Six Degrees of (Literary) Separation

My home town is sometimes known as the ‘Gateway to Appalachia.’ For me, Appalachia is an incredible, amazing, marvelous place. It is quintessentially American, and home to a culture bursting with unique story telling, linguistic traditions, and even better music. Appalachia is also enormous geographically; it is both a culture and a mountain range. The cultural region stretches from northern Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to beyond the Pennsylvania and New York state border.  The mountain range is even bigger.  It is very hard to get away from Appalachia if you live in the Eastern U.S.A. Though who would want to, if you ask me.  In the city of Pittsburgh we are close  enough to West Virginia, the heart of Appalachia, to regularly attend performances of all kinds in our neighboring state.

I really enjoy attending annual performances of Shakespeare’s work at festivals like ‘The Bard of Appalachia’ and ‘The Appalachian Shakespeare Project.’ The acting, directing is superb. The staging, influenced by local culture,  is always clever and enhances enjoyment of the play.  Open air performance, and the enthusiasm of the audience, makes an exceptional theatre experience. The audience really notices the effects of nature in Shakespeare’s plays when they are staged in the wild, rural West Virginia countryside. At first it seems a little incongruous, but finally proves there is a true literature lover in every mountain ‘holler.’

Sitting on a blanket in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains while watching Shakespeare performed is terribly romantic. West Virginia is wild and romantic like a ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ landscape. The rugged mountains and waterfalls framing a staging of ‘A Mid Summer Night’s Dream’ is quite a juxtaposition to the abandoned coal mining towns.  Shakespeare has been one of my grand obsessions while studying in the University of London International Programmes, so I was surprised and pleased to find these interesting productions.

But why produce one Shakespeare play each year in this remote corner of West Virginia? Don’t get me wrong, I am very glad that they do. There is just so much drama and performance art to choose from, such a rich local culture, and a small audience. Maybe it is the local traditions of the feuding ‘Hatfield’s and the McCoys’, or the ‘Wild Whites’ that are reminiscent of Shakespeare’s device of dramatic feuds. I will think about that; and about the web of texts and narrative that make up the tradition of English literature, its interpretation, and its wide range of influence in the cultures, societies, and people they touch.

I had a long time to think about this on the drive from Vermont to West Virginia. My husband and I read to each other while we drive. On this trip we read ‘The Last of the Mohicans’. Along the way we visited Ft. Ticonderoga near Lake Champlain and Lake George, the country that James Fenimore Cooper uses to great effect in the text. Rumor has it The Earl of Derby suggested the location to him as a setting for a romance while they were visiting the area together.  To me, the text’s action is very similar to the actual history of Fort Ticonderoga, including its dramatic surrender by Vermont’s hero, Ethan Allen.  Fenimore Cooper has been another of my grand obsessions this year. Did you know his father’s family came to America from Stratford – upon -Avon? Fenimore Cooper’s father emigrated to America only 63 years after Shakespeare’s death. Their people must have known one another.

James Fenimore Cooper’s  ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ influenced many American generations’ perception of their national identity.  It is interesting to sit under the stars and consider how a small, rural, contemporary American community now stages Shakespeare’s drama to explore their own unique American identity.  It’s like ‘Six Degrees of (literary) Separation.’ By the way, did you know James Fennimore Cooper and John Guare both attended Yale?

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