Today’s play had me sobbing on my way to work on the bus. It’s rare for a playscript to have this effect on me. Books do it regularly. (Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty was a shocking example of public tears while reading a novel. I cried in three different public places but still couldn’t put it down.)
This morning on the bus I was reading Walsh by Sharon Pollock. Her second full length play premiered in 1973 and is an amazing work. It’s a biographical play about Major Walsh and his relationship with Sitting Bull of the Sioux Nation and it’s a heartbreaking historical work about a shameful period in America, Canada and Britain’s history.
I finished the play with a loathing of General Custer (whom we never see in the play) and the cruelness and brutality of the American soldiers, under orders from Washington and aided by Queen Victoria. In an opening address to the audience, Harry (a wagon master) relates the bloodbath at Little Big Horn and explains how Custer used to attack the “friendly natives” (those who had moved close to the soldiers and settlers and camped under an American flag to show their allegiance). His attacks were cowardly in the extreme but one time he chose the wrong group of Indians.
HARRY: And the Injuns at the Little Big Horn weren’t friendly. They were hostile as hell. Sittin’ Bull and the Sioux had listened to the ‘merican government say, “The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians, and their land and property shall never be taken from them without their consent.” They had taken the government at its word – bein’ savages they weren’t too familiar with governments and all, so it was an understandable mistake.
The attack ends in the death of Custer and his soldiers and the American government sets out to bring Sitting Bull and the Sioux to ‘justice’ (despite the fact that they had acted in self defence). Sitting Bull and his people make it to Canada where they take refuge and Sitting Bull makes friends with Major Walsh. Their friendship is the key part of Walsh: a friendship based on mutual respect and trust. But neither of these attributes mean a thing in a period of America’s history where the white man was setting out to exterminate the ‘Injun’.
The fate of the Sioux and of Sitting Bull is enough to make a tough person cry. No wonder I sobbed on the bus and found myself tearing up whenever I thought of the play.
SITTING BULL: In the beginning … was given … to everyone a cup. … A cup of clay. And from this cup we drink our life. We all dip in the water, but the cups are different … My cup is broken. It has passed away.
Walsh is a beautiful, moving play. Despite the lump in my throat, I am still glad I read it.
Cast: 11M, 2F