Harpers Ferry is a revision of an earlier play about John Brown by Stavis titled Banners of Steel, which was first produced in Carbondale, Illinois, in 1962. It became part of a tetrology of plays, each dealing with pivotal historical figures. The other three are Lamp at Midnight: A Play About Galileo (pr. 1947, pb. 1948), which centers on the revolutionary astronomer Galileo Galilei; The Man Who Never Died: A Play About Joe Hill (pb. 1954, pr. 1955), which focuses on the early twentieth century labor leader; and Coat of Many Colors: A Play About Joseph in Egypt (pr. 1966, pb. 1968), which takes the Old Testament figure as its subject. Stavis attempts to capture the exact points in history when the world is ripe for change and a person steps up to enact that change.
His interest in critical figures in history puts Stavis fundamentally at odds with the post-World War II fascination with the antihero. Stavis believes that postmodern theater is obsessed with frustration and defeat, personality maladjustment, and sexual dysfunction. To survive the nuclear age, he feels it is necessary to maintain a positive attitude, to make an ethical commitment, and to follow the light of reason. His focus on theater as a vehicle for promoting social awareness by appealing to the critical faculties of the audience is reminiscent of the approach of the German playwright, Bertolt Brecht. Like Brecht, Stavis does not want members of his audience to lose themselves in emotional catharsis during his productions. He wants people to realistically analyze the issues being dealt with in dramatic form onstage. Harpers Ferry was probably better appreciated in Europe than in the United States, where the emotional intensity of the turbulent 1960’s made rational reflection on such sensitive issues especially difficult.