The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

This two-act play chronicles the assault led by John Brown in 1859 on the United States armory and arsenal at the small river town of Harpers Ferry in what was then part of the state of Virginia. The attack shook the slave-holding South to its foundations and is considered by many to be the actual beginning of the American Civil War.

The first act is set in an ordinary farmhouse in Maryland, five miles away from Harpers Ferry. The nucleus of the abolitionist guerrilla band, formed with both African American and white members, has assembled there, and the men, accompanied by Mary and Martha Brown, are awaiting reinforcement. They are expecting fifty fighters from Canada, organized by the famous abolitionist, Harriet Tubman. They are hoping to be joined by a number of volunteers from the West, many of them veterans of the battles fought over slavery in Kansas.

Too much time has passed, however, and the tedium of inaction and being confined in such close quarters is taking its toll on the band’s morale. Mrs. Huffmaster, a neighbor from across the road, has acquired the habit of dropping in without warning a couple of times every day. When she arrives, the men have to stop their formal debates on theology and their games of cards and checkers. They must flee up the ladder and hide in the attic, which also serves as their bedroom. Mrs. Huffmaster is bribed with favors and gifts when she visits so that she will not divulge the strange activity at the farmhouse, but everyone knows that it is just a matter of time before she gives them away.

After Mrs. Huffmaster leaves at one point, the guerrilla band undergoes a crisis of confidence. Dangerfield Newby, a member of the African American guerrilla band, has received a letter from his wife, who is a slave. The letter tells him that she and his...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Staging battle scenes is very difficult because only talented actors can keep a physical fight from lapsing into slapstick humor onstage. There are no second takes in the theater, so Barrie Stavis followed the example of William Shakespeare. Just as Shakespeare left the battle of Agincourt out of Henry V, Stavis also leaves most of the actual fighting out of Harpers Ferry. Most of the play’s action takes place during preparation for the raid and during the aftermath. Even the scenes of the battle concentrate on the verbal and emotional interaction among the participants.

Stavis manages to keep the drama at an intense level, however, by adapting Elizabethan and classical staging techniques. He calls his approach the “Time-Space Stage,” in which both time and space can be used with maximum fluidity. His stage directions for Harpers Ferry call for an austere set design to match the mentality of the protagonist and require specific lighting on different levels of the stage. Actors in one scene typically freeze in place as action stops and the lights are cut in that space. Instantaneously, another part of the stage comes alive. In this way the actors in a production of Harpers Ferry are not required to reenact physical battles with every performance, but to convey the right message, the right pace of action, and the right impact, the lighting director needs an expert crew and the best equipment.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Boyer, Richard Owen. The Legend of John Brown. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Quarles, Benjamin, ed. Blacks on John Brown. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972.

Shore, Herbert. “Barrie Stavis: The Epic Vision.” Educational Theatre Journal, October, 1973.

Stavis, Barrie. John Brown: The Sword and the Word. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1970.

Villard, Oswald Garrison. John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1965.