Last Saturday my wife Laura and I drove up to New London, New Hampshire to see the new musical, Kindness & Cruelty: Willa Cather in Jaffrey by Will Ögmundson and Tom Dunn at Whipple Hall. Most people who are casually acquainted with Cather don’t know that she spent a significant amount of time writing in Jaffrey, NH. She and her partner of forty years, Edith Lewis, are both buried there.
The musical opens with Edith Lewis (played by Rachel Coffin) doing paperwork at a desk in what is Cather’s room at the Shattuck Inn in Jaffrey, NH. A young maid named Nancy (Jocelyn Duford) lugs in a large trunk that contains an old typewriter and lots of books.
From her first words, Edith’s tone with Nancy is imperious. She tells the younger woman how she’s to interact with Cather and insists that she calls her “Miss Cather” not Willa, even though Cather had told the young woman the year before to call her Willa. Nancy is bright-eyed and enthusiastic. Edith is portrayed as bitchy, impatient, and jealous. She is obviously the long-suffering organizer and protector of all things Willa Cather. She’s the hag secretary to the brilliant writer. This is an outdated attitude found in outdated and often homophobic Cather scholarship.
We first see Cather (Mary Niderkorn) as she shuffles on stage looking like she’s dying. She initially comes across as if she’s delirious. Edith had earlier explained to Nancy that Cather is suffering from an injured wrist and is in mourning over the recent deaths of her favorite brother and a dear old friend. Not surprisingly, she’s having a hard time writing. To make matters worse, the great hurricane of 1938 recently ripped through New Hampshire and devastated the trees in the area that Cather loved to look at while she wrote.
There’s a lot more telling than showing when it comes to who Cather was. Ögmundson told the audience before the show that they do get asked, who is Willa Cather? He and Dunn plan on writing an introduction that will be presented in future performances. In this performance, however, the info dumps are accomplished with a rather clever device of Edith asking biographical questions that Cather’s publisher would like answered for an introduction to an upcoming edition of her collected works.
Gradually, Cather perks up as she engages with Nancy, the young maid, who is excited to have Willa back at the Inn. An irrational jealousy overcomes Edith. In the first song of the show she sang soprano, but after Nancy and Cather leave the stage Edith morphs into a more alto solo that’s belt-y and butch-y, singing about younger women “swooping in” and how she’d rather be in NYC.
Cather is in the midst of writing Sapphira and the Slave Girl, a novel set in antebellum Virginia that features a character named Nancy who is a young, beautiful, enslaved woman that becomes the target of Sapphira, the white slave owner’s wife, who incorrectly believes her husband is having “sexual relations” with Nancy. Sapphira arranges to have her malicious nephew Martin come for an extended visit and does all she can to set up conditions for him to rape Nancy.
The maid Nancy of the musical asks if she may read Cather’s work in progress. Cather comes up with the idea that they’ll read it aloud and act out scenes together. Cather dresses like a man, wears a false mustache, and plays the role of Sapphira’s nephew Martin, the sexual predator. Edith reads a variety of characters and Nancy reads the character Nancy.
They read the cherry tree scene from Sapphira and the Slave Girl, which depicts sexual assault. In this scene, Nancy is up in a tree, picking cherries. Martin, the nephew, walks up to the tree and after some sexualized banter this happens:
The instant her head was turned Martin stepped lightly on the chair, caught her bare ankles, and drew her two legs about his cheeks like a frame. Nancy dropped her basket and almost fell out of the tree herself. She caught at the branch above her and clung to it.
“Oh, please get down, Mr. Martin! Do, please! Somebody’ll come along, an’ you’ll git me into trouble.”
Martin laughed. “Get you into trouble? Just this? This is nothin’ but to cure toothache.”
The girl had gone pale. She was frightened now, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t pull herself up with him holding her so hard. Everything had changed in a flash. He had changed, and she couldn’t collect her wits.
“Please, Mr. Martin, please let me git down.”
Martin framed his face closer and shut his eyes. “Pretty soon.— This is just nice.—Something smells sweet—like May apples.” He seemed murmuring to himself, not to her, but all the time his face came closer. Her throat felt tight shut, but she knew she must scream, and she did.
This scene from the novel is reenacted with Nancy the maid standing on top of the big chest she had hauled into the room and Cather standing below her reading the lines of Martin the nephew.
Earlier in the musical the audience is told, twice, that as a youngster Cather dressed like a man and called herself William. As someone who has read Sapphire and the Slave Girl, this re-enactment is uncomfortable to watch. It makes Cather a sexual predator of this younger woman while her partner watches. Nancy the maid is a bit freaked out as Willa reads Martin’s lines to her and she experiences the sexual attack on Nancy the slave.
It is creepy and I was hoping the writers would try to do something subversive with this scene. Or at least something edgy. In the end, it didn’t come off that way. Nancy the maid has a sexual awakening, Cather’s writing starts to flow again, and you’d think it would be here that Edith would have another outburst of jealousy, but no.
I think it is an unthoughtful scene and, in less charitable moments, I think it is a bit of a male fantasy. Sexual tension and assault, rapid costume changes (done here with hats), racism, bad Southern dialects — Perhaps in days gone by these added up to farce, but in 2018 it comes across as degrading and insulting.
One tender scene is the reading of the only known surviving letter that Willa wrote to Edith. Part of the letter is read and part is sung. It is the only real onstage connection between these two women who spent forty years together. [You can read the letter here.]
In many ways, it seems that the musical is more about Nancy the young maid rather than Cather and/or Edith. It is the younger woman’s arch that frames the story. In the beginning, we’re told Nancy has decided not to go to college because she has to take care of her father (this may be an excuse), but after being “sexually awakened” by Cather and/or perhaps inspired by Cather’s creativity, she decides to go to college after all.
For the most part, all three characters are rather flat and one dimensional. The actors, however, are obviously talented and had lovely voices. Their direction could have been stronger to provide more consistent character representation, but I think the fault lies not with the actors or the direction, but primarily with the writing. It just isn’t clear whose story they’re trying to tell. Perhaps in subsequent revisions, all of the women’s stories will be strengthened and mesh more strongly together.
In the end, Nancy breaks the fourth wall and becomes the narrator, informing the audience that Cather eventually finishes and publishes Sapphira and the Slave Girl and that after Cather dies Edith writes a book about their relationship that raises more questions than it answers. This book, Willa Cather Living, is actually Edith writing about Willa Cather, not about their relationship. In this book, Edith often refers to Cather as “Willa Cather.” Perhaps this is why the writers of the musical chose to have Edith always refer to Cather as “Willa Cather.” This was odd enough at times in Edith’s book, but it got old in the musical, especially as there was no shift in nuance for context.
Overall, I was disappointed. As a Cather fan, it seemed like she was just a prop, as if two guys who didn’t know much about Cather decided to write a musical about her because they write musicals about famous people (one of Cather’s songs even attempted a Hamilton-esque hip-hop vibe). From a lesbian- feminist perspective, the direct psycho-sexual parallel drawn between the Nancy/Martin and Nancy/Cather “couplings” was distasteful and problematic, especially considering that Nancy was an enslaved person trying to negotiate a horrific situation with her slave master’s nephew. I imagine some might try to make class or age comparisons between the two Nancys and while there might be some validity in that, it would also de-racialize and de-historicize slavery.
However well-intentioned the writers were, it felt like they took a bunch of popular myths about Willa Cather and Edith Lewis and mixed them together with some stereotypes about women and lesbians and that cherry tree scene. My reaction during the show ranged from being confused to annoyed to insulted.
All that said, I do admire people like Ögmundson and Dunn who do creative work and share it with the world, even if I don’t always love the work. And I appreciate the interest in Cather they’ve shown and are helping to foster. The audience was enthusiastic and a few people even offered a standing ovation. My wife, who isn’t a rabid Cather fan like me and who has seen and been involved in much more theater than me, thought it was a good show, although not without it’s challenges.
If you read this in time and happen to be in NYC, there is a performance of Kindness & Cruelty: Willa Cather in Jaffrey this Saturday, February 24th at 3:30 pm at the Hudson Guild Theatre, 441W 26th St. New York, NY.