver that revolutionized the disposition of slaves. In historical fact, when President Lincoln was informed of the maneuver, he directed other Union generals to do the same. Butler’s device, not revealed here, is at the core of the play.
Strand’s characters evolve from mutual hatred to grudging respect and even gestures of friendship and equality. (General Butler encouraging the slave to call him “Ben” seems a stretch, but who knows? Maybe he did.) Deftly directed by Joseph Discher, the tale unfolds over an engrossing two hours.
The four-man cast is held over from NJ Rep. (If it ain’t broke…) Affecting the real General Butler’s half billiard ball, half bushy hair style, Ames Adamson creates a martinet with heart. The portly General is firmly in command, but he’s also a good listener, not above accepting an escaped slave’s guidance. Adamson, a highly skilled character actor, huffs and puffs when appropriate, but his General knows that a calming glass of sherry can relieve tension…as well as disarm (figuratively) opponents.
Benjamin Sterling is indeed sterling as Lt. Kelly, whose rigid bearing thaws into comradeship; his timing of Kelly’s amusing second-act interjections is spot-on. David Sitler plays a Confederate Major who arrives to take the slave back to his owner. The Major could be a caricatured buffoon, but Sitler, whose mutton-chop whiskers are perfection, does not over-act the pompous Major.
John G. Williams is a revelation, enacting Shepard Mallory’s combination of arrogance and desperation to a tee. Fearing for his very life, dressed in rags and manacled, the slave maintains his dignity. It’s a fine performance.
The wickedness of slavery is communicated without any lurid descriptions or use of language that must have been common in 1861. Who would imagine, for example, that the discovery of a slave’s ability to read would be his greatest fear?
At the end of Butler, something mysterious occurs that could not have happened in the time frame presented. Well guess what: that’s just what did happen. (File it under ‘Good news travels fast’.) Richard Strand didn’t invent his plot, but there aren’t any new ones anyway. Making imaginary or real characters so sympathetic, so funny and so relevant, is damn good playwriting no matter the source.
Through August 28 at 59E59, NYC. Tues-Thurs at 7pm; Fri at 8pm; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 3pm. Tickets ($70): 212-279-4200 or at 59E59.org
(Postscript: Later, less admirable wartime activities earned General Butler the nickname “Beast Butler.” Material for a sequel?)