Ambrose Bierce’s admirably concise narrative tells of a man, Williamson, rising to walk to the distant pasture to speak on a particular matter with Andrew, his brother, the overseer, there supervising a dozen slaves; crossing a close-cropped field, level and without any means of concealment, and disappearing such that no person hears of or sees him again, so that he is declared dead and his estate is distributed according to the law. The sole testimony is from a neighbour, Wren, who saw both Williamson’s presence and then, immediately after, his absence but who was distracted at the moment of disappearance. The woman, Williamson’s wife, black servant Sam and boy, Wren’s son, who were each greatly disturbed by the actual event, were deemed incompetent. What had become of Mr Williamson? Bierce states clearly, it was not the business of this narrative to answer that question. The central event itself is not examined and the reader is left to fill in the details.
I came to this story though David Lang’s opera of the same name, a chance finding on Spotify. Listening to this several times without any idea of its cast or staging nor the story or setting, the sense came to me of the neuroticism of oppression: that the act of oppression was driving the white folks mad and that myth and superstition were interwoven with horror and despair.
Mac Wellman’s libretto expands the original story to some 18 pages, seeing the events from the perspectives of the different actors,yet without resolving Bierce’s central question.
At the heart of the piece is the tightly self-constrained testimony of Andrew, the overseer, explaining his principles of managing slaves and maintaining self respect, which collapses into anger and rhythmic evocative nonsense: “His name was Clock, of the tribe of Clock. But I fear his true mode of locomotion, like that of Prince Zandor, was more humble, the singleton crutch, or cane, of the tribe of Crutch, or Cane”. Andrew clarifies that seemingly random shouted words were the attributes, or names, of the slaves working in that distant field: Round, Square, Juniper, Crabgrass, Candlestick, Limbo, Clock, Bumblebee, Jackass, Crawdad, Nuisance, Puissance, Doorbell, Virginia Creeper. The slaves are the chorus and Virginia Creeper their caller. The overseer’s words become but an echo of the chorus’ ritual chanting: they are building a nation, seeking an erasure of John C. Calhoun (who promulgated that slavery was more than a “necessary evil” but was a social good) and invoking Prince Zandor, the one-legged red-coated predatory demon from their ancestral mythology.