Pontine Opens THE COMMON HEART, 4/26
Pontine Theatre is celebrating its 35th Anniversary this season with a new production based on New England's Transcendental Movement of the 1830's and 40's. The Common Heart: A Transcendental Revue, premieres 26 April - 12 May at Pontine's West End Studio Theatre, 959 Islington St, Portsmouth NH. Performances are Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm, and Sundays at 2pm. There is an additional 8pm performance scheduled for Saturday 27 April. Tickets are $24 and may be purchased online: www.pontine.org.
Pontine's original works are based on the idea that the actor is the principal artist of the theatre and that, therefore, the actor should make the decisions for all aspects of the production. Pontine's two-person ensemble serves not only as actors but as playwright, director, and designer. The actors perform all the research for Pontine's original productions.
Each season, Pontine mounts an Annual Performance Season at their Portsmouth venue, the West End Studio Theatre where they present Pontine's original productions and those of Guest Artists
The company also presents their work on tour throughout New England. Pontine has a special interest in serving the cultural needs of senior citizens residing at assisted living facilities. The company also offers presentations through the New Hampshire Humanities Council's "Humanities to Go Program," at Libraries, Historical Societies and Museums.
The Common Heart: A Transcendental Revue, is about the New England Transcendentalist movement of the 1830's and '40's. Transcendentalism is often called the first truly American school of philosophy and works by its disciples are still widely read today. In researching the piece the company looked at both the literature of the time and at scholarly works by contemporary authors.
In compiling their original scripts, the company works exclusively from historical sources. These included essays and poetry by the transcendentalists themselves, as well as excerpts from their personal correspondence and journal entries. In addition, the script draws from a wide variety of essays and articles by people involved in the movement who later wrote reminiscences and memoirs which were either privately published, or which appeared in journals and magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly.
The resulting play, titled The Common Heart: A Transcendental Revue, is organized as a group of portraits of three different communities: the town of Concord, MA, and two different utopian communities -- one located in Harvard MA and the other on the outskirts of Boston in West Roxbury.
The play begins in Concord, Massachusetts, home of the most famous Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Born in 1803, he was a unitarian minister, educated at Harvard, who came to disagree with the church's methods. In 1832 he resigned from the ministry, writing in his journal: "I have thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers."
After his resignation, Emerson toured Europe. He went to Paris where he visited the Jardin des Plantes. Emerson was moved by the organization of plants according to a system of classification. This gave him an insight into the interconnectedness of things which he described as a moment of visionary intensity.
When he returned to Boston in 1833, he made the first of what would eventually be some 1,500 lectures. In this lecture titled, The Uses of Natural History in Boston he set out some of his important beliefs and the ideas he would later develop in his first published essay Nature:
"Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word. I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue."
In 1834 Emerson moved to Concord where he quickly became one of the leading citizens in the town; he was known as "The Sage of Concord." In 1836, He published his essay, Nature. He also began meeting with other like-minded intellectuals. This was the beginning of the Transcendental Club which served as a center for the movement.
Emerson believed that all things are connected to God and, therefore, all things are divine. His views suggested that God does not have to reveal the truth but that the truth can be intuitively experienced directly from nature. In his essay, Nature, Emerson says:
"In the presence of nature a wild delight runs through man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, he is my creature and, despite all his griefs, he shall be glad with me. In the woods, man casts off his years and, at whatever point of life, is a child again. In the woods is perpetual youth. In the woods we return to faith and reason. There, I feel, nothing can befall me, no disgrace or calamity, which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed in blithe air and uplifted into infinate space, all egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of Universal Being circulate through me. I am part and particle of God."
Emerson became a magnet for other like-minded ministers and philosophers and reformers. One of the better-known recruits to the Concord community was Nathaniel Hawthorne. He became involved with the Transcendentalists through his association with the Peabody's of Boston. Elizabeth Peabody operated a book store there which was meeting place for the young intellectuals of Harvard. Hawthorne would later marry Elizabeth's sister, Sophia, and move with her to Concord
Another Transcendentalist within Emerson's circle of friends was Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May. He was an ardent educational reformer who founded a prominent experimental school in Boston. He was initially quite successful, attracting students from some of Boston's leading families. Alcott believed in the Socratic method and sought to teach his students by leading them in structured conversations and debates, instead of cramming their heads with facts and figures. He began to ran afoul of parents when he allowed his students too much freedom of thought on religious matters, and lost almost all of his pupils when he insisted on taking an African American student into his classroom. Penniless, he turned to Emerson, who found lodging for the Alcott family in Concord.
One of Concord's most famous native sons, Henry David Thoreau, became a young member of the Transcendentalist circle. His father made a modest living manufacturing pencils, a business which he handed down to his children. Thoreau also made his living as a surveyor. His intellectual and spiritual life were deeply inspired by his life-long friendship with Emerson, who encouraged him in his writings and lectures. It was in Emerson's woodlot, on the shores of Walden Pond, that Thoreau built his famous hut and wrote the essays that would become "Walden." When, after two years of living in the woods, Thoreau decided to leave his hut, he moved into the Emerson household. Thoreau and Emerson both found great spiritual satisfaction exploring the woods and waterways around Concord. The Common Heart includes a poignant description by Emerson of a canoe trip he took with Thoreau.
The good river-god has taken the form of my valiant Henry Thoreau here, and introduced me to the riches of his shadowy, starlit, moonlit stream, a lovely new world lying as close, and yet as unknown, to this vulgar trite one of streets and shops, as death to life, or poetry to prose. Through one field we went to the boat, and then left all time, all science, all history behind us, and entered into nature with one stroke of a paddle. Take care, good friend! I said, as I looked west into the sunset overhead and underneath, and he, with his face towards me rowed towards it. Take care; you know not what you do, dipping your wooden oar into this enchanted liquid, painted with all reds and purples and yellows, which glows under and behind you. Presently this glory faded, and the stars came and said, Here we are. These beguiling stars, soothsaying, flattering, persuading, who, though their promise was never yet made good in human experience, are not to be contradicted, not to be insulted, nay, not even to be disbelieved by us. All experience is against them, yet their word is Hope.
With financial support from Emerson, Bronson Alcott left Concord in 1842, to visit England. He met an admirer, Charles Lane, leader an experimental school based on Alcott's educational methods located outside of London. Bronson Alcott persuaded Lane and his son to return with him to the United States.
Lane and Alcott collaborated on a major expansion of their educational theories into a Utopian society. Alcott, however, was in debt and could not purchase the land needed for their planned community. In the spring of 1843 however, Lane managed to purchase a farm in Harvard MA. Charles Lane and his son, and Bronson Alcott along with his wife and childen, were joined by a handful of other Transcendentalists at the newly purchased farm which they optimistically named "Fruitlands"
Their goal was to regain access to Eden by finding the correct formula for perfect living. They were influenced by the Transcendental ideas of God as a world spirit. The members of Fruitlands believed that spiritual regeneration was linked to physical health.
According to an article published in 1842 in The Pioneer Magazine:
Alcott maintains that the evils of life are not so much social or political as personal, and that a personal reform only can eradicate them; that self-denial is the road to eternal life, and that property is an evil, and animal food of all kinds an abomination. No animal substance, neither flesh, fish, butter, cheese, eggs, nor milk, are allowed to be used at 'Fruitlands.' They are all denounced as pollution, and as tending to corrupt the body, and through that the soul. Tea and coffee, molasses and rice, are also prohibited, - the last two as foreign luxuries, - and only water is used as a beverage.
Mr. Alcott will not allow the land to be manured, which he regards as a base and corrupting and unjust mode of forcing nature. He makes also a distinction between vegetables which aspire or grow into the air, as wheat, apples, and other fruits, and the base products which grow downwards into the earth, such as potatoes, beets, radishes, and the like. These latter he will not allow to be used. The bread of the Community he himself makes of unbolted flour, and seeks to render it palatable by forming the loaves into the shapes of animals and other pleasant images. He is very strict, rather despotic in his rule of the Community.
One of the Fruitlanders took it into his head that clothes were an impediment to spiritual growth, and that the light of day was equally pernicious. He accordingly secluded himself in his room in a state of nature during the day and only went out at night for exercise, with a single white cotton garment reaching from his neck to his knees, which he was reluctantly persuaded to wear as a concession to the prejudices of the populace. At first his appearance in this guise stalking over the fields and hillsides caused great commotion among the country people, who naturally took him for a ghost, and one or two occasions turned out in force and gave chase till they had captured him and ascertained his quality.
The Fruitlands experiment ended only seven months after it began in December 1843.
While social and religious reform were a central concern for all of the Transcendentalists, there was little agreement about how such reform should be approached. Emerson and Thoreau both believed that it was an individual responsibility, while Alcott felt that his community would act as a beacon and example for other utopian efforts. Another such effort was undertaken in 1841 by George and Sophia Ripley at Brook Farm in West Roxbury.
The Rev. George Ripley was a Unitarian minister who sought to build an egalitarian community with a strong educational purpose. He settled on a farm because he believed in the spiritual benefit of honest physical labor. He also established a school, because he believed that the future of reform rested on cultivating the next generation.
Ripley looked to eliminate distinctions of class at Brook Farm by engaging a broad range of people in both physical and intellectual pursuits. The idea was that the intellectuals would benefit from getting their hands dirty, while the working class members would be elevated by being engaged in conversation and debate by their more cultivated counterparts.
Brook Farm started with about 20 members. Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the original members. The community grew rapidly and lasted about six years. At its peak, it had over 100 members, and was, by all accounts, an extremely pleasant place to live. There was none of the aestheticism of Alcott's "Fruitlands."
The Brook Farmers were all involved in both farming and educational activities, but each member had a great deal of freedom to choose the work that appealed most. They lived in various buildings about the property and ate communally at the original farmhouse, which was known as "The Hive." There are many stories of concerts, picnics, theatrical evenings, games of charades and tableaus, and so forth. Because there were so many young people on The Farm, the general atmosphere was one of gaiety, fun and adventure.
However, the venture was underfunded from the start. It was set up as a corporation, with investors who owned shares and expected a return. When he failed to find enough capital from investors, Ripley used loans to get The Farm going, and he never managed to get out from under the debt. After several years, the Brook Farmers decided to add industries and bring in tradespeople, in an effort to turn a profit. The set up a shoe shop, manufactured Britannia ware, set up a printing shop and sash and blind factory. In order to house these new members and industries, they borrowed heavily and undertook a major construction project. Before the new building was completed, it caught fire and burned to the ground. The community never recovered and slowly dissolved.
Although Brook Farm failed after six years, it was a emblem of the aspirations of the Transcendentalists and served as a prime example of the possibilities for social reform. The community was written about extensively and widely visited; one year they had over 4,000 visitors. Many members of the community went on to join other efforts at social and political reform. One former member wrote a eulogy exemplifying the legacy of Brook Farm.
Brook Farm was like a city set on a hill. It was a small, glimmering light of social truth, shining amid universal darkness. It was a dim foregleam of the great sun of social life and science, that will yet rise and shine gloriously on our earth. It was a spark of that divine justice that, like electricity, has been stored for humanity from the beginning of things-abundant in quantity and power to bless all men-stowed away by the hand of God for us, awaiting only our awakening from the sleep of ignorance, to use and cherish it. It was a realization of poetry. It was in touch with the wishes, hopes and prayers of humanity; and its mission was the highest on earth-universal justice to all mankind.
Despite failures in practical application, the ideas of the Transcendentalists continue to inspire readers and thinkers. They speak to many concerns that are at the forefront of current social debate: environmentalism, industrialization, and capitalism, to name but a few.
The Transcendentalists celebrated the American experiment of individualism and self-reliance. They took progressive stands on women's rights, abolition, reform, and education. They criticized government, organized religion, laws, social institutions, and industrialization. They honored the American "state of mind" through their faith that all would be well because humans could transcend limits and reach astonishing heights. In his essay, Nature, Emerson exhorts us to believe in our own innate power and to create our own reality:
The misery of man appears like childish petulance, when we explore the provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens. What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, the ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between? this zodiac of lights, this tent of dropping clouds, this striped coat of climates, this fourfold year? Beasts, fire, water, stones, and corn serve man. The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed.
The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain fees the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulation of divine charity nourishes man.
To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone. The tradesman comes out of the din of the street, and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. In their eternal calm he finds himself.
Let us look at the world with new eyes. Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you the phenomenon is perfect. All that Adam had, all the Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobbler's trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar's garret. Yet line for line, point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs. Build, therefore, your own world.