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ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Elizabeth Becker Henley was born on May 8, 1952, in Jackson, Mississippi. Henley attended Southern Methodist University. While in Dallas, she acted with Three Theatre in their 1972-73 season. After earning her B.F.A. degree in 1974, Henley taught at Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre. In 1975-1976 she attended the University of Illinois, in Urbana, IL to pursue a masters degree. In 1976, she acted with the Great American People Show of New Salem State Park, Illinois, a group dedicated to performing plays about Abraham Lincoln and American history. Henley is best known for writing large roles for women and plays set in the American South. Henley began her career as a actor, but soon turned to writing. Her first play, Am I Blue, was produced at Southern Methodist University where she was a college student. Her play Crimes of the Heart was first produced at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979, and was then staged at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York in 1980. Crimes of the Heart, an outrageous southern drama, follows events in the lives of three sisters and is now considered a modern classic. In 1981, Crimes of the Heart won an Oppenheimer Award, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play ran on Broadway through 1983. Henley has been compared to writers
Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor in her “Southern gothic” style in which texts take a turn toward dark humor or outrageous moments. Henley can evoke compassion for characters with low self-esteem, but doesn’t necessarily relieve those characters’ pain. Rather than steep her characters in sentimentality or pathos, Henley brings out awkward realities that must be faced, no matter how macabre. Henley’s plays feature dark, human, and even grotesque elements, tempered by humorous moments that link hard and sometimes shocking realities with everyday absurdities. As the saying goes, “truth is stranger than fiction.” Henley’s unflinchingly honest dramas do not shy away from the peculiar. Henley has had over 16 plays produced and published, including The Miss Firecracker Contest, The Lucky Spot, and Abundance. Henley has also written numerous screenplays, beginning with The Moon Watcher in 1983 and including film versions of Crimes of the Heart and Miss Firecracker. Henley’s most recent publications include the plays Sisters of the Winter Madrigal in 2003, and Ridiculous Fraud in 2007. In 2012, her play The Jacksonian, was produced by Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, directed by Robert Falls. Henley currently lives in Los Angeles.
THEMES FOR DISCUSSION Co-dependence and Self-reliance In Abundance, Bess Johnson and Jack Flan exhibit co-dependence in their relationship with each other and outside it. In contrast, Will Curtis and Macon Hill each operate on philosophies of self-reliance. Macon meets Bess while both wait for their prospective husbands to pick them up at the train depot. Bess has been waiting for days and has already bartered her buttons for an extra night’s stay at the inn. While Bess has proven her resourcefulness, Macon’s entrance with a platter of green biscuits displays a welcome show of preparation. Perhaps Bess was also as prepared when she first arrived, but at this point she relies on her new friend for food. The audience immediately sees a dependent Bess and an independent Macon. Each woman leans further into these identities in their marriages. Bess marries Jack, who, when she meets him is waiting for his brother’s life insurance policy to arrive. When Jack cannot control a situation, he knocks everyone around him down to his level or lower. Most often, that person is Bess. In Act I, scene 2 Jack admits he cannot read, but forbids Bess from reading to him. Meanwhile, Bess depends on the opinions of others more than her own perspective. She seeks validation from others, be it approval of her singing or confirmation that “I got nice hair, but my eyes are too close together” (Act I, scene 1). Jack is all too eager to offer his opinion if it means he is in control of a situation. Out west, neither Jack nor Bess can take anything for granted. Danger lies over every ridge and within every task. For Bess and Jack, lures of validation and safety lie in garnering acceptance from others or controlling a situation. Neither is willing to forfeit the strange pleasure in this relationship. When Macon implores Bess to explore a better life with her further west, Bess admits she is not willing to leave Jack. BESS: I can’t go. MACON: Why not? BESS: I’m married. MACON: He don’t treat ya no good. BESS: I’ll learn t’make him. MACON: You can’t change his nature. BESS: I’m here to try. You go on. You go without me. Please. Ya don’t need me. (Act I, scene 5)
TIMELINE May 1804 - Lewis and Clark Expedition sets out to explore the Missouri River and the Oregon Territory. April 8, 1808 - John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company is founded and begins to establish trading outposts along the northern Missouri River. August 21, 1821 - Missouri becomes the 24th state 1827 - William H. Ashley’s party takes the first wheeled vehicle, a fourpounder cannon, through South Pass in the Rocky Mountains and into the Far West. July 4, 1828 - BaltimoreOhio begins constructing their railroad network, which eventually connects New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, Louisville, Springfield, and St. Louis. 1830s - The Oregon Trail comes into use after being established by traders. May 28, 1830 - The Indian Removal Act is passed, granting President Andrew Jackson the funding and authority necessary to remove the Native Americans residing east of the Mississippi River to territories further westward. September 27, 1830 - The
Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek is signed allowing the continued relocation of Native American tribes residing east of the Mississippi. March 18, 1831 - Cherokee Nation v. Georgia establishes that a Native American tribe within the United States is not a foreign nation, and cannot bring to the Supreme Court a case against the United States as a foreign nation. 1832 - Capt. B. L. E. Bonneville leads the first wagons through the South Pass and into the Far West from Wyoming. 1834 - Final statutes of Indian Nonintercourse Act are passed, tightly regulating the purchase and sale of land of Native Americans. 1834 - Ft. Laramie is established as the first permanent trading post in Wyoming by William Sublette and Robert Campbell. It serves as a Military post between 1849 and 1890. November 1835 - The Texas Rebellion begins when a group of Texan leaders convenes to declare independence from Mexico. 1835-1838 -- Cherokee Indians move west of the Mississippi along the “Trail of Tears.” It is estimated that 25% of those who made the trip did not survive it. 1836 - Narcissa Whitmarrand and Eliza Spalding, both brides of
While Macon is willing to make a clean break and try again, Bess admits that marriage holds her to Wyoming Territory. Macon probably could succeed without Bess. She is strong, generally well prepared, and savvy. Macon could leave without Bess, but she does not want to. She chooses their friendship over her freedom in this moment. Later, when Bess is ready to flee and implores Macon to leave with her, it is Macon’s turn to refuse. The play suggests that Macon is strong enough to leave on her own, but Bess needs Macon with her to leave Jack. Short of her best friend, only kidnapping can take Bess away. In her absence from the homestead, Bess finds her own sense of self-reliance. Bess draws partially on what she learned from Macon and partially on her own skills to survive captivity. Kidnapping reveals Bess’s inner strength and independence. When she returns, her newfound power allows her to dominate her relationships in the rest of the play. She exacts revenge on all those who treated her poorly in her past. While Jack continues in his co-dependency, Bess exhibits true change. Will Curtis thinks that a man should work for and earn what he gets. Despite setbacks including losing his first wife, losing an eye, and later the threat of losing his farm, Will demonstrates the resilience necessary to bounce back in the western frontier. He has done it before, and provided another accident doesn’t threaten his life, he will continue to strive in the face of struggle. Likewise, Macon comes to the West prepared with green biscuits and a realistic outlook. She does not find love with her husband, but she makes the best of her situation. Macon can put her strengths to good use and grow roots in the community. She wins and judges pie baking contests, starts and profits off of the community pumpkin patch, and refuses to run when Bess begs her. “Stop pushing at me. I got things here. Out there, I don’t know what,” Macon says in Act I, scene 10. Macon exudes self-esteem and becomes dominant in her relationship with Will and in her friendship with Bess. She uses her track record to convince Will to buy more land for planting wheat, she shoots the ox when Will cannot, she bakes well and for a time can satisfy both Will and Jack’s needs. Whether she puts herself in positions of power, or is forced to take on powerful roles by circumstance, Macon steps up to a challenge. Questions: • Have you ever found yourself in a situation when you could not rely on anyone but yourself? How did you act with independence? What did you learn about yourself?
• Describe a time when you’ve needed to depend on someone else for help. • Put yourself in Macon’s shoes when Bess asks her to leave. Would you leave the home and life you’ve created to seek a better life with your best friend?
Reversal of fate/reversal of fortune When, in a fit of rage, Jack burns down his and Bess’ cabin, Bess reveals to Macon “I just wanna say.... Early disappointments are embittering my life” (Act I, scene 8). Bess, Macon, Will and Jack all experience reversals in fortune throughout the course of the play. Bess arrives in Wyoming Territory eager to fall in love and experience the western frontier. She seeks her “true one” and believes that, based on Michael Flan’s letters, he is that person. She looks forward to making a home with him and soothing his life with her singing. Bess begins her journey with the belief that what little she has to offer is welcome. Yet upon arrival, it seems her prospective husband has deserted her. Michael’s brother Jack eventually picks her up and reveals that Michael has died in an accident. Jack’s solution to marry Bess himself offers little solace. Rather than marrying a man who appreciates her talent for song and shares her enthusiasm for a beautiful western landscape, Bess commits herself to an illiterate realist who despises song and controls her every move. Her prospective true one is gone and it is clear that Bess’ future will be forever altered. Bess resigns herself to an abusive marriage and a life of struggle and poverty. When Macon implores her to run away and start over again further west, Bess refuses. “I can’t go. I gave out my oath,” she says in Act I, scene 5. Although Bess endures the silencing impact of her marriage to Jack (she stops singing, she never cries in his presence, she starves along with her ne’er-do-well husband), she finds her dream in the unlikeliest of places: captivity among the Oglala Sioux. When Bess returns to the homestead, she is ambivalent about her time with the Oglalas. Her kidnappers threatened her life and at times had refused her food and water. Though she experienced hardship, Bess was appreciated among Native Americans in ways she never was among her husband and friends on the homestead. Later, Bess admits that her time with the Indians was “beautiful.” Macon expects that Bess hated her experience living with Native Americans, but Bess’ actions suggest a different sentiment. After she is found and returned
missionaries, become the first white women to pass over the Oregon Trail into the Far West. 1845 - Congress publishes John C. Fremont’s “Report and Map” as a guide to overland emigrants heading west. July 4, 1845 - The Texas Convention votes to accept annexation, inciting the Mexican-American War. December 29, 1845 Texas is admitted to the Union, officially granted statehood, and becomes the 28th state. 1846 - Brigham Young leads Mormons from Nauvoo, IL, to a settlement near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. January 1848 - An American carpenter discovers gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, sparking a gold rush bringing tens of thousands of new settlers to California, rapidly populating and urbanizing the territory. February 2, 1848 - The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is signed at the close of the Mexican War, ceding Texas, New Mexico, and California to the United States. September 9, 1850 California is admitted to the Union under the Compromise of 1850 as a free state. It is the 31st state.
February 1851 Appropriation Bill for Indian Fairs consolidates western tribes onto agricultural reservations. A series of treaties signed with the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, and other plains tribes delineates the extent of their territories and allows passage across them in exchange for payments. Feb 14, 1859 - Oregon becomes the 33rd state. 1860 - Pony Express begins fast overland mail from Missouri to California (but is discontinued in 1861 with completion of a transcontinental telegraph). April 12, 1861 - The American Civil War begins at Fort Sumter. July 29, 1861 - Kansas becomes the 35th state. 1862 - The Homestead Act, the first of many, is signed to encourage the settlement of unoccupied western land tracts. July 1, 1862 - Union Pacific Railroad is authorized to build a line from Nebraska to Utah to meet the Central Pacific line coming from California. August 17, 1862 - A small number of Santee men, driven by the failure of the Federal Government to provide the payment due them per past treaties, murder a white farmer and most of his family, enciting The Dakota War of 1862.
to Jack by U.S. Army officials, Bess repeatedly tries to escape the Curtis homestead. She confides in Macon that Chief Ottawa married her. MACON: You were a bride? BESS: Two...Two children. Chante, Hunke-she. Ottawa. I thought he was true one. He gave me black horse. MACON:No, no. He was bad. He was an Indian. He was bad. BESS: Yes, bad. Sold me. Sold me cheap. Two horses, blanket, beads, bullets. Cheap. While Macon wants to re-educate Bess and convince her that the Oglala lifestyle was unacceptable, Bess seems more upset by Ottawa’s personal betrayal. Bess goes on to profit enormously off of her captivity story. In a whirlwind of opportunities, she is willing to speak out against all Native American tribes as long as she can enjoy the luxuries of her new lifestyle, such as baskets of golden tulips. From her new found position of power, Bess can exact revenge on all who betrayed or abused her in the past. She refuses Macon’s request for money to save the homestead, she wages political warfare against all, including her Native American husband’s, tribes, and she returns Jack’s verbal abuse. (“Then stop offering opinions on subjects you’re completely stupid on” (Act II, scene 6)). Bess’s and Macon’s husbands, Jack and Will, experience extreme shifts in fortune, too. Will is accustomed to life changing events. He has mourned the death of his first wife and lost his eye in a mining accident. While Will is consistent and intelligent about his efforts, he is at the whim of the elements and suffers financial ruin during the drought. Will, having started over before, picks up and moves on. Jack, who has no interest in working hard or building his own homestead, has mooched off of Macon and Will for years. However, when Jack’s long lost wife returns as a kidnapping survivor whose touring schedule brings in the cash, Jack’s habit of taking the easy road becomes much easier. Jack does pay the personal price of falling below his wife’s status. After dominating their marriage through fear and abuse, Jack must stoop to becoming Bess’ lackey and endure her verbal abuse in order to survive. Macon also feels the ground shift beneath her over the course of her twenty-five year friendship with Bess. At first she is not terribly attracted to Will Curtis, but chooses to make the best of the situation at all times. When Macon initially wants to leave, she implores Bess to go with her. She desires to escape the trap into which
she feels she’s fallen by going further west. When Bess refuses to go, Macon does what she can with what she has and becomes an equal, if not dominant, partner in her and Will’s business ventures. They fare well for a number of years, but in Act II, fortune takes a turn and drought strikes the Curtises. Macon and her husband fall into debt and lose their homestead. Macon, who had enjoyed life on top for nearly a decade, must watch as her best friend steals her dream of writing a book about frontier adventures. When speaking with Professor Elmore Crome, with whom she is writing a book about her experiences in the wild, Bess indulges his curiosity. BESS: It’s true, I’ve suffered. But I come out here drunk with western fever. I wanted to se the elephant. To hunt down the elephant. Bang! Bang! Bang! I savor the boundlessness of it all! The wild flavor! (Act II, scene 5).
1862 - Sioux Uprising occurs in Minnesota. The number of Native American killed is unknown. White deaths are estimated between 300 and 1,000. 303 Santee Sioux stood trial without attorneys or defense and were found guilty of rape and murder. 284 death sentences were commuted by then President Lincoln, and 38 Sioux men were hung in what is still the largest mass-execution in United States history. Their sentencing marks the end of The Dakota War of 1862.
Here Bess directly quotes Macon from scene 1, either consciously or unconsciously. She dons the role of adventurous western woman and has her experience to prove it. Bess goes on to write a book and share stories of her adventures to rapt audiences. This seems to hurt Macon the most.
1863 - The first Wyoming newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, is started at Ft. Bridger.
MACON: You don’t fool me. I know how ya done it all. You pictured me. You stole from me. You stole me. I showed you how to walk and speak and fight and dream. I should have written that book. People should be clamoring t’meet me; t’talk t’me. I’m the real thing; you’re just the watered down milktoast version. Them Indians stole the wrong woman. (Act II, scene 6)
November 9, 1864 - The Sand Creek Massacre in eastern Colorado of members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes triggers a wider war with the Native Americans of the Western Plains.
To add insult to injury, Will lives out Macon’s dream of venturing further west in search of better possibilities. Even Macon, who had lived on a principle of openness, is not immune to the sting of unpredictable change. Henley does not reward generosity with fortune, nor does she let the story end there. In the real world, anything can happen. Abundance clings to the harsh reality that life can offer unforeseeable challenges at any time. Questions: • What do you observe about each character’s reaction to his or her reversal of fortune? Does anyone thrive in times of challenge? Does anyone succumb? How do the characters treat each other when faced with a reversal?
1863 - Gold is discovered in Bannack, MT.
October 31, 1864 - Nevada becomes the 36th state. May 9, 1865 - American Civil War ends. 1866 – The Mining Law grants discoverers of gold, silver, cinnabar, and copper deposits on public federal lands exclusive rights to extract. 1866 - Red Cloud’s War begins, and continues for two years between the United States Federal Government and the allied
Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota over the Powder River Country in northern Wyoming. March 1, 1867 - Nebraska becomes the 37th state. July 25, 1868 - The Wyoming Territory is officially created. 1868 - A treaty signed with the Shoshone Indians creates the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. 1868 - Second Treaty of Fort Laramie is signed, ending Red Cloud’s War and guaranteeing the Sioux rights to the Black Hills of Dakota and the Powder River Country. May 10, 1869 - The first transcontinental railroad is completed when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads join their tracks at Promontory Point, Utah, shortening the journey from coast to coast from eight months by wagon to one week by train. December 10, 1869 - John A. Campbell, the first territorial governor of the Wyoming Territory signs the “Female Suffrage” bill, giving Wyoming women the right to vote. 1870 - The Wyoming population reaches 9,118. February 17, 1870 - Esther Hobart Morris of South Pass City is the first woman ever to be appointed Justice of the Peace. March 3, 1871 - Indian Appropriation Act strips
• Have you ever faced an unpredictable challenge? How did you respond to it?
Expectations of Reciprocity MACON: What’s mine is yours; what’s yours is mine. (Act 1, scene 1) When Macon Hill meets Bess Johnson in the first scene of Abundance, she offers her a green biscuit. She does not refuse when Bess asks for another. Macon declares “I hate stinginess. You’ll never get anywhere watching every egg, nickel and biscuit. Ya gotta let it go! Let it go! Go! And I don’t give a damn if ya never pay me back” (Act I, scene 1). In Abundance, Henley raises intricate questions about friendship, giving, and how people may expect, consciously or unconsciously, to be paid back for their good deeds. Macon’s outlook is unique in the play. She consistently gives without expecting anything back, yet ends up struggling to stick to this value of as the play progresses. Macon’s husband, Will, feels very differently about handouts. Will is uneasy with the idea of offering others a crutch. Of Bess and her husband, Will says, “If they drop down, it ain’t for you to carry them. I just don’t like being exploited. I don’t like the exploitation. People should earn what they get” (Act I, scene 6). However, Will’s outlook does not necessarily yield the best results. He works very hard in his relationship with Macon, but Macon rarely reciprocates. Will seeks Macon’s affection, and does his best to delight her with gifts, but it is clear that Macon is in no way attracted to him. While the couple’s business ventures are successful for a time, Will does not receive the tenderness for which he longs. If Will believes hard work pays off, does he feel entitled to Macon’s affection? If he does, he does not hold it over her. He endures her neglect and only confides in Bess. “Me, I’m not sure why I stay. I don’t know what I expect to get. She used to be nice to me sometimes for very short intervals of time. Not anymore” (Act II, scene 4). Macon defends her right to protect her friend and continues to be liberal with her gifts to Bess and Jack. She cares deeply for her friend and gives Bess shoes, coffee, wood, clothes—anything she needs to survive on the frontier. When times are good for Macon and Will, there is no need to request anything of the Flans in return. However, when Bess returns from her time in captivity among the Oglala Sioux, times are harder for the Curtises. While Macon is grateful for Bess’ return,
Native American tribes of their assignment as independent nations, effectively nullifying all treaties signed between the United States and the western tribes between 1832 and 1871. 1874 - Gold deposits are discovered in the Black Hills, sacred lands to the Lakota, and the resulting gold rush prompts the Second Sioux War in 1875. James Knight and Brenda Withers in Abundance. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
August 1, 1876 - Colorado becomes the 38th state.
Bess would rather be rid of her white counterparts and the homestead which caused her so much pain, especially after discovering Macon had an affair with Jack while she was gone. Macon tries diligently to reintroduce Bess into white society. Bess is ungrateful for this betrayal, so when Macon is in need -- despite all she has done for Bess -- her way of giving freely is put to the test.
February 8, 1876 - The United States Secretary of the Interior Zachariah Chandler begins the Great Sioux War by officially turning dealings with the northern Sioux tribes over to the War Department.
BESS: ….And you’ve gotten so measly you watch every egg, nickel, and biscuit. MACON: I know we don’t like each other. We used to be friends. But somehow we drifted apart. Still you have to admit, you have to see, that you owe me something. BESS: What do I owe you? MACON: You—well, you owe me – fifty dollars. At least fifty dollars. I gave you shoes when you had none and food and coffee and clothes and lodging. I even brought you blue ribbons and a blue dress. Whatever your heart desired, I gave to you. BESS: Maybe it never occurred t’you. Maybe you never realized the fact, but people don’t like being beholding. They resent always needing and always owing. And pretty soon they come to resent whoever it is they been taking from. (Act II, scene 6) Jack does not expect much from himself or others. He embodies a type of catch-as-catch-can philosophy toward life and is bothered when others counter his individualistic moral code. In Act I scene 6, Jack steals wood from the Curtises’ land. In scene 9, he eats Will’s
April 6, 1876 - Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone. June 1876 - Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his men are wiped out by Sioux forces in the Battle of Little Bighorn, failing in their attempt to confine the tribes to reservations. 1878 - The Northern Cheyenne escape from a reservation in Oklahoma and return to their lands in Montana Territory; pursued by the army and vigilantes, only 114 of more than 350 survive. October 22, 1879 - Thomas Edison invents the light bulb. 1880 - The Wyoming population reaches 20,789.
February 8, 1887 - The Dawes Severalty Act is passed, authorizing the president of the United States to break up reservations into allotments for individuals and called for the treatment of Native Americans as individuals rather than tribes. 1889 - North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington all become states. April 22, 1889 - The Land Run of 1889 begins 1890 - The Wyoming population reaches 62,555. 1890 - Idaho and Wyoming become the 43rd and the 44th states 1900 - The Wyoming population reaches 92,531. December 29, 1890 - US Army troops massacre 300 Native Americans, including seven children at the Massacre at Wounded Knee. The massacre is the symbolic final step in the war for the West, and after Wounded Knee the Native American Tribes of the Western Plains generally succumb to the wishes of the federal government, resigning themselves to reservation life.
pound cake without a second thought. When Will questions him about it, Jack says “It’s gone. I hogged it. What can ya do?” Instead of working hard, Jack takes advantage of easy opportunities such as using his dead brother’s insurance money to buy a mine supposedly filled with gold, accepting handouts when Macon takes pity on her best friend, and moving in with Macon and Will when he burns down his own cabin in a fit of rage. Jack is not interested in working for his living, but claims not to expect anything from anyone, either. WILL: This is supposed to be the deadline. Our anniversary. We made a deal, remember? You and your wife could stay here until this anniversary, then your time was up. JACK: Fine. Our time’s up. Fine. WILL: You have been living here over two years now. I know you was sick for a time, but we’ve been more than generous. That cabin’s damn small. JACK: All right, we’ll go. WILL: When? JACK: Now. Right now. WILL: Where’re you gonna go? JACK: Don’t know. What do you care? (Act I, scene 9) While Jack claims he will not stay where he is not wanted, he manipulates the pity of Macon especially, and can rely on the Curtises for as long as he waffles. Jack is likewise unmoved by Macon’s request for fifty dollars to save her and Will’s farm. Jack expects nothing, but also has nothing to offer others. In this way he lets himself off the hook. Jack enjoys a certain freedom by taking responsibility for nothing. For each of the characters in Abundance, beliefs about fairness and reciprocity run deep. Henley presents the audience with multiple perspectives about what one should, or could expect from others. Questions: • Do you believe Bess should have given Macon the fifty dollars? Write an argument for Bess’s case or Macon’s case. Would you have given a friend the money? Why or why not? • Have you ever offered someone a gift and expected something in return? How did that affect the relationship? Should people expect reciprocity or give freely? What are the benefits of each perspective?
Monique Vukovic and Brenda Withers in Abundance. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
CAPTIVITY LITERATURE IN AMERICA Accounts of captivity narratives have been part of American literature since 1682. By the 1850s, there was a whole genre of writing devoted to women’s stories of kidnapping and survival among Native Americans. One of the most iconic of these stories was that of Olive Oatman. Olive Oatman was one of seven children born to Royce and Mary Ann Oatman. In May of 1850, the Oatman family departed from their Illinois farm. With a ninth child on the way, the Oatmans made their way to Missouri, where they joined twenty other families to caravan west. Olive was just fourteen years old when they met trouble in what is now southwestern Arizona, where they were ambushed by Yavapai Native Americans. Seven of the Oatmans were massacred on the spot while Olive and her sister Mary Ann were captured. Their brother Lorenzo was left for dead. After her capture by Yavapais, Olive remained with the Mohave Native Americans for four years. Upon being reintroduced into white culture, Olive met R.B. Stratton with whom
she would end up writing Captivity of the Oatman Girls. Olive became known for the distinctive tattoos on her chin that provided a strong visual reminder of her experience. They would tour the country giving book talks and Olive’s story would become famous throughout the nation. Olive’s story was also sensationalized and dramatized in a play entitled The Captivity and Massacre of the Oatman Family by the Apache and Mohave Indians by C.E. Bingham. The play featured Actor Jonas Brutus Booth (older brother to John Wilkes Booth) as the Native American husband to the Olive character. Olive Oatman’s experience followed a long line of captivity narratives that held a specific niche in early American literature. Beginning with A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, published in 1682, captivity literature told the sensational stories of white women who had been captured and had lived among Native Americans. It is suggested that this book was the first American best seller. Other female captives included Eunice Williams, who lived among Mohawks in 1704, Mary Jemison who lived among the Seneca beginning in 1755, and Cynthia Ann Parker who in 1836 was taken by Comanches experienced ambivalence
similar to Olive’s. Each of these women have famous stories in which they had difficulty assimilating back into white culture. The captivity literature genre itself featured stories of capture, torture, death and misfortune. Because they were nonfiction accounts, exciting and dangerous stories of life among Native Americans were more widely accepted than gruesome, imagined stories in novels or plays. Yet, by the early 1700s, captivity narratives found their way into fiction as well. Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s 1827 novel, Hope Leslie, includes a captive narrative. According to June Namias, author of White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier, a captured woman’s story generally fell into one of three categories: that of the strong survivor who learned to live among Native Americans, the Amazon who escaped, or the “Frail Flower” who succumbed to the horrifying effects of capture. Each of these archetypes was made popular at different times in American and women’s history, although every captive’s story was unique. By the 1850s, captivity narratives had become classic fodder for American adventure stories and proved a prime time for women’s narratives. Captivity literature provided the first opportunity for women’s literature in America. Accounts of female independence, action, and self-reliance were acceptable within the context of the captivity story. The genre featured women extracted from their acceptable roles by force, so they became free to assert themselves in ways unlike traditional female roles. By the late 1850s, the industrial revolution brought technologies that lessened the domestic workload, families were experiencing lower birthrates, and women were attending more school, all of which lead to more leisure time for women, boosting the middle class, female audience. As women’s roles were increasingly set within the home, thanks to manufacturing, the captivity genre offered women an escape from a newly confined domesticity. White women in captivity stories could assert themselves in ways
viewed unseemly or impossible by dominant white American culture due to the necessity of survival. The growth of female readership at this time supported the genre. Bess Johnson’s experience shadows that of many women in early America. While each story of living among Native Americans was distinct, the threat was real and many Native American and white families were forced to deal with the consequences of losing a family member and/or repatriating them when they returned to the culture they once knew. Often women married into Native American families and encountered ambivalence about how to return to a society they had once left behind. Questions: • Research Eunice Williams, Mary Jemison, or Cynthia Ann Parker. How did they adapt to live with Native American cultures different from their own? What choices did they make about the families they created or abandoned? • Should someone remain loyal to the culture they were born into, or if one becomes part of another community, should he or she remain loyal to that one? Why or why not?
SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES 1) In the first scene of the play, Bess tells Macon that Michael Flan (Jack’s brother) wrote her three letters in which he told her “all about the size of the western sky” and that he loves singing. Imagine what else Michael Flan might have said to his wife-tobe in these letters. Write a letter from Michael Flan to Bess, telling her what her life will be like once she arrives out west. Write a diary entry from Bess’s journal before the trip, describing her expectations of her new life and husband.
Brenda Withers and Monique Vukovic in Abundance. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
2) The play Abundance is full of short, intense scenes between characters with complex and strained relationships. Work with a partner to present one of the two scenes between Macon and Bess or Jack and Will in the “Expectations of Reciprocity” section of this study guide. Approach the short scene as an actor might: Write down everything you know about your character and the relationship between the two characters in the scene. What are your objectives (what does your character want more than anything)? What stands in your way? What are you going to do to try to get what you want? Memorize the scene and rehearse it with your partner. Present the scenes for the class, and discuss how different actors interpreted each role differently. 3) Read a couple of short stories by Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor. What do these “Southern gothic” writers have in common with Beth Henley and the style of this play? 4) For Bess and Macon, the Western Frontier represented a great unknown full of hope and promise. What uncharted territory or frontiers still exist today? Draw or write an advertisement designed to get people to move out West – the kind of ad that Macon or Bess might have answered. Create an advertisement for today’s new frontier. 5) What do you think is the significance of the title Abundance? Imagine a world that is characterized by “abundance.” Make a collage (using words, drawings, symbols, magazine images – anything you can think of) to represent your idea of “abundance.” 6) Both Macon and Bess share their dreams about “seeing the elephant” and writing about their experiences out west. Professor Elmore Crome invites Bess to share her story by speaking on the lyceum lecture circuit, a system of live public presentations including talks, concerts, and other programming. What “elephant” have you seen? If people filled an auditorium to hear you speak, what story from your life would you tell? Write a speech that gives an account of a unique experience you’ve had. Practice the speech, and then give it to family and friends. Take questions. Did they know about this event in your life, or is the story new to them? How does it feel to speak as an expert on this topic?
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CRYSTAL SCHEWE EDUCATION APPRENTICE
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