The River is Wide

First, the background. One of the local theaters was putting on a play called The River is Wide. It was set during the Civil War and it was supposed to bring the people to life who participated in that life-altering event. From the synopsis that I read online it seemed like it could be very good. A coworker of mine asked me on Thursday that if he won tickets to it, would I like them? He wasn’t going to be able to go because of something with his wife, but the radio station was asking horribly easy questions and nobody was getting them right. When I say easy, I mean if you paid attention in American History class you should be able to answer them. Examples: Which Confederate general was fatally wounded at Chancellorsville? (Stonewall Jackson); Who was the commanding general for the Confederate Army throughout almost all of the war? (Robert E. Lee). Can you believe that?? Okay, I will concede that perhaps not everybody is as obsessed with Jackson as I am. I’ll give you that. However, it’s not like the Confederate army went through commanding generals like the Union did. Pretty much you had Marse Robert (The Silver Fox, The King of Spades, Bobby Lee, The Old Man), and that was it.

When I walked into work yesterday morning I was told that he had won! I was so excited. This year is the 150th anniversary of the start of the war so I’m trying to participate in as many celebrations as I can (which really isn’t many in my area). I found out, though, that he had a friend who was thinking about going so I told him that he should give the tickets to the friend. No, I was told, he had wanted to win those for me because I had been so excited about it the day before. Is that sweet or what? Do you know what answer he got right? He had returned to his desk and heard the DJ say that nobody had yet been able to answer the question that asked Who was the president of the Confederate States of America (the answer is Jefferson Davis). WHAT??!! The REALLY sad thing about this contest is that the DJ would give multiple choice answers!

Now, let me preface my critique of the play by saying that I am not at all criticizing the talent of the kids who took part in the play. I didn’t realize that it was being done by a troupe of kids who are interested in theater and have joined this group for experience. They did a really good job considering their age and the fact that it was a small budget play. Also, the little girls were absolutely adorable! I wish that I could have taken pictures for you to see. Their hair was in ringlets and they had the cutest little voices. Very big props to all of the children in this production. They are much braver than I would have been at that age.

My critique goes to the writer and the costumer. I will begin with the writer. The blurb in the program said that he had been inspired by a trip to Gettysburg. He had always looked at the war from a military angle, never once considering the actual people who were involved. Then after a trip to Gettysburg and realizing that these soldiers were people with their own stories, and that the civilians played a part, he decided to write from that perspective. Kudos to him. Bring it alive for people who have no clue. However, please do it correctly and with a little bit of realism. He should have written it with the idea that there might possibly be somebody in the audience who has an idea of how the history actually went. Here are my biggest issues:

1) He has the group of soldier boys telling the new recruit (who is a run away 10 year old that just happens to join the army and helps prepare meals) that they aren’t in the regular army because they are too young. The boys range in age from 14 to 21. Now, does the writer really think that we will believe that if the army had known for sure (and they were doing their job) that they would have allowed a 14 or 15 year old boy to join? Later during the war in the South they would look past that, but in 1862-1863 the Union would have turned those boys away. Even when the boys managed to get past the recruiters due to their age they would be put in with the other men from their area to form a company. They wouldn’t have a company of boys, so to speak, just out there in their own little group.

2) Apparently it is right before the battle of Chancellorsville, around April 30th is the only date that I heard, and the women and children are beginning to flee. Now, from what I can recall (and I admit that my Civil War knowledge is a little rusty), Chancellorsville itself wasn’t a town. It was a mansion, by itself, at a junction and that was about it. It was on the porch of that house where General Hooker was hit by a falling piece of debris and almost killed. To hear these girls talk it’s as if it’s a bustling town. One of the scenes shows an older girl bundling up silver to take with them as they make their way to Chancellorsville, since that’s where their mother went to help somebody with the birth of her baby. They get to their friend’s house and find out that their mother isn’t there. Now, get this… supposedly the pregnant woman had decided that Chancellorsville wasn’t a safe location to have her baby, so she went to FREDRICKSBURG! I so badly wanted to stand up and shout, “Was she a moron?? Both the Union and Confederate armies were still there, playing chicken essentially, since the battle had occurred in that town in December!” Am I really supposed to believe that in a spring where it was SO muddy that the armies couldn’t move away from this town, that’s where a pregnant woman went to be safe??

3) As far as I know, Jackson hadn’t yet turned the flank of the Union army and so they had no idea that the Confederates were on the move. Lee was still down near Fredricksburg and he was doing just enough in that location to keep Hooker thinking that all of the Confederates were still there. What Hooker was unaware of was that Lee had sent his secret weapon, my beloved Jackson, to do what he does best. He took his foot cavalry and managed to take the Yankees by surprise (I can see the scene in the movie Gods & Generals right now!). It was a full-fledged route of the Union army. In fact, it was so successful that the Confederates got ahead of themselves, managed to get all tangled up, and Jackson was trying to figure out his lines that night when he was shot by his own men *cries at the thought*. Anyway, back to the play, you see these women tearing up petticoats for bandages because supposedly the Yankees had told them that they should do so. I believe that Hooker’s intention was to move away from Chancellorsville and hit Lee from behind, but Lee knew what was going on so that didn’t happen. Hooker would have no way to know that a battle would be happening right there, so therefore the soldiers wouldn’t have been telling the women to prep for casualties. *sigh*

Okay, I’m sure that you’re tired of hearing about the military genius that was Jackson and Lee. 🙂 So, on to the costumer and prop master.

Again, I will preface this by saying that I do realize that it is a local company producing this show and that they didn’t have a lot of resources to work with when it comes to props. However, I don’t believe that the costumer even OPENED a pictorial history book of the Civil War. If they had they wouldn’t have had one of the girls dressed in the style that would have been around in the 1880’s, along with another girl who was in a really bad 1980’s prom dress. Oh, and not to mention the horrible wig that they had another girl wearing. It was ridiculous. Okay, I can’t stand it. Let me show you a modern rendition of the Civil War style:

First let me show you a day dress, or a camp dress. This would have been worn while doing housework or anything else that you didn’t need a fancy dress on to do:

As you can see it’s very plain, but it has the traits that all period correct Civil War dresses should have: the bell-shaped skirt, the billow sleeves, the sleeves that start off of the shoulder, and the rounded collar with a simple broach. If you had stopped into any house on laundry day during the Civil War, this is how you more than likely would have seen the women dressed. Now let me show you a visiting dress that would have been worn when on the afternoon call, or even for church:

This one is a little fancier with undersleeves, lace on the elbows, a fancier collar, and accents on the bust. Again, it has the same elements as the day dress: bell shaped skirt, billowy sleeves, and off-the shoulder sleeves. This was the look that they wanted to give. Along with the corset, it was meant to draw the eye into the waist. The hoops, billowy sleeves, and low shoulder seams all played a part in making the waist look even smaller. You wanted the classic hour glass shape. There are no poofy shoulders, no empire waists, and very little skin exposed. The only time you would have more exposed skin was if you were attending a ball. Even then it wouldn’t necessarily mean that you had bare shoulders or arms. This look is very distinct to the Civil War era. Even the hair was done in a way to draw the eye down. You wanted to accent the fullness at the jaw line. You can’t see my hair very well, but take my word for it. The only time it was done up fancier was for special occasions (weddings, balls, etc). But then you would still have the fullness at the bottom. You didn’t want height.

I wish that I could show you examples from last night, but I can’t. You will just have to take my word for it. If only they had asked to borrow one of my books I would have gladly loaned them as many as they wanted. They could have also asked for my expertise. I could have helped them do it on a budget.

Oh, and just one more note… they didn’t use ball point pens during the Civil War. I hope that the Lieutenant keeps that in mind for the next show. 😉

Thanks for reading my Civil War rant! lol

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2 Responses to The River is Wide

  1. Eric says:

    Oh, Kerry, you are so cute in your era specific dresses.

  2. Jamie says:

    This reminds me of a funny observation I once read regarding medieval movies noting that all the peasants had period appropriate hovels, ragged clothing… and perfect teeth! Lol. It would appear that which details count in the performing arts are subjective.

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