The Civil War and comedy may seem like a pairing that would be doomed from the start, but Richard Strand strikes the right balance in Ben Butler, a dramatization of an encounter between the titular Union Army general and a fugitive slave that altered the course of the war.
Gen. Benjamin Butler is in command of Fort Monroe in Virginia, the latest state to secede, at the beginning of the war. When Shepherd Mallory, an enslaved man, arrives at the garrison in his journey to secure freedom, Butler must decide if he is going to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act — which required all escaped and captured slaves to be returned to their masters — or use his legal background to undermine the controversial statute.
An attempt to animate Civil War history with moments of humor could easily fall short in less capable hands, but Keely Enright, who will direct the Village Rep Co.’s upcoming production at Woolfe Street Playhouse, says Ben Butler succeeds because of Strand’s clever and witty script.
“It’s a very articulate and intelligent play written in a contemporary voice,” she says. “What I loved about it was the fact that this topic, if you think about it on its face, if you were to read about it in the history books, it’s an incredibly dry topic. But the way Strand has written it, it is so lively. … So it’s not just like silly laughs. It’s based on the language, as well as the situation that they find themselves in.”
Robbie Thomas, who plays Gen. Butler, agrees that the comedy is situational and stems from the clash of personalities between Butler and Mallory.
“The Civil War is not exactly a place that you’re expecting to find laugh-out-loud [humor],” Thomas says. “But it’s a very personal comedy. Shepherd Mallory — the enslaved man who provokes this conflict within our play — he’s a unique guy. He has his own way of doing things. He’s a little arrogant. So is Ben Butler. He’s overly confident. So is Ben Butler. And so they kind of butt heads. So that situation in itself, you can kind of see how that would lead to comedy. The greater conflict as a whole? Yeah, not so much. But situationally, there’s two men talking to each other, two men who are very bullheaded having a disagreement — you can see how the comedy rises there.”
And Mallory isn’t the only character who comes into conflict with Butler. Despite his high rank in the Union Army, Butler lacks formal military education and training, and his unconventional style is often a source of frustration for his fellow generals and lieutenants.
“He does not come at his job as a Union general from the perspective of a military man; he comes at it from the perspective of a lawyer,” Enright says. “So the way he addresses situations at hand is very much with a lawyer’s eye to things. And that’s good and bad.”
“He has no military knowledge, hardly any,” Thomas adds. “One of the other main characters in the play, Lt. Kelly, is a West Point graduate, and he is exactly what you think of when you think of a soldier, so that balance off of Butler has to be a little galling for him. He’s not sharp. He’s not pointed. He’s not polished. He’s not polite. He’s very smart, but he’s definitely not a military man in any way, shape, or form.”
For Enright, bringing Ben Butler to the stage in Charleston is a unique opportunity to present a work that, while set in the South, is “not told from … inside the South’s perspective.”
“I find plays like this, when they’re done in the South, actually probably have more resonance and relevance than if you saw this play, say, in California or somewhere on the West Coast,” she says. “That’s what gets me excited about a play like this. It is looking at, perhaps, topics that we’ve looked at before but with somebody else’s new and different perspective. It allows you to look at topics with fresh eyes, and that’s what I loved about this play.”