Play Excerpt: Marching Song by Orson Welles and Roger Hill

March 30, 2020
Regarded as a genius from a very early age, you can see the seeds of Citizen Kane and War of the Worlds in this play that Orson Welles co-wrote about abolitionist John Brown, at the ripe old age of 17.

A play of the stirring days just before the civil war, concerning chiefly John Brown, prophet—warrior—zealot—the most dramatic and incredible figure in American history.

The locale of the scene and the tenor of the times are presented before each act by stereopticon slides on a plain traverse curtain. These views, blending into each other with kaleidoscopic effect, depict newspaper headlines and views of the immediate surroundings, ending, in each case, with the exterior of the scene about to be opened. In two instances, there is some action played in front of the final projection.

The orchestra carries popular tunes of the period.

SETTINGS

SCENE I Concord, Massachusetts, 1857

SCENE II The Empire House, Pine City, Kansas, a month later

SCENE III The Empire House

SCENE IV The Empire House

SCENE V A year later, before Colonel Washington’s home on the Washington Estate in Virginia, about five miles from Harpers Ferry

SCENE VI Colonel Washington’s study

SCENE VII A few days later, the parlor, kitchen, and back-porch of Kennedy Farm, John Brown’s headquarters near Harpers Ferry, on the Maryland side

SCENE VIII Several weeks later, the Engine House in the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry

SCENE IX Three days later, The Engine House

SCENE X The passageway before John Brown’s cell in the Charles Town, Virginia, jail

SCENE XI Next morning, December 2, 1859, the Gallows

Every character and every situation in this play is historically accurate.

A passageway in the Town Hall at Concord, Massachusetts. Sketch by Orson Welles.

Scene I

Scene—A passageway in the Town Hall at Concord, Massachusetts, in the year 1857. The scene is mainly taken up with a large entrance, the great double doors of which are closed as the play begins. To the right, Choley Archer lounges against the wall smoking a cigarette, a young newspaperman with a round boyish face and earnest brown eyes.

In the next room, a meeting is in progress, the murmur of voices rises in an excited argument. When the hard-faced, elegantly dressed Boston journalist, Mr. Rufus Wentworth, opens the doors, a voice booms out—

The voice of WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON

(Orotund and pompous)

—of the Negro! The South has dared to call slavery a “Divine Institution.”

Gentlemen, I repeat—slavery is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell! (The murmur of voices grows much louder; then Wentworth closes the door and the sound is muffled.)

WENTWORTH: Well—there seems to be a—difference—in opinion—

ARCHER: What’s it all about?

WENTWORTH: (Stretches and yawns at great length.)—Slavery. (He strolls over to the other side of the door and strikes a lucifer on the wall. Taking the unlit cigar out of his mouth, he looks at Archer.)—and this man—John Brown. (Archer steps to the entranceway and opens one of the doors. Above the angry roar, a new voice is heard, ringing, resonant.)

The voice, (DAVID HENRY THOREAU)

Platitudes, Mr. William Lloyd Garrison! All platitudes!

(The excited rumble grows to a crescendo.)

WENTWORTH: (To Archer) They won’t let you in, I’m telling you.

(A voice distinguishable in the confusion.) Platitudes did you say?

The voice of THOREAU

Certainly, I said platitudes! They’re at a discount in Kansas, believe me! Sharps rifles are at a premium!

ARCHER: (Closing the door—to Wentworth) I can’t understand it. (Throwing away his cigarette.) It’s because I’m a Southerner, I suppose.

WENTWORTH: Well, as a Northerner to a Southerner—is there anything I can explain?

ARCHER: (Perplexed) This is Concord. We’re right in the heart of the most violent anti-slavery sentiment. Every man in there, in that room, is an abolitionist. What in the name of heaven are they fighting over?

WENTWORTH: The old question. How to abolish slavery—with moral persuasion or force. John Brown has raised it again.

ARCHER: Force—what do you mean? Abolition is one thing, but these men are intelligent. They can’t mean war.

WENTWORTH: Of course not. The thing is impossible; you know that as well as I do. Oh, there’re a few that talk about some sort of armed attack. But they just talk. There’s only one man in the world crazy enough to really do anything, and that’s—John Brown.

ARCHER: John Brown. Who is this John Brown?

WENTWORTH: That’s a hard question to answer. Nobody knows exactly. He’s a Kansas fighter. A Free-Stater.

ARCHER: It’s a name to conjure with. I’ve heard it a lot lately.

WENTWORTH: A kind of bogey in Kansas. Just whisper “John Brown” to an army of border ruffians and—Psst!—they’re back in Missouri!

ARCHER: Great warrior, eh?

WENTWORTH: Had some pretty wonderful victories. The stories I’ve heard about him are just like fairy tales. (Laughs) I s’pose some of them are!

ARCHER: He must be a great man.

WENTWORTH: He’s a great fanatic—a lunatic if you ask me. Seems to think the Lord put him into the world ’specially to free the slaves. Long white beard, glittering eyes, you know. Another Moses.

ARCHER: All the same when a man’s a legend even before his death, he has something to offer.

WENTWORTH: Yes? Well, we’ll see tonight, when he makes his speech.

ARCHER: (Looking at his watch.) Half an hour yet.

(The murmuring in the next room continues and then John Henri Kagi comes in, the rarest of all combinations: a cynic and a hero. One remembers clear, wide eyes set well apart in an unusually handsome pallid face delicately molded. The lips are fine, too, full and firm and the mouth is ruled in the long, straight line of the logician and the scientist. Indifferent of dress, almost slovenly, careless of appearance, he handles himself badly, with a deliberate clumsiness. Kagi possesses a harsh manner and an intellectual callousness; seeking to hide a tender spirit, and unselfishness and an infinite capacity of love. He goes up to the door and is about to open it when Wentworth calls to him.)

In a 1931 letter to Roger Hill, Orson writes of his donkey ride in Dublin, Ireland

WENTWORTH: Sorry, mister, I’m afraid they won’t let you in. (Kagi turns to Wentworth, his eyes questioning—) It’s a private meeting.

KAGI: John Brown’s lecture? I thought it was public.

WENTWORTH: It is, but the hall hasn’t been opened yet. This is a meeting of the Concord Chapter of the Kansas Immigration Aid Society.

KAGI: Really?

WENTWORTH:—Or rather a meeting of the officers. They’re to sit on the platform with Brown tonight when he speaks. (A particularly loud burst of noise at this, from the next room.) And there seems to be some disagreement about the endorsement of his policies. You a newspaperman?

KAGI: At times.—I’ve been a correspondent in Kansas.

ARCHER: (Perking up) Kansas! Honestly? Say, I’d like to talk to you. My name’s Archer, I’m from Atlanta,—The Clarion-News. (He extends his hand.)

KAGI: (Taking it) Mine’s Kagi, John Henri Kagi. Glad to know you.

ARCHER:—And Rufus Wentworth of The Boston Transcript. (Kagi and Wentworth shake.) Tell me, Mr. Kagi, what’s the real truth about Kansas?

KAGI: (Smiling) Bleeding Kansas?

ARCHER: That’s right. Atlanta’s a long way off, you know, and so’s Boston. We hear some strange tales.

KAGI: (Gravely) You’ll hear the strangest tale tonight, gentlemen. Well, the story is simple enough. The Territory of Kansas is in a state of Civil War. The South wants it to enter the Union as a slave state and the North, naturally, wants it free.

WENTWORTH: But it’s already decided—by the ballot box. The territory has voted in favour of slavery.

KAGI: There’re two hostile governments operating in Kansas today. One under the constitution adopted at Topeka by the Free-soilers and the other under the Slave Constitution of Lecompton. This latter has the sanction of Washington, at the present time, but the election next November will settle it. Frankly, I can see no fair doubt as to the outcome.—There are twelve thousand settlers in the territory with an honest and legal vote today. Seven thousand of them have been sent by Northern emigration aid societies like this one, all pledged to vote anti. (To Archer) Two thousand have been sent by your societies in the south: The Blue Lodges,—they’ll vote pro. The other three thousand have come of their own volition and are predominantly anti.—And why not? From a purely economic point of view, there’s no excuse for slavery beyond the cotton belt.

ARCHER: Personally, I agree with you.

KAGI:—The last election—the election which gave so much comfort to your people—took place before the arrival of John Brown. At that time, five thousand Missourians armed with pistols and bowie knives and a generous supply of bad whiskey crossed over into Kansas and cast fraudulent proslavery votes. They threatened to shoot the Governor if he dared refuse certificates of election to their candidates. That’s the gospel truth! ’Though I’ll grant you, I’m in no position to give an impartial view of the situation. I’m an anti-slavery fighter myself. More of a fighter than a newspaperman.

WENTWORTH: That’s very interesting. You a follower of this fellow—John Brown?

KAGI: No, not exactly. I’ve tried to join him. But John Brown is elusive, gentlemen. He’s all over the west at once. You can never get at him, (laughs) but always somehow, he can get at you!

ARCHER: Surely, you’ve met him?

KAGI: Once or twice. Never can tell where he’ll turn up. Half the time, he’s traveling with the enemy, in disguise. I followed him up here to Concord and we had a talk this afternoon. I think I’ve a chance now to join his company.

WENTWORTH: You consider that a privilege?

KAGI: (Earnestly) Oh, I do sir. A rare privilege. I can think of no greater.

WENTWORTH: But a zealot—a madman! Perhaps your regard for this fellow is religious. Do you—do you believe in his divinity?

KAGI: In me, gentlemen, you behold the strange spectacle of a rationalist and an atheist—devoted to John Brown not because of his biblical delusions, but in spite of them!

WENTWORTH: (Looking at him.) I can’t understand it.

KAGI: Have you ever met—“this fellow”—John Brown?

WENTWORTH: No—

KAGI: Well, then, of course, you can’t. (The murmuring increases, Kagi turns to the door.) What’s the argument? Who are these people?

ARCHER: (Smiling) The executive committee. An aggregation of the most brilliant minds in America. They’re split right up the back on this new question—the question of endorsing John Brown’s policies.

KAGI: But they’re all abolitionists. They will endorse him of course.

WENTWORTH: Concord isn’t Kansas, Mr. Kagi, and few abolitionists, even the most extreme, sanction John Brown’s unique method of attacking slavery—by armed force. He has one staunch backer, Henry David Thoreau of Walden Pond, and of course, there’re others—men like Garret Smith, willing to finance any of his projects. The pacifists, however, are very much in the majority.

KAGI: I remember something Thoreau once said about that. “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.” (He turns to the doors, opens one of them slightly and peeks in.)

ARCHER: Tell me, Kagi, why is John Brown in Concord, why this lecture?

KAGI: (Without turning) To get money. He’s penniless.

ARCHER: Money for what? The Kansas Campaign?

KAGI: Partly.

WENTWORTH: And what else?

KAGI: (Turning to him. Gravely—) Another campaign. A gigantic plan to free the slaves.

WENTWORTH: Free the slaves?!

ARCHER: What are you talking about Kagi?!

KAGI: I hardly know myself—though I hope to.

ARCHER: But—

KAGI: (With finality) I’m sorry, I can’t go into it. (He turns back to the door. The murmuring continues and the two newspapermen look at one another.)

ARCHER: Just one question Kagi.

KAGI: (Absently) Yes.

ARCHER: Are you joining him? Are you joining Old Brown in this—this “new campaign?”

KAGI: I’m to meet him in Kansas—later in the year.

WENTWORTH: At least you can tell us what—(Suddenly Kagi opens the great doors wide, revealing a bare expanse of wall, obviously an ante-room opening into the meeting hall. Strong light plays on the wall from the other room and we can clearly make out the shadows of a group of men seated at a table. When the doors open the voice of Thoreau drowns out that of Wentworth—)

The Seniors in their formal dinner clothes—picnic dinner. Orson is fourth from the left.

The voice of THOREAU

(The standing shadow gesticulating angrily—)

Legality! I hate the word! You would have Christ dicker with the moneychangers in the Temple when it requires only one strong hand to overturn the tables!

ARCHER: (Coming up behind Kagi, staring through the doorway into the far room which we cannot see.) That’s Henry Thoreau. I heard him speak in Baltimore.

The voice of THOREAU

(Continuing)

Mr. President, I make a motion—that you, this evening, introduce John Brown to our members and to the public, as one having the complete and unequivocal endorsement of our executive committee.

Another voice

Mr. President, I object. Are we to be led by the type of ruffianism we condemn in the Missourians? Heaven forbid. Our policy must first of all be legal and then forceful.

The voice of THOREAU

Legal! The sacking of Lawrence resulted from the call of a “legal” sheriff, legally elected, for “law abiding” citizens to come to his aid. At his call, the town was pillaged by a drunken mob!

The voice of REVEREND GIDDINGS

Mr. Thoreau, we believe in law enforcement and the rights of property, can we honestly assume from John Brown’s record that he will uphold those beliefs?

The voice of THOREAU

On the “sacred rights of property” I imagine, Reverend Giddings, you will find John Brown heretical as myself. And even you or the United States Government will find it hard to convince either of us that one man owns another.

The voice of GIDDINGS

I abhor the law that says it is so, but while it is the law I uphold it.

The voice of THOREAU

Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made? Or declared by any number of men to be good, if they are not good?

The voice of WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON

(His shadow rising.) Mr. President—

The voice of the PRESIDENT

Mr. Garrison?

The voice of WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON

I am afraid Mr. Thoreau is blinded by the personality—the undoubted magnetic personality of this man, John Brown. But we must not allow emotion to overrule reason. John Brown is a great man, a zealot—probably a fanatic, working in a great cause though with sometimes doubtful methods. The suspicion of his hand in the Potawatomi killings is still strong. He will no doubt meet a violent end himself—while we must carry on. We dare not die.

(The shadow sits down)

The voice of THOREAU

Mr. Garrison, I agree with you. John Brown will die—a glorious thought. You and I, gentlemen of this assembly, will never die. We haven’t life enough. We’ll simply run down like a clock. We’ll be merely missing one day. No temple veil will be rent—only a hole dug somewhere. We’ll deliquesce like fungi. Yes, John Brown will die. But I have looked into his soul. I have peered into the mighty chasm of his purpose and glimpsed a spirit that could no more fail than Arnold Winkelried. A million years have gone behind. A million years stretch on before. And standing at this junction of two eternities, standing almost alone, I say, in this world of creeping things is John Brown—a body born to death—glorious death—but a soul to go marching on.

The voice of GIDDINGS

I am unimpressed by Mr. Thoreau’s idealism. I believe with President Buchanan that the acts of the Free Soilers are unlawful and revolutionary. When men resist the government, their acts are treason.

The voice of THOREAU

Is it treason—treason to any government worthy of allegiance when a man forcefully resists the buying and selling of human flesh?

The voice of GIDDINGS

(His shadow rising angrily from the table)

But it is the law!

Another voice

(The shadow jumping to its feet after Giddings) Law is the foundation of our land!

The voice of THOREAU

I care not for lawless Pharisees, but for right. It was law that pronounced Washington a rebel. It was law that excommunicated Copernicus.—It was law that crucified Christ! There is a higher law!

(Confusion—The entire committee is standing. Now a new voice is heard.)

The new voice

Gentlemen!—Gentlemen! (The others are quiet.)

(Somewhere another door opens and the shadows of Thoreau and the rest are faded out as the wall in the ante-room is flooded with a new and even brighter light.)

The new voice

—John Brown!

(A new shadow appears; the shadow of an old man. It covers the whole wall, dominant, as the scene ends.)

Marching Song by Orson Welles and Roger Hill is available on Amazon.

Main Image: Photo of Orson at seventeen inscribed to “The Skipper.”

 

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