Monday, February 18, 2013

Mrs. Packard

The theatre department at the university where I teach recently ended a production run of Emily Mann's play Mrs. Packard.  This play tells the story of a woman named Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, who was wrongly committed to an insane asylum in the 1860s simply for disagreeing with her husband.  Husbands during this era had the legal right to commit their wives if they felt they were insane.  Theophilus Packard, a minister, concluded that insanity was the only explanation for his wife's failure to agree with his stridently "Old School" Calvinist views.  She wound up spending three years in an Illinois insane asylum.

Mrs. Packard's story is profoundly disturbing, not only because of the circumstances of her life, the truths it reveals about the severely circumscribed lives women led until very recently, and the tragedy of what this series of events did to her family, but also because her story is so little known.  I hold a Ph.D. in American history, and until my theatre-professor friend began telling us about his latest production I had no idea Mrs. Packard had existed.  I knew the basic outline of what life was like for women in this era, but the details of Mrs. Packard's story bring the dimensions of this era into alarming and essential detail.

Stories without people fail to arouse the sense of identity necessary to fully understand the past.  Mann's play is an important corrective.  A woman named Barbara Sapinsley has written a biography of Mrs. Packard and I hope to read it.  Meanwhile, see this Web site for the theater that debuted Mann's production for a wonderfully detailed overview of the play, Mrs. Packard's story and the broader historical context.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The long (and not-so-long) arc of history

On this day in 1994, Byron de la Beckwith was convicted -- 31 years after the fact -- of killing civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi.  Evers was slain in his driveway; his wife, Myrlie, and three children were inside the house.  Last month, Myrlie Evers-Williams delivered the invocation at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama.  Nineteen years after her first husband's killer was finally convicted.  Fifty years after Medgar was slain, at a time when the lives of African Americans living in Mississippi (and many other parts of the nation) were severely circumscribed by prejudice and outright brutality.  Much remains to be done, but even so I'm struck sometimes by the power of numbers as they chronicle years.  Sometimes they become so large as to obscure the relevancy of history, but deeply considered they begin to place context around historical events and make them tangible.  It took just two years less time than I've been alive to prosecute someone for an atrocious crime.  My college freshmen were born and have lived since then.  But in just fifty of those years -- my life, plus theirs, less a couple years (anyone have a toddler to toss into the equation?) -- we've moved from desperate conditions of segregation to the point where a woman whose husband was slain as a rabble-rouser is not just present, but praying at the inauguration of the most powerful person in the world.  Who happens to be black.

Wonder how long it will take before the children of the inner city in the capital where the inauguration took place have an equal chance at life?  How will that math play out?  Time will tell.  I hope they are calculations of the years of the young and not of the very old.