In response to:
Exile on Main Street from the December 2, 2021 issue
To the Editors:
Christopher Benfey’s dismissive description of performances of Spoon River Anthology as “aw-shucks…with straw hats and string ties” and his belief that it first appeared on stage on Broadway in 1963 need correction [“Exile on Main Street,” NYR, December 2, 2021]. Edgar Lee Masters’s book was first made into a theater piece in the summer of 1954, as the third act of an evening of Prairie poets, including Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay, called Spoon River Speaks. It took place in Masters’s New Salem, Illinois, on a Greek-style, open-air stage, with a permanent backdrop of log cabins, used for the season’s other play, a Lincoln piece by E.P. Conkle, Prologue to Glory. Under a starry night sky, the troupe of twenty-five, mostly from Chicago’s Actors Company, sat staggered across the stage like tombstones. As a spotlight picked them out, each one, without rising, would recite one of the poems, sometimes looking across to others referred to in the lines. Surrounded by the woods, cornfields, and graveyards of Sangamon County, with the cool of night drawing on, the effect was ghostly and deeply moving. I know because at the age of twelve I was a member of that company.
Fletcher Professor Emeritus of Drama and Oratory
Christopher Benfey replies:
Dramatic versions of Spoon River Anthology were staged even before the 1954 production Laurence Senelick remembers so vividly. I did not mean to suggest that the Broadway adaptation, which I noted “was first mounted on Broadway in 1963,” was the earliest but merely the most influential. As Jason Stacy confirms in Spoon River America, “The best-known theatrical adaptation of Spoon River Anthology was Charles Aidman’s 1963 Broadway version,” with its “folk music score and attendant homespun-and-string-tie costuming.”
I’d like to correct an error. Readers have informed me that I mixed up the geography of the two towns in which Masters grew up. The Spoon River is near Lewistown, Illinois, not Petersburg. The Sangamon River flows through Petersburg.