… when Emancipation was proclaimed … 

The master of a modest sized Texas plantation has been called to fight for the Confederates and wants his slave, Hero, to come along, promising he’ll free Hero when it’s over, a promise the master has reneged on previously.  Will he follow the master to war on what he knows is the wrong side, chasing the carrot of his personal freedom?  Or will he stay back on the plantation and remain a slave?  The master has given Hero the choice.

As his fellow slaves discuss the option and bet on which way Hero will go, we get to know them, particularly, the old man who’s like a father to Hero, Penny his wife, and Homer , a fellow slave whose foot has been amputated in punishment for an earlier attempt at running away.   On our journey toward learning that ethically Hero falls somewhere between a man of ordinary human frailties and an anti-hero, we learn that Hero, at the master’s insistence, was the one who actually did the deed — cut off Homer’s foot.  Part 1 is called “The Measure of a Man” and Hero isn’t measuring up well.

Driven by the desire for freedom, and more decisively, to escape his fellows’ scorn, Hero follows his master to war.  In Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” the raw co-mingling of hate, love, loyalty and cruelty between the master, now a Colonel, and Hero, and the overriding terror of one gun at the ready, is intense.  The episode is a dramatically exciting reflection of the war, known through distant gunfire, and of the struggle between slavery and freedom as it affects three men:  the master, now a Colonel in the rebel army, Hero, and a captured, wounded Union soldier the Colonel holds in a small slatted cage.  Hero earns his name — for once — and the play reaches its highpoint of moral clarity:  freedom is unambiguously good.  Almost.

Part 3,  “The Union of my Confederate Parts,” brings Hero back to the plantation.  As an assertion of personal freedom, he’s chosen a new name for himself, Ulysses, referring to the classical epic wanderer and to the head of the Union army.  It happens, though, it’s also his dog’s name, Odyssey — Homer’s Greek hero Odysseus is named Ulysses in Latin.  In a brilliant monolog by the talking dog, Odyssey lets us know that loyalty is intrinsic to dogs but that with humans it’s an add-on.  But is it a virtue?  Hero’s loyalties are misapplied and he’s back to morally slack — it’s up to others to make the break.

A great strength of this play lies in the complexity of its main characters and the importance of the issues they face.  Motivations are ambiguous and conflicts are moral in the largest sense, and resonant in terms of race relations and American history.  The equivocal emotional and risky intimacy that could arise between masters and slaves, often described within the slave system as among women, and women and children, is here explored in a male relationship, between the master and Hero.

Scenes are filled with dramatic tension and stimulating turns.  And — things seldom being  as they seem — the main characters are full of surprises.   The episode “in the wilderness” with Hero, the Colonel, and the Union soldier has an iconic strength and lingers in the mind.

While the play generally pulls one into its world, the artifice doesn’t always work.  The lofty and often poetic language is at odds with the realism — I know that some people were able to accept the unrealistic language and the actors’ generalized — and not southern — accents that went with it but for me thoughts like these people would never talk this way pushed in on my belief.  Fantasy is one thing — and the talking dog is wonderful — but the tension between brutal realism and tony language was, for me, not integrated.  My suspended disbelief kept getting unsuspended!

As to Hero’s following the master to war or staying back on the plantation, the question taking up the whole first part — did the master really say to his slave, “you decide”?  I don’t think so.

Hero observes, in Part 2, that a slave has a selling price but there’s no price put on a free man, so, he asks, focusing on himself who would fetch a hefty price, is a man worth more as a slave than free?  This  meditation is too naïve for the highly articulate language written for the character and also underestimates his intelligence since with two free men in plain sight, it’s obvious that freedom is worth just about everything, as he himself demonstrates in the same scene.  In Shaw’s play Candida, and Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude The Obscure the idea of the auction price of a woman occurs without any forced or cute play with words.

So, I don’t think this play is the “masterpiece” some have called it but I think it’s compelling, and illuminates in a serious way aspects of the psychology of slavery,  a moment in the Civil War and a moment of transition in American history: Hero comes home with a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in his pocket —  he just forgets to read it to the other slaves, before they run away.  It’s well acted and beautifully produced:  small note — the slave cabin which is the focus of the set in Parts 1 and 3 is based on the genuine slave cabin in the Smithsonian Museum, a moving touch of realism.  Parts 4 through 9 are anticipated:  I’m looking forward to them.

Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3 plays at The Public Theater in downtown Manhattan through December 7, 2014.