On November 21, 1911, the San Francisco Call published an an amusing anecdote about a performance simultaneously unbefitting the venue and calculatingly effective:
Chico, Nov. 20. --Every little movement of the orchestra and the ushers of the Chico Baptist church had a meaning all its own when the collection was taken at the regular services. Also, a modern musical comedy tune, it as found, could be successfully grafted on the church organ pipes and bear good fruit. Furthermore, there was something like vindication for those leaders of Protestant churches who insist that the old hymn tunes may with profit be relegated to the basement while the choir loft devotes itself to something more modern.
O'Hare's piano roll arrangement
With Parson Altalk’s failure to address his parishioners’ earthly needs, such as overcoming superstition and dealing with the conjurors, Treemonisha’s neighbors need a leader, someone capable of guiding them forward. Long before introducing his failed leader, Joplin had set the scene for his true leader’s arrival. In the opera’s preface, he explained that whites had left the plantation after the Civil War, leaving it to be run by Ned, a trustworthy servant. Living in dense ignorance, symbolized by the dense forest surrounding the plantation, the freedmen were left “with no one to guide them as they struggled to adapt to unaccustomed freedom. Childless Ned and Monisha prayed for an infant who could grow up educated and able to “teach the people around them to aspire to something better and higher than superstition and conjuring.”
In the opera’s opening number, Treemonisha reprimands the conjuror Zodzetrick for having “caused superstition and many sad tears,” and viewers and listeners recognize her potential to realize Ned and Monisha’s dream. Indeed, before the opera’s opening, Treemonisha had achieved small scale teaching success. She had taught Remus to read, enabling him to chide Zodzetrick, not only by arguing that the conjuror cannot fool the level-headed Treemonisha, but that he can no longer fool Remus:
To read and write she has taught me, and I am very grateful,
Although education might initially come from whites, Joplin shows that a black with basic education could become the educator, as did Booker T. Washington and so many graduates of schools such as Hampton and Tuskegee. Speaking of Tuskegee, Samuel Chapman Armstrong had once written, "It is a proof that the Negro can raise the Negro" (Qtd. by Washington in The Story of My Live and Work, J. L. Nichols & Co., 1901, 372). Washington attributed much of this success to his people's desire to learn from their teachers as he had learned from Armstrong: "Often hungry and in rags, making sacrifices of which you little dream, the Negro youth has been determined to annihilate his mental darkness. With all the disadvantages the Negro, according to official records, has blotted out 55.5 per cent of his illiteracy since he became a free man" ("Negro Education Not a Failure," Booker T. Washington Papers. Univ. if IL Press, 1972, II: 431).
My August 16, 2017 post (A New Look at TREEMONISHA) points out striking similarities between Booker T. Washington’s writing and Scott Joplin’s Preface to Treemonisha. Both men speak of superstition’s survival on remote plantations from which whites have moved away after the war, thus leaving ignorant blacks without anyone to guide them. Similarly, my November 14, 2017 post (“You Can’t Fool Treemonisha”: The Hampton-Tuskegee Ideology, Part 1) focuses on Joplin’s use of literacy as a remedy for superstition and on his character Remus’ mention of Treemonisha’s “level head,” again pointing out parallels between Joplin's thinking and Washington's, which had been molded by Samuel Chapman Armstrong's. All of these points raise the possibility that Joplin intended Treemonisha as his second tribute to Booker T. Washington, following the loss of his first opera, A Guest of Honor. The similarities do not end there. A close look at Hampton and Tuskegee’s shared three-part mission reveals further connections with the opera and leads to a reinterpretation of Joplin’s Parson Alltalk.
Almost immediately after the show's debut, the New York Times observed, "No spectacular invention or innovation of recent years has aroused such popular curiosity as the mermaid scene in Neptune's Daughter at the Hippodrome. The mermaids, who are only mortal actresses and by no means amphibious, first rise to view in the very midst of the tank, which is supposed to represent the briny deep."
Mystery and curiosity, the producers believed, would draw crowds:
The rehearsals, when there was any danger that the scheme might be revealed, were conducted with the utmost secrecy. Every attache of the Hippodrome who had an opportunity to discover the truth was solemnly pledged to tell nothing. The mermaids 'hoped they might die' if they told, and knew they would lose their positions in case they had the hardihood to break faith with the management. The projectors of the enterprise believed that the greatest advertisement that they could have would be the greatest mystery they could muster. For business purposes, they protected themselves with patents. For box office purposes, they determined to mystify the City of New York.
Where there is a mystery to solve, someone will solve it. Where there is a story to leak, someone will leak it.
Three days before the November 28, 1906 opening of the New York Hippodrome's Neptune's Daughter, the New York Times published a review written by a critic who had attended rehearsal. He opened with a paragraph guaranteed to entice readers to line up for tickets:
In the first blog entry of my Treemonisha series, I quoted strikingly similar passages from Joplin’s Preface to his opera and one of Booker T. Washington’s important letters, pointing out that a nearly identical passage appeared in another of Washington’s letters. Both men wrote of whites abandoning their plantations, leaving ignorant former slaves to fend for themselves with no one to guide them.
I cannot say whether Washington’s words inspired Joplin’s opera or whether Joplin intentionally paraphrased them in his Preface, but overwhelming evidence from fiction and non-fiction sources, from Joplin’s lifetime and ours, demonstrates that Joplin was tackling two important social handicaps of the post-Civil War era—the ignorance and the superstition of the freedmen. Generations of subservience to white masters, who used illiteracy to keep their slaves dependent, left them to cope with their new freedom in whatever ways they could. Because of superstitions largely carried over from African countries that most of them had never seen and because of their related fears, no doubt compounded by years of victimization, freedmen and even their descendants were too often willing to pay conjurors what little money they had to ensure their safety from harm.
Although the past seven blog entries have focused on specific hoodoo superstitions that Joplin carefully incorporated into the opera, it’s time to further examine parallels between the opera and Booker T. Washington’s thinking. Because Washington graduated from Hampton Institute, which shaped his beliefs, I will include Hampton and its founder.
In 1880, a Little Rock newspaper reported the desecration of a recent grave, consisting of exhumation and the cutting off of three fingers for use in a hoodoo luck bag. The article opened with a prediction that such acts would soon end:
When first listening to the Houston original cast recording of Treemonisha and then again when attending the 2000 Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production, I found the rescue scene particularly funny. Listeners and audience members hear Remus explain his plan for rescuing Treemonisha from the conjurors.
I’ll wear this ugly scarecrow
Back in the forest as Simon counts to three before shoving Treemonisha into the wasp nest, Remus’ approach interrupts the count. Dramatic irony creates comedy when the conjurors fail to recognize Remus, whom they could surely overpower. Seeing the “strange form” approach,“ Cephus cries out, “Look! What’s that comin’ yonder?” Panic ensues as the conjurors perhaps believe they face retribution for kidnapping Treemonisha:
Remus has successfully turned the tables on the unknowing conjurors, who prey on others’ superstitions but fall victim to their own. With this scene, we easily see Joplin accomplish two goals: showing the conjurors as charlatans and simultaneously injecting humor.
Once more, Joplin’s contemporaries may have seen more. Although today's audience may laugh at the naiveté of fearing a straw man set out to frighten birds, a closer look at scarecrows and the African figures resembling them may explain the conjurors' desperation.
Act Two of Treemonisha opens in the woods with a conclave of conjurors singing “Superstition.” Joplin’s stage directions tell us, “A wasp nest is hanging on a bush.” As Simon lists his fears, the chorus agrees: “‘Tis true, ‘tis true, /We all believe ‘tis true.” When Simon sings of shaking in fear when passing a graveyard at night, the chorus responds, “We’ll run.” Supposed to possess supernatural powers to ensure good luck and counteract any evil, the conjurers appear to have little control over their lives.
As “Superstition” ends and “Treemonisha in Peril” begins, Zodzetrick and Luddud signal their approach, bringing with them the kidnapped Treemonisha. Joplin quickly tells us that the conjurors in the woods neither expected her, nor know her:
When the conjurors decide to punish Treemonisha for opposing their luck bag sales, they needn’t look far for their means--the wasp nest hanging on the bush. However, perhaps we should wonder why the conjurors selected this meeting place. If they did not know or expect Treemonisha, they could not have planned to punish her with wasps. Why had the conjurors chosen to meet beside a wasp nest when the woods surely offered safer spots?
For us today, Harry Middleton Hyatt’s Hoodoo—Conjuration—Witchcraft—Rootwork supplies possible reasons for this seemingly reckless choice. Joplin's contemporaries may have understood more than today’s opera goer or listener.
Self-Protection or Business
The conjurors may have believed the wasp nest would help them.
According to Hyatt's hoodoo informants, wasp nests have protective powers.
When the corn huskers' joyous ring dance ends, Treemonisha wants to make a head garland like those worn by her friends for the harvest celebration. Her plan to cut leaves from the tree in front of her house prompts her mother Monisha's plea:
No! not a leaf from that tree take.
After Treemonisha and others ask to learn why that tree is “so dear,” Monisha responds with her aria “The Sacred Tree.”
Such trees appear in religious beliefs throughout the world, in primitive religions as well as the world’s major religions. In perhaps the earliest book devoted to the topic, The Sacred Tree, or The Tree in Religion and Myth (1897), Mrs. J. H. Philpot comments on this universal archetype:
After Treemonisha criticizes the conjuror Zodzetrick for preying on others' superstitions rather than doing honest labor and again after her friend Remus explains how her education will “break the spell of superstition in the neighborhood,” Zodzetrick threatens and attempts to intimidate:
You accuse me wrong for injury I’s not done,
I am a retired community college professor and the great-granddaughter of composer, orchestrator, arranger, organist, and teacher William Christopher O'Hare.
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