On July 2, 1863, Confederate General Longstreet’s divisions swept toward the left flank of the Union line anchored on Cemetery Ridge and resting precariously in the Peach Orchard, Wheat Field, and Little Round Top. As the story goes, Colonel Chamberlain and the 20th Maine saved the Union from destruction with their bayonet charge.
That account, recorded and possibly embellished by Chamberlain himself, became a focal point in Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel The Killer Angels. And it is a climax in the 1993 Ted Turner film Gettysburg, starring Jeff Daniels as the hero of the hour on Little Round Top. Positively, the book and movie have sparked interested in the Civil War and prompted folks to visit Gettysburg and, hopefully, explore beyond the presentation in the novel and movie.
It’s wonderfully fascinating how novels, movies, and other forms of entertainment can start a life-long interest in the Civil War. And that’s why I was intrigued earlier in the year when I received an email announcement for the premiere performances for a new stage play, The Killer Angels: Soldiers of Gettysburg. I responded to Brian Newall, the scriptwriter and director, with further inquiries. Then I called some friends who participate in Civil War living history and have been influential in Gazette665’s conferences. Were they interested in seeing this play? (I didn’t want to go by myself; it’s so much more fun to go to the theater with friends!)
One Saturday afternoon in June, we climbed into the car and headed for downtown Fullerton, California. We dined at a wonderful Italian restaurant and browsed in vintage stores before heading to Maverick Theater for the evening performance. From the outside, the theater looks like a warehouse and with a little trepidation, we entered…and found ourselves in a comfortable lobby. We picked up our tickets from the friendly staff at the box office and looked through the program as we waited.
The first thing we noticed in the cast list? Almost all the characters were officers – generals or staff officers. This was going to be a high-command view of Gettysburg through the words of Michael Shaara since the script was based entirely on the famous novel (with permission from the Shaara family, of course). We also learned that Maverick Theater was designed to have a welcoming, local appeal and it’s plain decor and secretive outside is purposely reminiscent of the “speak-easy” days from the 1920’s Prohibition Era.
When the curtain to the seating area opened, we entered a darkened room with two stages and a raised walkway dividing the room. The stage curtains were pulled back, and each side had a plain wooden chair and a few small props. We choose seats right in front of the raised walkway and enjoyed the recorded Civil War era background music, joking quietly about the lyrics for the different tunes. The theater has a close, intimate feel, and during the play the actors didn’t use microphones, presenting their lines as if the audience were their troops or they ignored the audience to wrestle with their own character conflicts.
The packed theater waited in hushed expectation as the music faded and the lights dimmed. A soldier appeared, unfurling a flag into the spotlight and revealing the text on the banner: Killer Angels.
“This is really happening,” I thought. “They’ve brought this Civil War novel to the stage. I’m in a theater that’s sold out, and from overhearing the conversations, a lot of these folks are here for the artistic drama and have little interest in the Civil War. What an opportunity to introduce them to some of the stories from Gettysburg!”
The story-line unfolded according to the novel (and similar to the movie), as would be expected. Although it is history and a story that I know well, I focused on the drama as skilled actors presented their interpretations of Civil War commanders – Longstreet, Lee, Buford, the Chamberlain brothers. Other characters included the Scout Harrison, Buster Kilrain, General Reynolds, Colonel Fremantle, General Armistead, and Major Sorrel. With no scenery and limited props, the drama relied on the actors’ talents to recreate the conflicts between the leaders and battlefield challenges. Special lighting, stage smoke, and sound effects added to the theatrical presentation.
Gettysburg was a battle, and you must be wondering: “how did they manage the battle scenes?” Innovatively! You’re just going to have to come to California to see it. Chamberlain’s speeches had the audience ready to enlist, and the Little Round Top defense and charge had everyone on the edge of their seats. I don’t usually cry in movies and entertainment, but actor Brock Joseph’s portrayal of Longstreet standing motionless and weeping during Pickett’s Charge got me a little teary-eyed.
I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, but I will say Tom Chamberlain makes some fascinating relevant statements while holding a captured battleflag. Later, the entire cast finishes with a rousing and patriotic tribute, celebrating American history…then the lights dim, and you’re left applauding the creative, modern way Brian Newall and these actors brought the historical past to the stage.
From May 5 – June 24, 2017, The Killer Angels introduced aspects of Civil War history, leadership, and conflict to the Southern California audience. Every show sold-out, and Maverick Theater will present an extended run of the Gettysburg program this autumn. September 1-24, 2017, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 6pm. Get your tickets earlier if you plan to attend!
Were there details that bugged the historian in me? Were there things my friends and I debated as we drove away? Sure – I can’t lie. However, setting aside the historian judgement and seeing this production for what it truly is – entertainment – allows me to appreciate the effort, talent, and message of The Killer Angels: Soldiers of Gettysburg. It’s about presenting a little slice of history – crafted in its Longstreet and Chamberlain version of the battle. It’s about elevating American heroes. It’s about questioning what you’re fighting for. It’s about leadership, loss, and triumph. It’s about an American struggle for freedom.
I left impressed. I left the theater, hoping that the audience members would be inspired to learn about American History, Civil War history. Sometimes it takes creativity and innovation to create new students of the past.