The American Legacy
220 East Fourth Street ~ New York, New York 10009
(212) 995 8410
"Theatrical archaeologist extraordinaire" - - Back Stage
“Look out there! It's like that half the year, froze up, everything, most of all the people. .”
- Icebound, Act II
The flame that burned in the Puritans’ beacon was lit by an ardent faith, fueled by grim determination, and protected by an unyielding rigor. Such stuff brought forth the bounty of New England’s soil and withstood its long, cold winters, and it is impossible not to admire the passionate fortitude that created the cities from Boston to Bangor that define northern New England.
But they weren’t known to be much fun: these forefathers are strongly identified with fundamental arrogance and savage intolerance. And in a play written 300 years after the settlement of Plymouth Colony, Owen Davis asks with wry humor and subtle perspicacity just what the legacy of that combination had become.
The Jordans are one of the oldest and wealthiest families of Veazie, Maine, but in 1922 they consist of a cold, remote matriarch and her four adult children: the three eldest who are perfectly respectable—which is to say grasping, entitled, and unhappy—and the youngest, Ben, a ne'er-do-well hiding from the law. On the day of Mother’s death, the children gather like vultures to learn what they will inherit, only to discover they are stranded with barely a penny. The fortune and estate are willed to grim step-cousin Jane. To compound the injury, the new heiress shows the elders little pity, and she takes on Ben as a hand. The righteous siblings gripe and lick their wounds, while the unlikely couple begins to forge a better future. Jane proves a stern task-master; Ben a resentful partner, but together they bring promise to a failing farm and a misguided family. And yet… time-ingrained habits die very hard.
In this portrait, Davis paints descendants of the faithful, grave, thrifty, proud, self-reliant early settlers. Yet those admirable qualities have become something ugly: faith is a litany of rote prohibitions; gravity is humorless bitterness; thrift is financial and emotional withholding; pride is haughty narcissism; self-reliance is isolation. Most important, the purposeful service of the founders has become entitled consumption, and the results of taking without giving are a family with no heirs to its name, and a farm too depleted to sustain itself. The once inclusive values of the community, which established a thriving and wealthy family, have become ingrown in succeeding generations and broken the very attachments that hold a community together. The culture achieves an anti-Darwinian evolution, breeding and nurturing the least successful traits, to bring about a generation that is not merely unhappy, but facing extinction. The Jordans are at an emotional standstill and a procreative dead end. In Ben’s word: “icebound.”
Happily, the play does offer a ray of thawing hope. The formidable qualities of self-reliant determination are not necessarily corrosive, if they are tempered with that impractical seeming necessity: love. Ultimately, Icebound is a love story, with faith that something fine hides beneath the hardened exteriors, and if its possessors will have the courage to nurture one instead of suspect one another at least some of the family may find what is best in themselves.
A World in a Flake of Snow
As theater, the play is a special achievement in its time. The 20’s brought a bountiful harvest of rural caricatures to the American stage, and the particular Yankee character had a tradition as old as American theater. But Davis, a Mainer himself, was committed to rendering truthful pictures of the world he knew, finding humor and pathos in the distinctive rhythms of ordinary people. The Detour, presented at Metropolitan in 2013, captures the sobering realities of a poor Long Island farm family. In Icebound, a somewhat more optimistic and far funnier play, he paints the grim family with a mixture of satiric glee and open-hearted affection. His exact portrayals of people who are howlingly funny in their foibles and heartbreakingly touching in their frustrations make for the very liveliest theater.
Icebound’s ambitions are greater, though. To see the evolution of American precepts, Davis looked to a town on the edge of New England something like an astronomer looking to the far edge the galaxy to see conditions at its origins. In painting a true picture of its subjects, the play probes deeply beyond the stereotype to consider the generational echoes of an American archetype. Unhappy in their own way, the Jordans are immediately recognizable. The play’s anatomy shows how the smallest oppositions, the slightest hesitations, and even the nearest of mis-timed meetings can crack deep and lasting breaches between family members, how those breaches can become chasms over time, and how a whole community made up of such families can become a culture that conserves only its resentments. His intimate portrait of a rural Northeastern family may be a playful one, but it isolates the strain of a national ailment.
The remote location also affords Icebound a significance it would not have in a more cosmopolitan setting, particularly considered in light of its year of composition. Three years after the end of The Great War, Icebound asks how past generations’ institutions, actions, and foundational beliefs so tragically failed. The isolated, conservative community is a seminal America, and the state of that Union is a complicated one. On the one hand, a traditional community is at a dead end. At the same time, the communal and personal forces that reinforce conventional constraints are compelling, and loosening them to unleash resentments and passions can bring unexpected results. Even so, the play’s hopeful ending is a call for just such a release: one which will change the ways the central characters share their lives.
America in 1922 was certainly grappling with the ramifications of heeding such a call. The year before the play was produced, Congress enacted the Emergency Quota Act, creating a nationality-based formula to greatly favor Northern European immigration. The play can be seen as an indictment of part of the America the act was trying to “protect”—an insular, homogenous community, who regularly express their arrogance in classist and racist terms—and its answer is to embrace change, generosity, and vulnerability. Icebound earned a Pulitzer prize arguing for the importance of an open heart in a year that the country was closing its borders.
Considered in 2014, the play’s sentiments are no less challenging, as we reckon with new global conflicts undermining a familiar order, and our internal disputes over immigration policy are debates over the definition of American culture.
Every great project begins with committed beliefs and tenacious adherence to its ambitions. America is among the greatest project of our age, but can the disciplines that set it in motion forever serve its success? To engage that question, we are delighted to revive Icebound as the first production of our Progress season.
- Alex Roe