Edgar Lee Masters based his epic collection of poems, Spoon River Anthology, upon the lives of real people he knew, heard about or represented in his legal practice as a public defender. Many of Masters’ characters bore a striking resemblance to his former townspeople in Lewistown and Petersburg, Illinois, and when the collection was published in 1915, it created enormous community unrest and embarrassment.
In 1963, actor and playwright Charles Aidman chose 75 of Masters’ original Spoon River Anthology epitaphs and conceived and directed them, accompanied by musical interludes. The New York Times described this Broadway production as “a glowing theater experience…A brooding and loving American folk poem brought to life on a stage” and the New York Post called it “an evening of astonishingly stirring emotional satisfaction.”
Now celebrating its 100th anniversary, Spoon River Anthology will open at SUNY-Ulster’s Quimby Theater on Thursday, November 19. The play is directed by Richard Cattabiani, adjunct professor in the English Department under the Dean of Faculty Office at SUNY-Ulster.
“Masters became persona non grata. People said, ‘You can’t say that! That’s my mother you’re talking about!’ and he left town and lived in Chicago. The truth can be brutal, and it really shattered the myth of the moral superiority of rural America,” says Cattabiani. “The irony is that Masters published 50 volumes of poetry and fiction, and this is the only one he’s remembered for.”
There’s another irony here that cannot be escaped: Though Spoon River Anthology was banned from Spoon River area schools and libraries until 1974, here at SUNY-Ulster, the stage production is creating a bond among many new members of the college community. The cast boasts 25 members of the faculty, staff and administration (including the college’s new president Alan P. Roberts) as well more than 20 students.
“There are 75 characters, 93 costume changes, 121 light cues, 54 music cues – and all of it comes together and we’re having a wonderful time. The parts each person plays are like beads on a string or a necklace, strung together with musical interludes,” says Cattabiani, who massaged the play a bit to suit the talents of the school community of actors and musicians. “Aidman suggested music, and we’ve tripled it in our production, using a wide selection of traditional folksongs, Americana and classical music.”
“I am humbled by the quality of the musicianship we are presenting here, from classical repertoire to Woody Guthrie,” says Cattabiani. “Anastasia Sohlberg [Director of SUNY-Ulster’s String Ensemble] has an international reputation. Listening to her play violin or fiddle…it’s the same instrument, just a different attitude, from a Bach suite to ‘Jimmy Crack Corn.’ Her range and versatility never cease to amaze me.” Iain Machell, chair of the Art, Design, Music, Theater and Communications Department, and student David Kahen round out a trio of talented multi-instrumentalists who play banjo, dobro, harmonica, guitar, violin, viola and bodhran, offering deeper cultural context to spoken-word performances.
This production of Spoon River Anthology is a fundraiser for SUNY-Ulster’s Academic Travel program, an umbrella for both domestic and international student travel programs. As a younger man, Cattabiani received a Fulbright Scholarship, and the experience showed him that Americans are often very insular. Following completion of his scholarship, he and his young family lived in Europe for some time while he taught and lectured in England, Scotland and Germany. Cattabiani also taught at New Paltz High School for more than 30 years before beginning his career at SUNY-Ulster. After a few years at SUNY-Ulster, he approached former President Donald Katt about initiating the International Programs to bring the college into global citizenship.
“This past July, ten years later, I retired from my position as Director of International Programs, and it’s thriving. Since the average age of our college students is 28 or 29, most of them are gainfully employed or are parents. They can’t go abroad for a semester, and our two-week short-term study-abroad programs work well. I think we have an ethical obligation to try to provide the wherewithal for people to go to the Amazon to study Neotropical Biology or to take a sketchbook tour of Italy and visit all the museums they’ve only read about, or to attend the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky in the spring. If students are only $200 or $300 short of the experience of a lifetime, by working together, we can make sure they have the opportunity to continue their education. I think there is no nobler cause,” he says.
Cattabiani says that the restructuring that occurred following Katt’s retirement provided a “perfect opportunity to build a community again with a new President, a new Dean and new faculty. We have 25 faculty members, from almost all departments, involved in this production. That’s something that has never happened at this school, and it’s my proudest moment.”
Spoon River Anthology is often described as a rather bleak, somber and even regretful collection of 274 poems about small-town life. After all, it is a series of posthumously delivered epitaphs that reveal the dramas and secrets that the townspeople of this rural community have carried with them to their graves. But Cattabiani has another take on it: “It’s authentic. We have found the humor in just about every character, and I challenge you to say the things that are traditionally ascribed to this play after you see it.”
Reliance upon the Seven Deadly Sins – pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth – for subject matter has ensured that Masters’ 1915 work of art has remained vital and true to the human condition. And by “breaking the rules” about poetry, Masters helped create the free-form verse, a format championed by other masters like Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay and even Bob Dylan. “When I was a young musician listening to Bob Dylan,” says Cattabiani, who is also an accomplished songwriter and keyboardist, “I thought, ‘Oh, I can do that. You just have to have a decent idea, a good simile or metaphor, and three chords.’ Spoon River Anthology is durable in the same way: It shows us how to tell an authentic story without getting bogged down in the rules. Americans, generally speaking, don’t like rules.
“Joining together for this common goal of presenting Spoon River Anthology has been worthy of our effort. I wouldn’t do a production like this if it wasn’t going to be fun, and I’ve loved every minute. When people started studying their parts, some of them were only 16 lines long, and they were surprised that all those emotions could be conveyed. When you read a book or anthology, it takes on a whole new life as a film or a play. There’s a magical transformation when people get together like this. It will be a satisfying experience.”
Or, to paraphrase the epitaph by “Fiddler Jones” in Spoon River Anthology, the audience – and the cast – may expect to “end up with a thousand memories and not a single regret.”
Spoon River Anthology, Thursday-Sunday, November 19-22, 7 p.m., Sunday, November 22, 2 p.m., $10 per person, Quimby Theater, SUNY-Ulster, 491 Cottekill Road, Stone Ridge; (845) 687-5000, https://www.sunyulster.edu.