Dramaturg's Notes [download]
Declarations of Identity
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (US Declaration of Independence). This declaration is arguably one of the most powerful ever written into a country’s founding document. The only problem with this statement is that, for many throughout our brief history, a gross imbalance exists between the words and reality. Scott Kaiser’s play, Splittin’ the Raft, confronts these issues directly. Kaiser challenges society’s ideals of equality not only through the precarious balance of the slave/master relationship, but also by virtue of the idea that our very identities determine how equally we should be treated.
In chapter ten of his Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Frederick Douglass recounts how he confronted his master’s slave driver, Edward Covey. In the midst of a brutal beating, weak and physically ill, Douglass recounts, "at that moment-from whence came the spirit I don't know-I resolved to fight" (187). Douglass fought back. Covey called for other slaves nearby to help him; they refused. After fighting for what Douglass described as “nearly two hours,” Covey relented and backed down (188). At that pivotal moment, Douglass realized that the only power his masters had over him was the expectation that slaves would be docile and tractable. Once the slave realizes that he can fight back, the master becomes powerless. Angela Davis, activist and feminist scholar, translates this liminal scene beautifully. She explains, “the master is always on the verge of becoming the slave and the slave is always on the verge of becoming the master” (Davis 81). This encounter with Covey showed Douglass that one of his greatest hurdles to reaching freedom was the psychology (or identity) of being a slave.
This event plays a critical part in Douglass’ own escape to freedom. It is crucial to understand this connection between Douglass and Jim in the play because the crux of the action revolves around Jim’s own flight from slavery. Knowing Douglass’ journey helps us to understand why both he and Jim are portrayed by the same actor. They are, essentially, synonyms of each other, and scenes written by Kaiser, such as the one at the end of Act I when Huck teaches Jim the alphabet, are a reflection of their similarities. This particular event never happens in Twain’s original novel, but its addition to the play helps to illustrate Douglass’ unending fight to educate himself and others because only when he becomes educated can he be truly free. Jim is a fictitious character; Douglass is not, but stories like this bring both of them to life and make them more real than if Kaiser had simply cut and pasted Douglass in between scenes from Twain’s book. This technique gives each man a tangible identity with which audience members can empathize. Neither slave is meant to be a caricature at any moment; hence the inclusion of scenes which make Jim’s experience more authentic.
This idea of creating authentic identities for the characters in the play has more significant implications than simply making them seem more “realistic.” Kaiser’s goal is to confront societal acceptance of what are considered normative identity traits. This is (partly) why he imagines a female actress playing the part of Huck, who is a young boy, and why Aunt Sally, who is a white slave owner in Twain’s novel, is portrayed by a black woman in Kaiser’s play. He wants to break down the audience’s concept of codified social norms and arrive at the simple truth that, in his words, “people are just people” (Kaiser). Feminist critic Elin Diamond frames Kaiser’s larger, more complex idea of identity through Bertolt Brecht’s lens of historic authenticity: “The actor must not lose herself in the character but rather demonstrate the character as a function of particular socio-historical relations, a conduit of particular choices” (81). This concept of what Brecht calls defamiliarization allows the actor to slip a character’s identity on and off without losing sight of the actor himself, and frees them to make objective choices that facilitate greater communitas with the audience.
In Twain’s time, nonconformity was a thing met with disdain at best and violence at worst. Today, it has become the norm for many to break from traditional identity codes. The contemporary American idea of the self has become more pervasive than the collective. In America, people identify themselves based on what sets them apart from everyone else, as opposed to what makes them like the rest of society. This does not mean simply what a person’s individual goals and desires are, but also how he chooses to express himself. In the nineteenth century, this was a much more radical concept. Huck and Jim both broke the rules when they escaped their respective bonds, both established laws as well as the implicit social tenets which guided society at that time. Twain did not intend his characters to be aware of the irony of their situation. However, to audiences their actions encourage a rejection of the norm and demonstrate that the only way to effect change is to break the rules.
The idea of individual identity is still a novel concept, given the whole of human history. However, the ability to express one’s own self fully without fear of reprisal (or violence) is an inherently necessary ingredient of true equality for everyone, so long as it does not harm others. From distinct (and tenuous) social roles such as master and slave to the more intangible idea that equality means the freedom to be different from others, identity is still something we must learn to balance between ourselves and each other. It is not an accident that in the play it is children in school who recite the famous, if specious, words of the Declaration of Independence noted at the beginning of this essay. We are, after all, a young country, and while we have not carved a perfect past for ourselves, the fact that we are here today proves that we desire to continue toward a better future. We still struggle toward true equality, but with enough Hucks and Jims to light the way, we will achieve the goals our founders envisioned so many years ago.
—Melissa L. Harvey, Dramaturg
Davis, Angela Y. "Lectures On Liberation." Lecture. Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature. UCLA, Los Angeles. 1969. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself: A New Critical Edition. San Francisco: City Lights, 2009. 41-84. Print.
Diamond, Elin. "Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Towards a Gestic Feminist Criticism." 1988. Performance Analysis: An Introductory Coursebook. Ed. Colin Counsell and Laurie Wolf. London: Routledge, 2001. 77-85. Print.
Douglass, Frederick, and Angela Y. Davis. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself: A New Critical Edition. San Francisco: City Lights, 2009. Print.
Kaiser, Scott. "Greetings and Questions from KSU's /Splittin' the Raft/ Dramaturg." Message to the author. 26 May 2011. E-mail.
Kaiser, Scott. Splittin' the Raft. Ashland, 2007. Print.