A True History of the Johnstown Flood
A True History of the Johnstown Flood

A True History of the Johnstown Flood Goodman Theatre

Despite its title, Rebecca Gilman’s A True History of the Johnstown Flood is shot through with fictions and omissions. Gilman owns up to taking one such liberty in her program note, acknowledging that she invented almost all her characters. That’s not a problem in itself—authors routinely concoct characters to bring social history vividly to life. But when fictionalization drains an important historical event of its plausibility, drama, and complexity, it becomes counterproductive. And that’s what’s happened here.

On May 31, 1889, after record-breaking rainfall, a dam perched in the mountains above the booming industrial city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, burst. Twenty million tons of water tore down the mountainside, sweeping trees, rocks, animals, and pieces of small towns along with it before landing on Johnstown. About 2,200 people died in a matter of minutes. The dam was owned and maintained by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a private retreat for the wealthy, most of them Pittsburghers like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick. The water behind the dam was used as an artificial lake for the members’ summer amusement.

A traveling theater company that had performed in Johnstown’s opera house the previous night was stranded when the water hit. In Gilman’s version they’re the fictional Baxter Theatre Troupe, peddlers of antiquated melodramas. A True History is mostly about them, and in the first distortion—the one that sets the entire play in motion—the Baxters perform not in Johnstown but at the South Fork Club (which, by the way, would’ve been deserted at that time, because the summer season hadn’t yet started).

The Baxters’ show is terrible, its awfulness rendered heavy-handedly like so much else in Robert Falls’s world premiere Goodman staging. (Indeed, it stinks so badly that the clubmen come across as morons for applauding it.) One of the younger members falls for Fanny, the company’s lead actress, and buys a controlling interest in her horrible company—and Gilman tries to get us to believe that he’s a shrewd businessman with knowledge of world theater.

The play trudges through an unfocused 90-minute first act without generating much credibility or urgency. But when the flood finally hits at the end of the act, it’s still possible to believe that Gilman will let her characters confront something of real consequence. Act two, though, mostly demonstrates her political naivete.

Gilman wants to turn the Johnstown flood into a morality tale with easy parallels to the Hurricane Katrina disaster: the smug elite built a substandard dam and caused unconscionable suffering for the poor. Falls reinforces the point in his program note, calling the flood a “metaphor for class inequity in America.” To achieve this fantasy, Gilman has to reimagine Johnstown as a shantytown—that is, when she deigns to imagine it at all. She allows us only one quick glimpse of of it—from afar—before it’s covered in mud and debris, when James Baxter, the theater company’s hot-headed Marxist playwright, gazes down the mountain and spies a series of cheap huts. The flood’s actual victims included laborers but also lawyers, bankers, clergymen, and shopkeepers.

James produces an agit-prop play-within-the-play that lays all the blame for the flood at the feet of the capitalists who built a faulty dam. But in fact the South Fork dam was built by the state of Pennsylvania to feed its canal system—and then abandoned almost immediately when that system became obsolete—nearly 30 years before the country club took it over. When the club acquired the dam in 1879, it foolishly put repairs and maintenance in the hands of a non-engineer whose lack of know-how greatly weakened it. But several decades of rapid growth around Johnstown had already stripped the land of timber and reduced the capacity of area rivers. When the massive rain came, the earth couldn’t absorb it, and the run-off added to the stress on the dam. “Progress” was as much to blame as “capitalism.”

And here’s an interesting irony for a play that wants to reference Katrina: the lone African-American character in A True History is also the only one who gets washed away without a trace.