I just want to preface this review by stating, this play highlights some very important issues.
Author: LeAnne Howe
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication Date: 2019
Page count: 104
Genre: Historical Fiction.
Despite being a postgraduate History student and a self-confessed History nerd, there are large gaps in my historical knowledge and this play addresses a gap I didn’t even know I had. I know of Abraham Lincoln and at school, we were taught, albeit briefly, the events of his presidency. However, Howe has introduced me to a somewhat hidden aspect to his character and career that I had no idea and have not seen explored in any of the bio-pics or biographies.
As explained in the introduction to the text by Susan Power, on Boxing Day of 1862 in “the largest mass execution in United States history” 38 men of the Dakota tribe were hanged upon the orders of Abraham Lincoln. Their execution followed a period of intense hardship for the Dakota peoples which was exacerbated by the Lincoln administration. The treaty between the tribe and the government went unfulfilled, white settlers took advantage of tribal lands and the Dakota peoples faced starvation. As a result, some Dakota men killed some white settlers and the government declared war upon the whole tribe. Hundreds of Dakota people were killed.
Leanne Howe’s Savage Conversations is a play in three scenes with only three characters. The play centres on Mary Todd Lincoln, the widowed wife of Abraham, who is committed to an asylum following a period of insanity in which she is nightly visited by a ‘Savage Indian’ who scalps her and sews open her eyelids. All of the above is historical fact and it is clear that Howe has spent a lot of time researching into the life of Mary and Abraham including conducting archival research. She even provides links to the material which shaped the narrative in footnotes throughout.
Howe uses the above information as a base for the fictional conversations between Mary and the Savage Indian that follow. In the play Mary reminisces on past events, reflects upon her relationship with her husband and all the while is haunted by the third character, The Rope. Howe brings in the rope that was used to end the lives of the 38 men and hundreds of others both before and since. The Rope appears seething in the background and as the play progresses it becomes more and more pronounced offering sinister remarks in between scenes.
I found it really interesting to witness how Howe manipulates the reader’s perceptions of Mary. Even though the play is only 104 pages long I felt a range of emotions towards her from pity to revulsion. On the one hand, you get a real sense of the betrayal that she feels. She has been committed to the asylum by her only surviving son and she is haunted by the spectre of a dead man killed on the orders of her late husband. However, as the play progresses and you learn more about Mary as a mother (I won’t say too much here because I don’t want to spoil it) my opinions totally changed in the space of a page.
In the introduction, Power states “just because they’re your heroes doesn’t make them ours.” This got me thinking about how we view historical figures. We have a tendency to valorise these people because of a certain triumph whilst omitting the less palatable aspects. This phenomenon is not confined to the US, in Britain, you can see the same sort of thing happening with how Winston Churchill is presented. This is an issue that desperately needs addressing.