A strong cast applies its bull hook to the out-of-control Elephant's Graveyard
A strong cast applies its bull hook to the out-of-control Elephant's Graveyard Credit: James D. Palmer

It was during the late summer of 1916 that Erwin, Tennessee, entered the annals of folk-fop history. The little Appalachian town already had a minor claim in that regard, having been misnamed (it was supposed to be “Ervin,” with a “v”) due to a clerical error. But the 1916 incident is what put Erwin over the top fop-wise, making it a worthy target of earnest, bad plays like George Brant’s Elephant’s Graveyard.

On September 11 of that year the Sparks World Famous Shows circus came to Kingsport, about 35 miles north of Erwin. Sparks’s prime attraction at the time was a 20-year-old elephant named Mary, reputed to be even bigger than Barnum’s legendary Jumbo. An inexperienced handler, Walter “Red” Eldridge, was leading Mary to a watering pond when, the story goes, Mary noticed a discarded piece of watermelon lying in the street and went for it. Red used his bull hook to try and get her back on course, but only succeeded in getting her mad. Mary picked Red up with her trunk, threw him against a wall, and then squashed his head with her foot. End of Red. Also, interestingly, end of tantrum: apparently satisfied to have sent Red to elephant-handler hell, Mary didn’t go on a rampage.

Nevertheless, and understandably, the people of Kingsport were frightened out of their wits. A blacksmith attempted to shoot Mary, but he didn’t have the firepower to do any damage. Nobody did—which led to the question of what to do next.

For his part, impresario Charles Sparks had a bigger-than-Jumbo-sized public-relations problem on his hands. Killer elephants were often discreetly renamed and sold to other circuses, but Mary had crushed Red in front of God and everybody. What’s more, officials down the line were saying they wouldn’t let the circus stop in their towns if Mary was with it. Mary had to be put down, as they say, and publicly.

The powers that be considered everything from electrocution (insufficient juice available) to pulling Mary apart with steam locomotives (too gross). In the end they chose to take her down to Erwin, which had a railroad yard with heavy equipment, and hang her from an industrial crane until she asphyxiated. And that’s what was done—clumsily, horribly. Among other mishaps, the first chain they used broke as Mary was being hoisted, causing her to fall some feet and fracture her hip. Then they fastened a heavier chain around her neck and killed her again, this time successfully. Ever since then, Erwin has been known, foppishly, as the town where they hung the elephant.

Mary’s execution might be framed as a cautionary tale about the consequences of treating animals as entertainment. That makes particular sense inasmuch as Charles Sparks was famous in his time for his gentle treatment of four-legged performers. I can imagine a drama centered on Sparks as he tries and probably fails to reconcile his kindly policies with the social and economic forces demanding Mary’s death. And, at first, that seems to be where Brant is headed. Elephant’s Graveyard starts with Sparks as a sick old man, remembering the events of 1916 in a kind of fever dream, complete with down-home music performed by an onstage band.

But it’s soon evident that Brant has something more grandiose in mind. He gives us an oily fellow called the Engineer, who says pseudo-ominous things like, “The railroad invented time,” seeming to suggest that progress—or maybe modernity itself—killed Mary. Then there’s a religious hysteric whose ravings about redemption imply that fundamentalism did it. The town marshal, meanwhile, talks proudly about what a great country we live in that we can construct a crane strong enough to hang an elephant. Assuming that his absurd comments are meant to be taken seriously—and they’re offered without a wink by valiant John Victor Allen—then perhaps America was the culprit?

Oddly, Brant passes up a tremendous opportunity to give his play significant thematic heft. Two years after Mary was hanged, some white Erwinians lynched a black man named Thomas Devert. They then burned his body as a warning to the rest of Erwin’s blacks, who immediately left town en masse. Brant gives us a character who suggests the racism of the place, but never connects the Sparks affair with this evil, bizarrely parallel act.

With so many big, flimsy ideas flying around, the script comes off as a pretentious mess. And that’s too bad, because Elephant’s Graveyard gets a much better production than it deserves from Red Tape Theatre. In James Palmer‘s staging, the audience sits in balconies on either side of the playing area—a practical problem for older and disabled patrons, since getting to your seat involves climbing steep steps, but an artistic advantage in that the arrangement (a) approximates the view from the bleachers in a big-top and (b) emphasizes the sense that we’re watching events unfold from a historical remove. The effect is further enhanced by a haze that hangs over the playing area throughout the show’s 90-minute running time. Palmer wants us to feel as if we’re in the presence of a company of ghosts, and I did.

A company of vivid ghosts, with a strong sense of ensemble and good singing voices. Jeffrey Gitelle has the right hangdog look as the circus’s clown, Carrie Drapac the right tomboyish arrogance as Shorty, the primary elephant tender. Paul Miller brings a surprising depth to what would seem to be the cartoonish role of the irascible tour manager, making us aware that—like any good logistics man—he understands how his actions contributed to the tragedy before us. At the center of it all, as Charles Sparks, Sean Thomas alternates effectively between the dream of himself in the center ring and the old shell doing the dreaming.