Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, conceived, adapted and arranged by Charles Aidman
Admittedly, this play is not a terrible one. In fact, this play reminds me of one of my own plays, which I wrote in my early adulthood and which consisted of poetry that was integrated into a plot about a high school student who was struggling with a poetry writing assignment. It is not the worst thing in the world for a play to remind me of something I had written, but this play was not as enjoyable to read as I would have preferred, largely because I found this play’s plot, or lack thereof, suffered in comparison with my own play, which is one of the least plot-focused of my own works. This is not a play I think I would enjoy seeing performed, because Spoon River itself is of such great importance to the play as a whole and the location does not seem to be conveyed very effectively in the play in terms of its dialogue, but as a literary play this certainly works well and as an attempt to capture the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters in dramatic form it is certainly an ambitious play that deserves respect on those grounds.
In terms of its design, this play is a two-act play that arranges the poetry of Masters’ Spoon River Anthology into dramatic form and features four actors (including the arranger/director) turning the lines of poetry into dialogue. Not many of the poems interact with each other, and so most of the time it appears as if the characters are simply speaking the poems to the audience and setting the context of their experiences in Spoon River. Many of these experiences are at least a little bit poignant, as one Chinese immigrant finds herself killed by the pastor’s son who hits her in the ribs too hard. Another character finds himself as a veteran of the Civil War. Still others have unhappy marriages or a desire to leave Spoon River but find that the place stays with them in ways they find unsettling and unpleasant. Yet this sort of poignant line does not make for a compelling drama, as a dialogue, even if it does make for an interesting literary experiment that has its own charms as something to be read rather than being interesting to see. And so it doesn’t surprise me that while this play is one I have never heard of, that it makes for an interesting book to read.
But even here there are elements of the play that are unsatisfying because of the flaws of the poetic material. Masters’ own poems focus too much on glorifying the sins of people of this particular area, of showing broken marriages and adultery and sin and the apparent judgment of God on it in unsympathetic ways. Quite frankly, the choice of source material in the beginning is one of the more questionable aspects of the whole enterprise. The author seems to want to mock Christianity, and given the author’s association with Clarence Darrow as a fellow lawyer in the same firm, this appears to be likely. As someone who takes Christianity very seriously, this play comes off even more poorly for its content than it does for its misbegotten approach. That said, those who have more fondness for the poetry and for its perspective will likely find this play much more successful on worldview grounds than I found it. To be sure, it is interesting, but given that the Spoon River Anthology poems are not very good on moral grounds, using them as a basis for a play appears more than a little bit unfortunate.