The American Legacy
Metropolitan Playhouse
The American Legacy

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Reviews - Matamora


Reviewed by Martin Denton - October 7, 2004

Afraid that a 175-year-old American melodrama may not have much relevance to your life? Sample this bit of dialogue from Metamora, or The Last of the Wampanoags:

 We are informed that thou gavest shelter to a banished man, whose deeds unchristian met our just reproof--one by our holy synod doomed--whom it is said you housed, and thereby hast incurred our church's censure--and given just cause to doubt thy honesty.

 Or, to put it another way:  if you're not for us, you're against us. What's ever new under the sun?—to Metropolitan Playhouse, producers of this fascinating revival, goes my extreme gratitude, for reminding us that we can run, but we can't hide, from our shared social history.

 Metamora, written in 1829 by a playwright that you have probably never heard of named John Augustus Stone, takes place in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1677 and tells a fictionalized version of the story of Metacom (called King Phillip by the colonists), leader of the local Wampanoag tribe and antagonist of the early American-Indian conflict called King Phillip's War. In the play, Metamora and his wife Nahmeokee find themselves making a last stand against the English settlers who have taken over their ancestral land. Leading the charge against them are Eddington, chief of the colonists' governing council, and a new arrival from England, Lord Fitzarnold; caught in the middle are Walter, an orphan who respects Metamora greatly, and Oceana, the beautiful young woman Walter loves. Further complicating matters is the fact that Fitzarnold intends to wed Oceana himself, and because of some murky but important information that he possesses about that lady's father, Mordaunt, he seems likely to get his way.

 One of the most interesting things about this play is the rather spectacular contrast between the way it tells the story of Oceana's romantic affairs and the way it treats the tragic demise of Metamora. The former feels like vintage melodrama, hopelessly naive and clichéd—Fitzarnold may as well twirl a handlebar moustache and tie Oceana to a railroad track, for all the nuance and motivation that he's allowed here.

 But the treatment of the Indian King is something else again. Stone was a contemporary of James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans came out in 1826), and his Metamora is the same kind of "noble savage" that Cooper immortalized. He is in almost every way a model citizen—loyal, trustworthy, and so on—and a splendid tragic hero, choosing to die bravely as the last of his line rather than yield to the White Men's entreaties to assimilate.

 Except, of course, that he's also portrayed as a murderous villain—a heathen who refuses to accept the "gift" of Christianity and thinks nothing of destroying his enemies or taking truly awful vengeance when he thinks he has been wronged. For all the admirable qualities that Stone gives his leading character, he never lets us forget—via the foolishly stilted language that became the model for 150 years of "Red Man" talk in plays and movies, through Tonto and beyond; and via the willful stereotyping that equates un-Englishness with backward barbarianism—that Metamora is one of "them," i.e., the bad guys. Neither Stone nor, I reckon, anybody whom he expected to be in an audience watching this play could ever imagine something other than an American manifest destiny: the savage is noble by virtue of his willingness to step aside and let the foreigners conquer his land.

 Are we still so romantic? I wonder how a play that cast a Muslim suicide bomber as a modern-day "noble savage" would be received—by either side.

 Alex Roe, Metropolitan's artistic director, has staged this revival in a way that puts its old-fashioned-ness right up front. He's charged set designer Ryan Scott to build a jewel box-style stage on the Metropolitan's floor, framed by a very conspicuous proscenium arch and ringed by old-time footlights (lighting is by Douglas Filomena). The actors wear heavy pancake-y makeup and some perform in the broad manner we associate with 19th century melodrama. The effect of all of this is to remind us continuously that we are observing not just a play but a whole bygone world—this ambience makes us confront the America that adored theatre like Metamora as well as this specific drama itself.

It's a risky choice that mostly pays off. I got irritated with the actors who overplayed—evoking, sometimes, laughs that were certainly unintended by Stone—but I loved the homely simplicity of the design and staging. Matthew Trumbull and Adriane Erdos are nothing short of triumphant as Metamora and Nahmeokee, creating characters we admire and respect, despite the ridiculous way Stone makes them speak and the ultimately demeaning things he makes them do. These actors, and Roe, justify the gamble of mounting this obscure play, making the attitudes of nearly two centuries ago live and breathe, and showing us—as this kind of theatre always does, better than almost anything I know of—how far we've come as a nation... and how far we still have to go.