In the original, Edgar Lee Masters’s sprawling poetical sequence Spoon River Anthology includes 212 characters and 244 separate accounts of their lives. Imagined as expansive and candid versions of epitaphs, these individual poems vary considerably in length, subject matter, and tone, but they cohere through a unifying vision that puts small-town life, with all its terrors and pleasures, at the heart of America’s identity. Masters follows in the central tradition of American literature that comes down to him through Walt Whitman, who wrote in Leaves of Grass that “to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.”
The Spoon River Project, which just concluded its run at Dos Pueblos High School, was a drama with music that was conceived and performed by students under the direction of Gioia Marchese. The show began outside the auditorium as a procession, with the white-faced students solemnly guiding the audience around the building and through the stage door to seats arranged in the round and onstage. Through an imaginative blend of folk songs, recitations, movement, and dance, the large cast wove together Masters’s strange tapestry of greetings from beyond death in a way that was fresh and interesting. The dance sequences, which blended square-dance moves with more contemporary music in the idiom of Mumford & Sons were particularly effective, as were the individual monologues that audience members walked around the space in order to hear. Here’s to continued experimentation with new texts and new ways of creating plays at this level of education.