Sunday, November 11, 2012

Stephen Vincent Benet's "John Brown's Body" comes to the Wyoming stage

Nobody, with the possible exception of English majors and classics' scholars, reads epic poetry anymore. The Iliad. The Odyssey. Leaves of Grass. Letter to an Imaginary Friend. John Brown's Body.

Stephen Vincent Benet won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for "John Brown's Body," a 15,000-line epic about America's Civil War. Benet wrote it in Paris in 1926-1928, his trip financed by a Guggenheim fellowship. I've never encountered Benet in my reading about the "Lost Generation" in Paris, those post-World War I expats from all over who gravitated to Paris for a healthy dose of creativity and mass quantities of boozing (absinthe anyone?).

John Brown usually lies a-moulderin' on the page in Benet's now-neglected book. But a Wyoming family with theatrical roots are performing "John Brown's Body" in a staged reading this week. The reading will be performed by Pete and Lynne Simpson and there three children: Maggie, Milward and Pete. The elder Pete is a retired history professor at the University of Wyoming. Wife Lynne is an accomplished actress and director. Maggie is a singer/songwriter, Milward is a musician and theatre guy (and fellow state employee) and Pete  Jr. performs with the Blue Man Group.

Wyoming was far removed from Civil War action. From 1861-65, it was part of Nebraska Territory with very few Anglo settlements outside of military forts. Although there were some Civil War battles in the Rocky Mountains -- New Mexico comes to mind -- none were fought in Wyoming. Slavery was permitted in the territories. But whether the nascent states would be "free states" or slave states" was being argued about regularly in Congress. That struggle came to a head with abolitionist John Brown's raid on the U.S. Army Depot at Harper's Ferry. He was executed for his crime on Dec. 2, 1859. Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter 16 months later, launching the Civil War. The next four years were a horror show for the country. In his epic poem, Benet tried to describe the experience from various points of view. Maybe Ken Burns was thinking of Benet when he filmed his famous Civil War series for PBS. He let the people speak in their own words.

Some of Benet's lines feature John Brown's final words:

Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my
life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle
my blood further with the blood of my children
and with the blood of millions in this slave country
whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and
unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.

Let it be done. And it was.

You can see "John Brown's Body, a staged reading," featuring the Simpson family with music by the Cheyenne Chamber Singers, at the Cheyenne Civic Center, Thursday, Nov. 15. Tickets $20 for adults and $10 for students. They are $5 more at the door. Visit or call 637-6363.

Read more about Benet and his poem at

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