In 1864, a diminutive and unprepossessing general named William Tecumseh Sherman stormed through the South with more than 60,000 Union troops. Even though Sherman had previously supped and socialized in many of the cities he would set ablaze, he rampaged through Georgia and ransacked the Carolinas until the ordinary citizens brutally assaulted therein could barely tell their North from their South.
So what, exactly, was this march? It was, inarguably, many things: the death knell for slavery, the American original sin; a knife in the collective gut of the Confederate rebels; an act of racial emancipation by a racist man who was no emancipationist; a rare American example of the arrival of the most brutal hostility on the civilian home front; an early manifestation of documented and mechanized warfare; an excuse for an eventual politicians' parade; the most egregiously nasty event in a war that pitted brother against brother and from which America was slow to recover, if it can be said to have ever fully recovered at all.
But if you read E.L. Doctorow's 2005 novel "The March," those are not the definitions of the march that stick most readily in the mind. And they are not the primary challenge that Frank Galati, the adapter of the first stage version of "The March," scheduled to premiere Sunday night at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, must face as he attempts to confine this epic novel to an evening and a stage.
In Doctorow's riveting, multivalent telling, Sherman's Union Army was a living, breathing organism — a giant, self-sustaining creature that moved through the South like some unthinkable living monster. Doctorow conjures a variety of characters to tell the story of the march, from displaced, genteel Southerners to freed slaves, and from brave generals to expedient hangers-on who fed from the march like Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage feeds on war. But it is one character, a detached Army surgeon named Wrede Sartorius, who seems picked by the author to define Doctorow's conception.
"Imagine a great, segmented body moving in contradictions and dilations at a rate of twelve or fifteen miles a day, a creature of a hundred thousand feet," this Sartorius dryly observes. "It is tubular in its being and tentacled to the roads and bridges over which it travels. It sends out as antennae its men on horses. It consumes everything in its path. It is an intense organism, this army, with a small brain."
The small brain, of course, belonged to Sherman. But it is Sartorius' huge and profound conception of the march that Galati has been desperately trying to resolve, over a period of years, how to bring to life in a Chicago theater.
"It was a floating world," says Doctorow of Sherman's march. "A nomadic life-form. Therein, all security and stability came not from rootedness to a place but from movement. That's characteristic of war. When you are writing about the past, you are writing about the present, really. Remember, I didn't start writing this book until after George W. Bush had started invading Iraq."
It took a long time for "The March" to come to Steppenwolf. Galati, who had directed (but not adapted) the musical "Ragtime," based on the Doctorow novel of the same name, read "The March" as soon as it was published. "I immediately thought this would work onstage," he says, speaking over coffee one morning. "There are terrific dialogue scenes, and the characters are always moving in and out of each other's lives. There's an epic sweep, but also real human depth."
But the late Sam Cohn, who then was Doctorow's powerful agent at International Creative Management,was hoping that the book would be turned into a Civil War movie. Not that Doctorow has especially been a fan of films based on his novels. There have been five over a period of more than 40 years: "Welcome to Hard Times" (starring Henry Fonda in 1967); "Ragtime" (directed by Milos Forman in 1981); "Daniel" (based on Doctorow's novel "The Book of Daniel" and directed by Sidney Lumet in 1983); "Billy Bathgate" (1991, with Dustin Hoffman as the star) and "Jolene" (2008, starring Jessica Chastain).
"They've all been problematical in my mind," Doctorow says. "It is the nature of film to convey reality. Onstage, you are released of that burden. So it probably makes me happier to see one of my books adapted for the stage than for the movies."
But business is business and although Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey says that when Galati thinks a novel will work on the stage, she has "no doubt whatsoever" that he will be able to do it, the amount of money being asked for the rights was beyond the Steppenwolf budget, especially since this was clearly a show that would require a huge cast. (There are, as things have turned out, 26 actors in the show, from young drummer boys on up.) Galati did a draft of the first act, written in longhand like all his drafts, and then stuck it in drawer. "I never thought," he says, "that it would see the light of day."
But then several things happened. Cohn died in 2009. A movie never was made. And Galati, who was moving (he now lives in Sarasota, Fla., having retired from Northwestern University), found the adaptation in the drawer. The price was better, and Steppenwolf secured financial support from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which had been given a commissioning grant for new plays exploring the American narrative. Most important, Doctorow had read the adaptation and liked it.
"Frank has a very epic idea of theater, and he thinks big," Doctorow says. "I was quite surprised how well he and the others pulled off 'Ragtime.'" I am curious to see what he will do with this. I was pleased that 98 percent of the dialogue in the adaptation came from the book. So there's a surefire hit there."
Doctorow was joking, but the point still was made — the adaptation is true to the novel. A very big novel with characters who come and go, living and dying, falling in and out of the main guts of the story. "The challenge," Galati says, "has been to maintain the crackle of the drama while penetrating the 'interiority' of all these characters."
Or, to put that another way, the march has to move, but still pause long enough to look inside ordinary people's heads.
"I came to realize this was my Russian novel," Doctorow says. "There were no Russian novels about the Civil War, in the sense of having many characters and a lot of action and the ability to go into anyone's minds very intimately."
Aided by Sherman's love of self-documentation and written reflection, Doctorow researched his topic thoroughly. ("He uses a lot of primary sources," Galati says, noting that he realized just how many when he went looking for some sources to help with the production, only to discover that they were already reflected in the novel). Clearly, Doctorow developed a complex relationship with Sherman.
"This particular march was unprecedented in scale," Doctorow says. "Sherman got to do it because he had taken Atlanta and they owed him one. Lincoln really just went along with it. It turned out to be the clincher, because it just took the heart out of the South. Sherman really didn't like black people — in fact, he was something of a racist. His idea of the war wasn't so much about ending slavery but about the notion that the South had committed treason and had to be punished for it. Nothing was further from his mind than doing things for African-Americans."
Nonetheless, the march did a whole variety of things for the slaves of the South — offering freedom for some (there being no master left to serve) and betraying others when the black followers of the march were, on various occasions, abused, gutted, cut loose or even killed off by the very Union forces they were hailing.
"The March" contains many of their stories and adventures, from the "White Negro" Pearl to Colehouse Walker, the ancestor of one of the principal characters in "Ragtime."
And then there are the tales of the white Southerners, often genteel folk who found what must have seemed like murderous American Vikings literally blowing down their doors.
One such character, Letitia Pettibone (played by Lavey) is the woman who sounds the alarm at the beginning of the march through Georgia. He's coming, she cries, and things go badly for the South from there. "From the moment I found Letitia ranting and raving," Doctorow says, "I knew there would be lots of people in this story."
That is an understatement. Galati, who is using a variety of music in the show, calls his latest project "a meditation on a crucible event in American history and the defining crisis." The book, Galati observes, is not unlike "War and Peace" in that "historical characters look over the action, but fictional characters are in the foreground."
Lavey says that this will be one of the biggest shows in Steppenwolf history — it has been years since there were so many actors on its stage, and it has been yet more years, perhaps since"The Grapes of Wrath,"that Galati undertook such a comparable project in the Chicago theater.
And as for the guy who took off and started it all? Who knows what he would make of his place in history? He was certainly one of a kind.
"People are surprised when they find out that Sherman ended up coming to New York and living in the West 70s," Doctorow says. "There is a little park in Central Park called the William Tecumseh Sherman Playground. Kids run around in this place named after one of the great killer generals."
"The March" opens Sunday and runs through June 10 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.; tickets at 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.org
Twitter @ChrisJonesTribCopyright © 2015, RedEye