I went to an open-mike night at a comedy club in Adams Morgan in the early eighties and one act caught my attention, a man in jeans and a t-shirt emblazoned with the Presidential seal, holding a Ronald Reagan dummy on his knee. It was a raunchy act in which the comedian would say something like “there’s a beautiful naked lady in the other room” and the dummy pointed his hand at the wall and yelled, “Tear down this wall.” The comedian was not a ventriloquist. He managed to cut and splice Reagan’s voice from Bonzo to Gipper movies on up to White House speeches. He wrote a script and went on from there.
Fast-forward thirty years and that’s what I’m doing in Open Country with, for example, two historical characters, U.S. Grant and Walt Whitman. In the first case, I use a quotation from Grant’s autobiography as a response to a character’s question as to why Grant ordered a frontal assault of the Confederate fortifications at Cold Harbor in my story “Cold Harbor.” His reply, in my mind at least, provides the denouement for the story because it is so matter-of-fact and Grant-like in addition to offering a stark contrast to what that character, a private in Grant’s army, had been through that day in following the orders of his commander.
In the second I use a quotation from a Walt Whitman letter describing a Confederate captain who lost a leg in battle. Whitman visited the captain in a hospital in Washington City. “He sat up in his bed wearing his Confederate uniform as proud as the devil, and though I couldn’t admire his cause, I could admire his spirit. And he must’ve seen that because an affection grew up between us, and one time as I was leaving, he bussed me on the cheek.”
“Oh, Uncle Walt,” Lisa giggled. “This is a feeling a woman has for a man. Not a comradely feeling.”
“They’re not that much different, darling,” said the poet, patting her hand. “These fellows cling to us. They’re hard for you and I to resist, but we must if it satisfies our soul.”
This woman, Lisa, is in love with a Confederate soldier that she is hiding and she must decide what “satisfies” her soul.
I’m not trying to be my own critic, but what I am trying to explain is what great fun it is to take an historical character and cut and splice his words to fit my script. I don’t know if somehow subconsciously I got the idea from the Reagan comedian long ago, but I do recall thinking of him when I was writing my script. I was thinking, Jesus, there are endless recordings of the Gipper’s voice. You could almost get him to say anything.