Librettist Christopher Hampton on the new WNO production of APPOMATTOX
Librettist CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons, and more recently was nominated again for Atonement, also a Best Picture nominee.
Having greatly enjoyed working with Philip Glass on my first libretto (based on J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), I was delighted when he asked me to work on a second, this time an original. However, when he said the subject he had in mind was the final week of the Civil War, I was forced to admit I knew next to nothing about the subject. He seemed pleased. That’s what he wanted, he said, an objective outsider’s view.
Philip’s thought was that the principal protagonists in the war—Grant, Lee and, in the background, President Lincoln—had all behaved in an exceptionally civilised way. He wanted to make an implicit critical contrast between this and the botched and vindictive manner in which these matters have been conducted in our own era.
As I began to steep myself in the Civil War (realising that there can hardly be a more exhaustively researched subject in history), a certain fact seemed to make itself more and more unavoidably clear. The problem of slavery and racial oppression, which had been the source and origin of the war, was the one problem that those civilised gentlemen—however well-meaning they may have been—had been entirely unable, despite the abolition of slavery, to solve. So I allowed the libretto to slip into the 20th century, choosing to focus on the murders of the Mississippi civil rights workers and the fatal shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Alabama in 1965—to counter the mood of optimism that briefly prevailed as the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865.
A couple of years later, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis proposed a retrospective of my plays and films, on the condition that I write them a new play. I was casting around for a subject (I wanted it to be something American) when my partner, the Vietnamese American filmmaker Tiana Alexandra-Silliphant, suggested I revisit Appomattox. I strongly resisted this suggestion at first—I didn’t think Philip would approve (Tiana persuaded him in a matter of minutes) and I wasn’t sure at first that the two periods, a century apart, would dovetail in such a way as to make a satisfactory play.
Then, as so often happens in these cases, various things began to fall into place. I was very struck by the fact that on the day of President Lincoln’s second inauguration, on March 4, 1865—no more than a couple of weeks before he was shot—he invited Frederick Douglass and his companion Mrs. Dorsey to be the White House’s first black guests. He listened sympathetically as Douglass put the case for “voting rights for all free men of colour.” Precisely one hundred years later, President Lyndon Johnson received Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Oval Office, because King had endorsed a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson during a demonstration to demand those voting rights—which had still not properly been granted. Even more striking was the arrest, in 2010, of ex-trooper James Bonard Fowler for the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson 45 years earlier. He had casually admitted to the crime in an interview with an Atlanta journalist, John Fleming, and had finally been tried and sentenced.
Tiana arranged a trip for me through a part of America I had never visited, starting in Atlanta at Dr. King’s childhood home and culminating in the melancholy fall drizzle of Selma, Alabama. We walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge; spoke to numerous helpful and hospitable people, participants in the marches and victims of police brutality (the lump of a fractured skull still palpable after all these years); and looked at unseen colour footage, privately shot—all decisive experiences for the play. Tiana even managed to phone Trooper Fowler and talk to him, though sadly he declined to meet us.
Finally, we had lunch with the only black D.A. in Alabama—Michael Jackson—and I asked him why he had allowed a plea bargain in the Fowler trial. It was the only way to guarantee a conviction, he explained, and the fact that the resulting sentence was only six months, eventually reduced to four, was justified in his eyes by its symbolic value. He went on to speak of another recent case in which a young black man had been convicted of killing a garage proprietor in the course of a robbery. He had received a sentence of 200 years. This glaring example of the double standard—leave alone the attempts to roll back President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act, leave alone the shooting in Ferguson, emblematic of so many others—is enough to tell us that, whoever won or lost the Civil War, whatever its appalling cost in treasure and lives, its profound underlying lessons have yet to be learned.