[Note: This article was originally published at Acceity.org on 12 May 2011 and was revised and expanded with new sources on 18 June 2012].
The announcement in the New York Times on October 9, 1917, was straightforward and short: “WISCONSIN PLAYERS COMING.” The amateur acting company from Milwaukee, which had been at the vanguard of the American Little Theatre Movement for the better part of a decade, was about to make its East Coast debut.
In bringing the Wisconsin Players to New York, producer Laura Sherry was doing her small part to turn the world of theatre inside out. Before 1910, New York had practically controlled the American stage. A handful of businessmen had held the nation’s theatres in the grasp of their Theatrical Syndicate, which pushed safely profitable productions from New York across the country while locking out competitors.1 Laura Sherry and the Wisconsin Players represented something different: the Little Theatre, an emerging national movement of non-commercial and non-professional drama. It was now time for the actors and writers of the Midwest to bring their ideas to Manhattan.
Laura Case Sherry, whom the New York Times called “the guiding spirit” of the Wisconsin Players,2 had experienced the theatre from both sides — big and little, commercial and amateur. Born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1876, Laura Case’s parents were Emily Avery and Lawrence Case, owner of the small town’s leading general store. Her parents’ position afforded Laura an education at the University of Wisconsin and the school of speech at Northwestern University. From there she went to study theatre in Chicago and at last New York, where in 1897 she joined the Richard Mansfield Company as an actress and toured the country as a cast member in several plays, including Mansfield’s famous production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.3 Mansfield, then an opponent of the Theatrical Syndicate, spoke frequently against its stranglehold on the stage, even assailing syndicate bosses inside their own theatres.4 Though Mansfield’s own self-interest later led him to soften his resistance, his early opposition to the centralized commercial theatre must have made an impression on young Laura Case.
At the start of the twentieth century, Case settled back into Wisconsin life. She married Edward P. Sherry, a lumber and paper tycoon from Neenah, and the couple made a home in Milwaukee. There, Mrs. Sherry set to work gathering a club of like-minded theatre devotees and performers.5 The group held meetings and rehearsals in the homes of members, and on April 21, 1909, the amateur troupe staged the one-act Irish drama Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge at the Davidson Theater in Milwaukee.6 The Irish play was fitting, for the Little Theatre movement in America would draw much of its inspiration from a tour of the United States by the Irish Players in 1911 — but Sherry’s troupe performed Riders to the Sea years before the Irish Players’ visit, demonstrating their foundational role among the nation’s community theaters.7
The nascent Milwaukee association soon gained the support of University of Wisconsin English professor Thomas Dickinson. Unable to produce plays at the university in a time when theatre was not deemed a proper academic subject, Dickinson founded the Wisconsin Dramatic Society in Madison in 1910 and organized a company of players by 1911.8 Dickinson and the Madison group worked closely with Sherry and her Milwaukee compatriots from the start, so that the two associations quickly became branches unified in a statewide society.9 The Wisconsin Players had now been born in earnest.
Buried deep in southwest Wisconsin, beneath a granite monument at the hamlet of Hazel Green, lies the body of a great nineteenth century student. His works in language, literature, and science have shaped our culture to the present day, yet these contributions are nearly as forgotten now as the name of their maker: James Gates Percival. As a poet, Percival was put to music by Edward Elgar. As a linguist, he was a leading contributor to the original Webster’s Dictionary. As a geologist, he compiled the first surveys of two U.S. states: Connecticut and Wisconsin. These accomplishments are now lost among the tomes of dusty archives, for in Percival’s own words:
What’s earth, what’s life, to space, eternity?
‘Tis but a flash, a glance—from birth to death;
And he, who ruled the world, would only be
Lord of a point—a creature of a breath;
And what is it to gain a hero’s name,
or build one’s greatness on the rabble’s roar?
‘Tis but to light a feeble, flickering flame,
That shines a moment, and is seen no more.
James Gates Percival was born in Berlin, Connecticut, on September 15, 1795. He entered Yale College at age 16, already captive to the pursuit of poetry. Percival’s early life, however, was seldom easy. His father had died before James reached his teen years, and at Yale, Percival was so derided by his peers for his poetic ambitions that he left the college in 1812 and employed himself as a farmer for a year before gathering the resolve to finish school.
Returning to Yale, Percival engrossed himself in his studies and avoided society. One classmate noted that “I never knew one who could acquire correct knowledge quicker than Percival,” and another observed, “I think he had few acquaintances in college, though I never knew that he had any enemies. The fact that his intercourse was so circumscribed was doubtless to be attributed to constitutional reserve, and not to the consciousness of his own superiority. Everybody looked upon him as a good-natured, sensitive, thoughtful, odd, gifted fellow.”
After graduating in 1815, Percival continued to expand his knowledge. He embarked as a private tutor; then sought and obtained a degree in medicine at Yale. The young doctor, however, found himself unable to cope with the emotion of his work. Percival felt a strong sense of empathy for his patients and an extremely self-conscious sense of responsibility to them. He could overwhelm himself with grief when he lacked a cure for someone in pain.
Percival also thirsted, quietly, for companionship. Those who knew him remarked on his sensitive and amicable nature, but they could rarely penetrate his reserved demeanor. Friendships for Percival were often fruitless, and his one cautious letter of love was met with steadfast rejection. As grief stacked on grief, Percival penned a long, rambling, maudlin poem entitled “The Suicide.” The work is frenzied and inconsistent, at times unreadable, at times presaging the later vivid imagination of Edgar Allen Poe. A few stanzas follow:
How easy, O! how trifling, with the steel
To pierce a heart that loves no scene below,
To wound a breast too callous e’er to feel
A pang less cruel than a demon’s woe.
Does not the smiling surface of the wave
Kindly invite to take my endless sleep?
How sweet to rest within a watery grave;
How soft those slumbers—that repose how deep.
The death-winged ball—can pierce my phrenzied brain,
The knife—can loose the shackles of my soul,
An opiate—that can ease my every pain,
Smiles, how inviting!—in the poisoned bowl.
And thou, sweet drug!—can’st shed the balmy dew
Of sleep eternal, o’er my wearied eyes,
And give repose, as calm to mortal view
As when the infant wrapt in slumber lies.
Still thou art slow though sure—ah! can I wait
A single moment, ere I sink in death;
Perhaps I may lament it when too late,
And struggle to regain my fleeting breath.
Give me the knife, the dagger, or the ball—
O! I can take them with a smile serene;
Then like a flash of lighting I may fall
And rush at once into the world unseen.
Percival made a number of chaotic attempts to take his life in 1820. He bashed his head with stones; he overdosed on opium; he invested in a brace of pistols. In time Percival recovered from these incidents, but he never overcame their scars. He briefly resumed practicing medicine far from home in South Carolina after 1820, but the doctor remarked in one conversation, “I had got my name up for writing verses, and found myself ruined. When a person is really ill he will not send for a poet to cure him.”
More a poet than a doctor, Percival withdrew from society, and he spent most of his life in seclusion. He never married. The pathos that marked his early years forever overshadowed his later achievements.
I am wearing headphones. Music is playing in my ears. The track is “Far East Sweet” by The Bruces, but that isn’t important. After all, there are a few thousand tracks on my mp3 player. Whenever I’m in the mood for some music, I can just scroll through the choices. It doesn’t matter who I want to listen to: Bob Wills, Queen, Devotchka, the Packway Handle Band—wherever I go, they’re all ready and waiting in my coat pocket.
My situation is hardly unusual. It seems there is a wealth of music waiting at everyone’s fingertips today. This isn’t just because of mp3 players. There are also televisions, computers, car stereos, cell phones, and the ubiquitous speakers in malls, restaurants, and department stores. Music is so common now as to be nearly inescapable. From the moment we wake up to the melody of an alarm clock until the moment we turn off the TV or stereo before bed, we find ourselves working, studying, playing, driving, dining, shopping, and even exercising to a soundtrack that almost never completely fades.
This hyper-abundance of music is a remarkably new phenomenon. Most of the music formats people are familiar with today didn’t exist a few decades ago. The ability to record and replay music itself wasn’t realized until 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the first practical phonograph. Before this invention, it was impossible to duplicate a musical performance. Every musical rendition was unique, and the availability of a particular performance was limited to those people who inhabited the same time and place as the performers.
The advent of recording technology changed this by enabling people to duplicate individual performances as often as they wanted, so long as they had a copy of a recording and the equipment needed to play it. In other words, musical performances were no longer limited to a unique time and place, but were instead limited to technological availability. As technology has improved over the last century, both sound recordings and the devices that play them have become inexpensive and highly portable. This has allowed sound recording technology to proliferate widely, ensuring that recorded music music is are now available to virtually everyone, anywhere and anytime.
Our age of unprecedented musical abundance has led to many changes in the way people use, appreciate, and value music.
We are all haunted. Ghosts line the edges of our rooms, staring at us from the walls, emerging from old drawers and rising from the pages of our books. But we take our ghosts for granted now. Indeed, we see them every day. They are our images of moments gone by, moments that have morphed to memories, memories which are ever tossed and turned in our minds, until, like a stone in a river, what was once sharp is worn smooth and dull. Then it is impossible to be sure whether something once undeniably real and alive was ever really there, or whether it was merely a flash of imagination. Yet the ghosts linger, vivid as ever. The ghosts remind us. What is a ghost, but a photograph?
A photograph is not a moment returned from the dead. A photograph is just a sign, a shadow, a window onto a time and place that once was, but is no more. You can see the scene, the place, the person, and the moment. The memories come rushing back. Still, you can’t go back, you can only peer, hopelessly, through the window. You can touch the picture, but you cannot feel it. The ghost is ethereal. There is no cool wind rushing through your hair as once there was, no dirt squishing beneath your toes. You cannot hear the birds; you cannot smell the flowers; you cannot look around, side to side, up, down, behind. A photograph is only a ghost.
They ought to seem like something from another world. Hold the button, wait for the flash, and watch as the scene is spirited into view on Polaroid. Then seal it in an album, show it to a friend, transfer a memory from one mind to another. A scene that passed before my eyes last week is now visible to you, though you had never been there to see it. Now my ghosts haunt your mind, and even after I am gone, these ghosts may linger, to become the subjects of stories that endure. You never felt this wind, this dirt, never heard these birds or smelled these flowers yourself. So you imagine. You imagine the scene beyond the frame, and legends are born.
These photos were taken in August 2008 at a variety of locations, including at my family’s farm, at Madeline Island in far northern Wisconsin, at Prairie du Chien, and looking over the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi River from Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa. You may copy and reuse these photographs for free under a Creative Commons license (see terms below).