Thoughts on Veterans Day, Shakespeare, and John Lennon
By Stuart Mitchner
On Veterans Day 2021, I was thinking about my Uncle Bob, who was killed when his B-52 went down in a freak accident in February 1944. I was also dealing with the fact that both my uncle and my maternal grandfather were named for Robert E. Lee. On my uncle’s dog tag, which I keep close at hand, he’s identified as REL Patterson.
Although my paternal ancestors fought for the Union, a conspicuous exception is Gen. Jubal Early, called Lee’s “Bad Old Man” according to various biographers because of his “short temper, insubordination, and use of profanity.” A Potomac River ferry was named for him until June 2020 when it was renamed Historic White’s Ferry. As far as I know, there are still streets named for him in Texas, Florida, and in nine different towns in Virginia, including his birthplace Lynchburg, where there’s a Jubal Early memorial that was restored after being knocked down by “a wayward driver” in 2013.
Known to his men as “Old Jubilee,” Early had a chance to rewrite the last act of the war. According to Frank E. Vandiver in Jubal’s Raid: General Early’s Civil War Attack on Washington (McGraw-Hill 1960), “The dying Confederacy heaped vilification on him” because he and his 10,000 veteran troops could well have captured Washington had he not wasted “precious time” fighting Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, thereby giving the city time to shore up its defenses. Says Vandiver, “He had just missed in a race with destiny.” Even so, he enjoys “an honored place in the ranks of Confederate generals,” and had he been able to surmount “the militia at Washington’s battlements, he might have changed the course of history.”
Soldiers and Shakespeare
One of the most fascinating anecdotes in James Shapiro’s anthology Shakespeare in America (Library of America 2014) concerns a U.S. Army production of Othello in Corpus Christi, Texas, in which Ulysses S. Grant, the eventual commander of the Union forces and future president, played Desdemona. In January 1846, over “half of the U.S. Army” had gathered in “that most murderous, thieving, gambling, cut-throat and God-forsaken hole” to “provoke a war with Mexico after Congress had annexed Texas as a slave state.” Grant’s rival for the role of Othello’s wife was James Longstreet, who later served as “a distinguished Confederate general.”
Longstreet recalled that Grant looked “very like a girl dressed up” and “really rehearsed” but “did not have much sentiment.” The 5’8” 135-pound Grant got the part because the six-footer Longstreet’s Desdemona towered over the Moor, played by Lt. Theodoric Porter, who was killed three months later in a skirmish with “Mexican irregulars.” We’ll never know how Grant’s performance was received, since a professional actress had to be called in after Lt. Porter complained of being unable to “pump up any sentiment” with Grant as his Desdemona.
Shakespeare’s play, given its focus on military life, rivalry, honor, and race, had been enlisted as a means of distracting the troops from the evils of Corpus Christi; to that end, future Confederate General John B. McGruder oversaw the building of a theater large enough to hold 800 spectators, where Othello reportedly played “to full houses.”
You could write a film or television series around American soldiers (and future adversaries) performing Othello on the eve of the Mexican-American War, which was “driven in part to extend the reach of slavery.” As Shapiro points out, the staging underscores the extent to which Shakespeare’s works were accepted as “a cultural touchstone” in mid-19th century America. As for how playgoers in the South would respond to a drama about “a black general eloping with a white woman,” Shapiro notes that Othello, which presumably would have been “unpopular, if not taboo, in slave states,” was “regularly staged in the South the quarter century before the Civil War.” As an example of the conflicting emotions aroused by the play and the issue of race, Shapiro cites John Quincy Adams, the sixth American president, who hoped to be remembered as “the archest enemy of southern slavery that ever existed,” while insisting that the moral of Othello was “that the intermarriage of black and white blood is a violation of the law of nature.”
“Strange Days Indeed”
In Jubal Early’s home state, Virginia, the Spotsylvania County School Board recently voted to have books with “sexually explicit” material removed from school library shelves. According to Michelle Goldberg’s Nov. 12 New York Times op-ed (“A Frenzy of Book Banning”), two members of the school board “wanted to see the books incinerated.” Goldberg considers this just one example of a “broader push to purge school libraries of books that affront conservative sensibilities regarding race and gender.”
Goldberg’s reference to book burning in “the fight about who controls school libraries” reminds me of the burning of Beatles albums in the South, set off in 1966 when John Lennon’s remark about the relative popularity of the Beatles and Christ was taken out of context by political and evangelical opportunists, who helped foment a media frenzy, the mid-sixties equivalent of “going viral.” What Goldberg refers to “as the fight about who controls America” was already under way, and then, as now, the right was “on the offense.”
Lennon’s words and music still resonate in the fall of 2021, particularly in “Nobody Told Me,” where he sings of “strange days indeed” when “everybody’s talking and no one says a word”; “there’s always something cooking but nothing in the pot”; and “everybody’s crying and no one makes a sound.” In fact, lines from the post-Beatles Lennon pop up all the time, especially in songs like “Imagine,” “Instant Karma,” and “Gimme Some Truth,” with its references to “neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians” and “uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded, hypocritics.”
Lennon’s passionate singing of “Gimme Some Truth” is underscored by “former Beatle” George Harrison’s blazing slide guitar solo. By now we know — who ever really doubted it? — that there’s no such thing as “a former Beatle.” Next week, November 29, will mark the 20th anniversary of the death of George Harrison. Nine days later, December 8, it will be 21 years since John Lennon was killed.
You can go to YouTube for their last live performance on the rooftop of Apple headquarters, January 30, 1969. Thanksgiving weekend, Disney Plus is screening Get Back, Peter Jackson’s three-part documentary. As John sings “Dig a Pony” up there with his mates, his hair blowing in the wind, you can “celebrate anything you want, penetrate any place you go, and radiate everything you are — because everything has got to be just like you want it to.”
Last year James Shapiro published Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future (Penguin 2020), which was named one of the New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year. The passages I’ve quoted all come from the Library of America’s Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now.