Legend has it that movie mogul Louis B. Mayer once stated: "If you've got a message, send a telegram." With Past History, a new play written by Arizona State University's Michael Grady and presented at the school's Galvin Playhouse, Western Union would be snowed under.
Past History attempts to draw a parallel between the Manifest Destiny policy of Indians removal and 1950s McCarthyism. If this sounds like a 40-page term paper you once labored on, the challenge of mounting it into a piece of riveting theatre is apparent. In fact, the play comes complete with its own history professor, who spends a great deal of time indulging in histrionics addressed directly to his class--the audience--concerning these and other pet topics.
The characters of Past History serve at the pleasure of the historical conclusions playwright Grady tries to make. The history professor, Joseph Wyman, is conducting research into the life of Major Elihu Augustus Jordan, whose troops were responsible for the massacre of women and children in an Indian camp. Major Jordan frequently returns from the dead to discuss this event with Professor Wyman, but by the end of the long first act, not much has happened. They recite passages at each other in a reverent, droning tone reminiscent of instructional movies one feels obliged to sit through before touring a national monument.
Making up for this dearth of action, intermittently, is the sole female character, a Jewish lesbian English teacher. She also provides the comic relief of the show. She kicks off her shoes, flings about her handbag and demonstrates other funny affectations. Despite the fact that she fits in about as well as a Jewish lesbian would on a 1950s WASP male-dominated university campus, she comes in handy when McCarthyism rears its ugly head and she must face a hearing for perversion.
In the greatest leap of logic the play makes, Professor Wyman--apparently her sole supporter on the staff--goes to Major Jordan's grandson, who happens to be on the university's board of trustees. The younger Jordan already has a big problem with Wyman's research into his grandfather's Indian massacres because he's running for public office. Wyman asks Jordan--who detests him--to stick up for his lesbian friend at the next board meeting. A political candidate in the early 1950s agreeing to support a lesbian teacher? If he had, now that would be something worth writing a play about.
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Oddly enough, the one interested party in all of this who ends up shortchanged is the American Indian. A representative of sorts periodically appears on a mesa above the dirty college politics going on below, intoning references to the massacre. Despite the time warp that allows Wyman to speak to Major Jordan, no one ever asks White Bird how he feels. Since both the Major and his symbolic nemesis descend from the same realm, I kept thinking that as they passed on the stair, so to speak, they might confront each other. But they never did. Past History ends up being a laundry list of the world's ills, juxtaposing the banal with the catastrophic. In any case, none of it is presented in a dramatic context, and if the audience doesn't care about the characters, it won't care about the message, either. Messages aren't theatre. Neither are lectures. If you've got a lecture, find a classroom.