Bringing Back ‘The Civil War’

It’s become acceptable to dismiss the 60s as a time when intellectual standards went out the window and self-indulgence ruled. Despite a fair amount of incriminating evidence, it’s a bum rap, and Ron Dorfman intends to offer some welcome testimony for the defense. An experienced editor and writer taking a fearless plunge into show business, Dorfman is producing a revival of the passionate 1968 rock cantata The Civil War. An hour-long meditation on war, racism, and America, The Civil War is a galvanizing sound and light show, a fair emblem today of what the 1960s were truly about.

Written by the young composer William Russo under the umbrella of the Columbia College Center for New Music, The Civil War opened on Wells Street in July of ’68. It later moved to a Lincoln Avenue bowling alley and became an essential port of call of the counterculture.

“They would take people out of the audience and put them in the chorus banging tambourines,” Dorfman remembers. “It had that spirit of the times, that hippie-dippie spontaneity.” We asked Dorfman how he reacted to the show back then, and he said “I don’t remember. I can’t separate that memory from everything else that was going on around it.”

Two months ago, Columbia College, where Russo now is director of the music program, remounted The Civil War at the suggestion of theater instructor Albert Williams. There were three performances of the campus production. This time Dorfman left knowing exactly how he felt. Stunned. “More people should be seeing this,” he told himself.

And he told Russo, “You really should put this thing up commercially.”

Commercially! “Such an idea had never occurred to Bill or to me,” says Williams. But if Ron Dorfman thought so . . .

“Russo called a few days later,” Dorfman told us, “and said, how would you like to produce it? I said what do I have to do? He said, find a theater and get some people and put it on.”

OK, said Dorfman, who had a little money laid by. Friends more knowing than he in the art of getting wild schemes to fly gave him advice and the project began to take shape. The Civil War will play at the Vic from September 8 through 30, with two performances nightly. Dorfman thinks he can book enough groups doing benefits–combining the early show with cocktails or the late show with Clubland, the dance hall that the Vic becomes after hours–to guarantee him at least a shirt to wear after the run.

“I’m learning as I go along,” Dorfman says. “I hope I’m not a complete idiot.”

If Russo lent a hand to making 1968 what it was in Chicago, we think of Dorfman as someone formed by that year. A newspaper reporter then, he was so outraged by the Democratic convention here and the daily papers’ dissembling coverage of it that he quit his job and threw himself into creating the Chicago Journalism Review. Dorfman edited CJR for several years and has been tarred ever since with a reputation as a man ruled by principles and convictions.

We asked him why he was bothering with The Civil War. A 20th anniversary is, after all, 20 years after the fact. “It’s a reminder that the struggle goes on,” says Dorfman, “and also to remind us that that struggle produced a lot of great popular art. A book called When the Music Mattered says that period produced arguably the greatest of all American popular music, and certainly the popular music most closely connected to the life of the country at the time.

“Every now and then Channel 11 shows the Peter, Paul, and Mary 25th reunion concert, and every time it makes me cry. And what it makes me cry about is the sense that we lost that feeling of communion we often had, that Peter, Paul, and Mary evoke, and I think that it’s an honest sentiment.”

In 1988 The Civil War flirts with considerable danger. An essential part of it is a slide show, a cascade of images from the 1860s and 1960s, Mississippi and Vietnam, that could strike today’s young audiences as pat and hokey. Yet at the Columbia College performances last May, The Civil War prevailed. It deeply moved people who wore diapers in 1968.

“It’s elegiac,” says Dorfman. “To reduce it to words, it’s the horror of war, the inhumanity of segregation and discrimination. It’s also the heroism of people struggling against those evils. And the music makes you part of it, as the best music of the 60s did. It sounds trite when you say that. But simple, honest emotion isn’t disreputable.”

“I always wanted to revive this show, but I knew the timing had to be right,” says Albert Williams, who is directing The Civil War for Dorfman. “The guy who founded CJR has got to have some vision, so I’ll trust him.”

Newsweek Speak

Newsweek just gave us the big picture on Chicago’s library competition. It’s an excellent example of how the last people to appreciate history are the ones who are standing around watching it made.

The July 4 article contained several sweeping statements about the competition, all of them dramatic and all of them false. Not false to posterity, necessarily; merely to those of us who lived through the competition and therefore know something about it.

Said article begins: “The battle lines were clear, in what was billed from the beginning as a struggle for the soul of American civic architecture.” Here in Chicago we understood the struggle as a search for a more dignified setting for the city’s book collection than a warehouse or a dry-goods store.

“Although there were three other entrants . .. in the public mind it was a contest between [Helmut] Jahn and [Thomas] Beeby, glass and granite, the 21st century versus the 19th.” The entrants too unimportant to be mentioned by name were Arthur Erickson, the choice of the public that cast ballots at the Cultural Center; Dirk Lohan, the preference of both the Tribune’s Paul Gapp and the membership of Friends of Downtown; and Adrian Smith, favored by the Reader’s Ed Zotti.

“When the winner was announced last week, no one was too surprised that Beeby had edged out Jahn”–Beeby “edged” Jahn nine jurors to two.

“. . . for the simple reason that–in the words of Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer–Beeby’s building ‘looks like a library.'” Norman Ross, chairman of the jury, tells us the jurors actually delved somewhat deeper than that, giving great weight to Beeby’s “state-of-the-art and extremely flexible” interior, also to his track record as a designer of libraries, among them the triumphant Sulzer Regional Library on the north side.

We brought our quibbles to Tim Padgett, the Newsweek correspondent who filed from Chicago, and Jerry Adler, who wrote the story in New York. “To the extent one design was chosen over another because its internal circulation patterns were superior, it’s not a story for Newsweek at all,” Adler explained. “I’m sure there were factors that complicated [the judging]. Part of our job is to abstract from that what we think is interesting to a national audience.”

What Adler calls abstracting we’d call the lifting of significant details out of Chicago’s context to put them into Newsweek’s, namely a mano a mano between Jahn and Beeby, or at least what Padgett called a collision of “the stylistic philosophies the two men represent.”

Thus a complex civic process was reduced to a high concept that could be pitched to a national audience and to history. But that said, we have to concede that Padgett was onto something.

Any day now the library board will release the notes taken during the jury’s deliberations, and we’ll know better just how caught up the 11 jurors actually were in making a statement to architectural posterity. If the final vote was nine to two, it came after earlier rounds of voting had eliminated the other competition; so the jury ultimately did bring it down to Beeby versus Jahn. And at least one juror–Norman Ross–forsook Jahn with aheavy heart.

“I voted for the Beeby reluctantly,” Ross told us, “and I still don’t know if I should have voted for the Jahn instead. I was one of those who liked it particularly. I feet Helmut has grown tremendously since the State of Illinois building. I’m crazy about the Northwestern atrium building.”

But people who didn’t like the Jahn design tended to hate it–Ross said a cabbie who picked him up told him “Ross, I know where you live. If you pick Jahn’s design I’m going to run you out of town.” And Chicago has needed a new library too long and too desperately for the jury to stir up fresh turmoil now.

“We could use a breather for a while,” said Ross. The pleasant building won.

Hot Head

That was an enterprising page-one headline in the Sun-Times a week ago:

“Fires of hell”

–and 166 die

The oil-rig calamity off the Scottish coast was the paper’s lead story. The fourth paragraph explained:

“A massive air-sea rescue operation plucked 69 of the men to safety from what a local newspaper called ‘the fires of hell’ on the Piper Alpha platform.”

First choice is always to quote a soot-covered survivor babbling poetically on his litter. But the edition can’t wait until one’s available. So it looks like the Sun-Times made do, going with a rewrite man in Aberdeen.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.