American Theatre, 33.3
A comedy about the Civil War? How do you make an episode from our nation’s bloodiest conflict funny? Can a play about America’s history of slavery manage to teach audiences about a neglected part of that history and also get laughs? A Civil War comedy might not be the most obvious idea for a great night out at the theatre in southern Florida. But that’s just what the producers and artistic associates at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota attempted last December when they included Richard Strand’s Butler in their mainstage season. Doubling down on the play, the team at FST also chose Butler as the production which would anchor their annual community forums. It was a big gamble.
Butler – a talky, four-character history play about a crucial moment in the American Civil War – tells the story of Major General Benjamin Butler,later elected to the U.S. Congress, who, in his early days at Fort Monroe in Virginia on the James River, changed the course of the war. When three enslaved men arrived at the base and asked that they be allowed to stay, Butler, who argued that enslaved persons were being used as weapons of war and could therefore be impounded as contraband like ammunition or cannons, allowed them to remain at the fort and work for the Union army rather than return to the Confederates. This action was in direct violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and Butler was understandably nervous about this flagrant lawbreaking. But not only has history vindicated Butler’s slightly contorted legal arguments; in his own time, as the tide of the war changed, President Lincoln himself eventually approved of Butler’s actions, and Union military leaders across the country would come to adopt his policies as their own.