Looking for a Fight
Ruth Margraff Recasts Texas History as Barroom Brawl
"Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world," reads the plaque on the monument to the battle. "The freedom of Texas from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the Mexican War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the States of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American nation, nearly a million square miles of territory, changed sovereignty."
It's no wonder that Texans have an attitude that is as big as the Rio Grande is long. A heck of a lot of territory was added to the country because of Texas' fight for independence. It is an accomplishment of which to be proud.
Or is it? New York playwright Ruth Margraff has been researching Texas history for her new play, The Battle of San Jacinto, written for Salvage Vanguard Theater and opening March 21 in the cafe at Planet Theatre. She has tried to uncover the facts behind the myths, a task made more difficult by the way we use language to obscure the violence of war. "[The monument] is so phallic and bejeweled," Margraff notes. "It's garnished to the point where it is a beautiful thing. So you really can't see what it was. You have to put together all of the versions. To me, one of the most vivid images is that [the Texans] burned down Vince's bridge so that the Mexicans couldn't get away, but there was a human bridge that was created by the dead. For me, that was much more telling than anything I saw at the monument.
"There is [the] way language is used on our monuments -- like `changed sovereignty.' You can't just throw words around like that. But that's how they're describing this massacre."
Margraff's research for this work has reinforced the idea that history is never quite as simple as a dry recitation of numbers and strategies. She discovered that the Texans were brutal in their attack, so much so that, after the battle, which raged on for hours after it was obvious whose side had won, Houston is rumored to have told his soldiers, "Gentlemen, I applaud your bravery, but damn your manners." These were not the clean-cut freedom fighters that native Texans want to portray. They were men out for revenge, men fighting to regain control over their freedom in a territory whose ownership was in question. "These people were in a territory that they didn't know, an extremely unsafe space where things were coming at them," Margraff says. "Suddenly, the territory was not defined the way it had been for all sides. In an unfamiliar space, you just lash out."
This sense of being in a strange and threatening place made it easy for the playwright to relate to and build a play around the Texans. In her work, Margraff likes to examine characters who are out of their range and forced into new and traumatic circumstances. For Margraff, being out of your range is being out of the "closed circuit you grew up in. Once you get out of that circuit, you're in abject territory where anything can happen -- it can get horrific, or strange, or dull. You're out of your realm."
To create such an environment dramatically, Margraff frequently goes beyond the traditional conventions of theatre. In fact, Kyle Gann of the Village Voice described her play The Electra Fugues, recently produced by the Tiny Mythic Company, as "not so much a piece of theatre as a series of theatrical events musically structured, with little regard for stage conventions." Gann's description is apt; Margraff seeks to capture the overwhelming essence of her subject matter, rather than present a conventional play. This could be seen in her last Austin show, Wallpaper Psalm, in which a character's mental delirium was conveyed in loud and noisy electric music and a vocal score that was purposely just written beyond the range of the singers. That the history of Texas is being dramatized by a writer who rarely approaches her subject matter traditionally is ironic, considering how traditional the Lone Star State, with all its state fairs and chili cook-offs, can be.
Margraff is setting her take on Texas history in Mrs. Powell's tavern, an establishment said to have existed on the edge of the battlefield and where, according to legend, a small boy who understood Spanish overheard Mexicans discussing Santa Anna's plans and slipped out of the bar to warn Sam Houston. A strange conglomeration of characters are hanging out at Mrs. Powell's: Santa Anna, Davy Crockett, Samuel Houston, Stephen F. Austin, the woman known as the Yellow Rose of Texas, and, oddly enough, Chief Crazy Horse. They have all ended up in this bar on the outskirts of hell and are looking for a fight, partly because of the unfamiliar and close quarters. Margraff has structured the play as a series of barroom brawls, complete with inflammatory language and wild violence. All of the action, including the battle and Santa Anna's drug dreams, takes place in the tavern, with the play trying to encapsulate and examine the historical events while exploring their possible causes and effects: the lure of unfiltered masculinity, the power of fragility, and the currency of language.
Margraff believes that in the men who shaped Texas are the seeds of the state's well-known attitude, the Texas state of mind that's visible to all of those unfortunate enough to live in the lesser 49. "My first night in Austin," relates Margraff, "[Salvage Vanguard's artistic director] Jason Neulander took me to this poker game. I wasn't playing because I'm not a very good poker player. I usually just watch. Watching [these men play] for just a couple of hours, I felt like I saw something different: the way that they behaved, the way the men treated each other because it was all male, this chandelier kind of glinting in their eyes, the sort of masculinity that is present when you play poker, the poker face -- all of that I thought was representative of Texas.
"Then, as I was talking to these guys, I found out that none of them was from Texas. But I felt that they had absorbed whatever Texas is into their rhythms. It's almost a vibration that comes from the land, from the culture here, and the history is a strong part of that. That's one of the most fascinating things."
Margraff has attempted to explore that unfiltered masculinity of Texas in her versions of Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, Santa Anna, and others, but one character offers a counterpoint to their macho posturing: Emily Morgan, the mulatto slave who became known as the "Yellow Rose of Texas." According to one version of the story, Morgan may have been partially responsible for the Texans' victory. It was her presence that filled Santa Anna's head with more than the coming battle, and his fate was sealed when he chose to ignore the details of running his army and decided instead to spend the day with his opium and his paramour. No one is sure what happened to Morgan after the battle, but the Yellow Rose is nevertheless important to Margraff. "I feel that she uses her femininity and her vulnerability in a very powerful way," the playwright says. "I see her as being in a very powerful position because she constantly says, `Oh, I'm just going to cry.' That's really a power play. As long as she can be the wounded one or be the weakest one in the room, then everything has a balance that keeps the battle outside the door."
The Yellow Rose also represents for Margraff what Texas is. "Because she was historically thought to be a mulatto girl, I feel like there is a mixture of cultures and collisions of cultures present within her being that I feel really close to. That's what we are constantly fighting. We're still trying to figure out a way to all get along."
Perhaps Margraff's Texas can be seen as a microcosm for America as a whole. Cultures keep colliding, in all of the states, and we are trying to figure out ways to step back from unfiltered masculinity and passive femininity to discover how to hang out in the same bar without sparking a bloody and brutal battle.
The Battle of San Jacinto runs March 21-April 12 at Planet Theatre.
Adrienne Martini writes about theatre regularly for the Chronicle.