Gettysburg Battlefield from original surveys. Palmer 1916.

Feature | A Significant Setting

By Sarah Corridon

Before Annie Baker puts pen to paper on a new piece of work, she spends at least a year researching. There are many considerations when you’re drafting a ‘could be’ Pulitzer-Prize winning play, but for Baker, it often begins with place.

In an interview with Huffington Post Baker said: ‘I start with the setting … With John for instance: I knew I wanted it to take place in a Bed and Breakfast, but there was also all this stuff I wanted to spend years reading books about.’

Baker said she relied on the philosophical and psychoanalytical questions that circled in her mind as a result of investigating and learning; questions that would go on to form her characters, plot and narrative.

‘I really end up doing a lot of scholarly research for years before I start to write, and then I try to obscure it all in the actual writing of the play. Hopefully, it holds it up in some way that is not readily apparent.’

In John, the setting is much more than a Bed and Breakfast. It is a Civil War inspired inn at the site of America’s deadliest, and arguably most significant, battleground.

John protagonists Elias and Jenny stay in the ‘Chamberlain room’, named after Union officer Joshua Chamberlain; who emerged from the Gettysburg battle as one of the Civil War’s greatest heroes.

Ahead of the Australian premiere of Annie Baker’s John, Univeristy of Melbourne’s Head of School & Professor of History Trevor Burnard tells us about Gettysburg and its historical significance in America.

What was the impact of the battle at Gettysburg?

It is the crucial battle in the history of the Civil War and in American history generally. After the battle, the South had no chance of taking the North and probably no chance of victory. William Faulkner wrote how every southern boy remembered being at Gettysburg just before Pickett’s charge, when the idea and the reality of the South still existed. So, for him and many white southerners, Gettysburg was a caesura between past and present. The battle itself was horrific with 45,000 casualties in three days. No other battle has come close to it in terms of fatalities and injuries and in terms of its monumental political and military impact. It was the American Somme, but with more consequences.

Can you describe the scale of this conflict?

Each day saw massive losses but in the first two days the battle was evenly poised. The crucial event was on the third day with Pickett’s charge, in which thousands of southerners marched across a field straight into Union guns. The flower of southern genteel culture died that day – including, for example, the whole graduating class of the University of Virginia [that year].

Why was Gettysburg’s geographical position significant?

It is very geographically significant because it was the first and only major incursion by southerners into the north. If the South had won (and they could have) then the northern effort would have been greatly imperilled. Because they lost, the Union was safe in the North and the Civil War became entirely a southern military effort.

How does Gettysburg relate specifically to the story of the Slave?

People have arguments about this but most historians would say that without slavery no Civil War would have occurred.

Were there any unsung heroes that emerged out of this battle?

The most important one was the Union officer Joshua Chamberlain, who defended Little Round Top with 20 Maine. He became a venerated figure after the event, in part because he was an ardent abolitionist. He later became governor of Maine and died in 1914 [at age 86], possibly as a result of wounds from the Civil War – making him arguably the last casualty of that conflict.

What rhetoric of the American Civil War is most common in modern America?

The southern mantra of states’ right is still very important, especially among republicans – it relates to what is called the Lost Cause: the belief by some white southerners after reconstruction ended in 1877 that while they lost, their cause was just. Gone with the Wind was the cinematic expression of this belief.

What is most commonly misunderstood about the Civil War in American consciousness?

Apart from the Lost Cause, there is confusion about the role of ex-slaves and slavery in the War. Many ex slaves fought for the Union, of course, but the current emphasis on how it was them who won the war is misplaced. Northern attitudes to slavery were extremely complicated and ranged from abolitionists determined to fight in order to end slavery, to northern whites who shared southern white racial attitudes, but who believed that defending the Union was essential for the maintenance of their understanding of what America was.

Annie Baker’s John plays at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio until 25 March 2017.

Published on 10 February 2017

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