During the coming week, local audiences are going to have a rare and wonderful opportunity.
Certainly Lake View Cemetery is one of the most beautiful places in our county. It's grassy expanses, filled with giant trees and flowers, and the noble monuments built there by people who wanted to celebrate and honor the lives of friends and family who had gone on to the next life, create a living history of our community.
Beginning Wednesday and continuing each evening - and one afternoon - through a week from tomorrow, a group of local actors will perform ''A Spoon River Anthology'' in the cemetery itself.
Spoon River Anthology Actor
I'll tell you a bit about the material being performed, then I'll tell you information such as how to get tickets, where in the cemetery to meet, and things of that ilk.
In 1915, poet Edgar Lee Masters wrote a collection of more than 200 short poems. Each represents an epitaph, as though written by the deceased himself or herself.
Masters goes on the assumption that the dead have no more desire to deceive or to impress. His people describe their lives on earth. Some express regret. Some are angry at their fates. Some are filled with love for one or more persons who have been left behind. We encounter them as though we had walked into a cemetery and rambled from one tombstone to the next, reading what the dead had to say about their former lives.
Although each poem stands on its own, as an expression of the departed's life, when they are juxtaposed with others from the anthology, they show us even more. One poem has a successful man, praising his parents for his success, while another in the collection has a grief-stricken woman informing us that she was the unwed mother of this same man and had sacrificed her love for him so he could be raised by those people to whom he was so grateful.
There really is a Spoon River in Illinois, although there is no real town by that name. A visit to a number of small 19th-century graveyards near the river will show gravestones bearing many of the names the poet used for his characters. According to the Wikipedia, the events described in the poems are not actual events from the lives of the people who are buried in those graveyards, although some of the people who lived in that area were offended or angered by the events the poet associated with one of their relatives.
Probably the closest the collection comes to history is the epitaph attributed to Ann Rutledge. In Illinois, there has long been a local rumor that when Lincoln was practicing as an attorney in that area, he met and fell in love with Ann, who was engaged to marry another man.
Exactly what the relationship was is unknown, and she died of typhoid fever at the age of 22, launching him into a period of deep depression. Her poem suggests that by giving him up, she made possible his career in national politics and all the great accomplishments of his life. Today, he might have gone for a hike on the Appalachian Trail and it all would have blown over.
Following Lincoln's assassination, a local profiteer seeking to attract tourists removed the simple stone marker over her grave and replaced it with a giant granite structure, on which her epitaph from ''Spoon River Anthology'' was eventually carved. Lincoln's family was said to be deeply angered by it, but it remains like that to this day.
The poem from the collection which is most often studied in schools and reproduced in collections of poetry is the one attributed to Lucinda Matlock. The poem is celebrated for its speaker's simple but emphatic statement that her life of 96 years had been full of suffering and of hard work, but she had done what needed to be done and had gone to sweet rest, well earned. Lucinda sneers at her ''degenerate sons and daughters'' for their whining and dissatisfaction, and proclaims that it takes life to love life.
The collection of poems was controversial when it was first published, because it spoke openly of greed, envy, illegitimacy, bribery and other qualities which could easily be found in small town life, and which is still very much an element of it, although in 1915, it wasn't considered acceptable to openly discuss those problems. More modern audiences tend to find it an accurate description, rather than to be shocked by it.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
The principal force behind these performances is Jamestown native Tom Andalora. Now a resident of New York City, he has had a long and successful career in the theater, and is a successful teacher and coach to professional performers.
For the past 10 years, Andalora has returned to his home town in the summertime to lead the State Department of Education's sponsored program for summer enrichment for talented students in the public schools.
He told me recently that he has always used ''Spoon River Anthology'' to introduce his students to a kind of poetry which they might not have heard before. He has always had his students choose poems from the collection, and to speak them aloud to their classmates, as a tool to have them interpret and analyze poems for meaning. As the years progressed, it became clear to him that the poems could become a powerful piece of theater, especially if the characters are enacted by actors who are age appropriate to the speakers in the poems.
For the past several years, the Fenton History Society has invited the public to attend tours of Lake View Cemetery. These were held after dark, usually around Halloween, and since their inception, the tours have always been sold out in advance.
Andalora proposed that his performances should be limited to about an hour, but would be preceded with a brief tour of the cemetery, bringing the experience of appreciation of local history together with the thoughts and feelings of the poetry.
He credits Joni Blackman, director of the Fenton History Center for her help with the project, along with Sam Genco of the Lake View Cemetery. ''Both Joni and Sam were very concerned that the event should include an element of local history, and that it should be completely respectful and dignified to the final resting place of so many of our friends and relatives,'' he said. ''I think I can safely say that we're offering a solemn and meaningful experience, rather than the equivalent of a Halloween haunted house.''
He says he started with 90 of the epitaphs, chosen from the more than 200 in the published edition. As he listened to auditions, and as he selected actors to participate in the presentation, Andalora listened to the actors' views of which of the readings spoke to them emotionally and which suited their physical characteristics. Eventually he cut the readings to 40, which can be performed with occasional songs, in about one hour. Each actor will present several of the poems.
Andalora praises the help he has received from the Arts Council for Chautauqua County, and from local actor and director Robert John Terreberry for helping him to make arrangements from his home in New York City, so that once he arrived, everything could be put into motion.
Local actors who will be enacting ''The Spoon River Anthology'' include Skip Anderson, Dana Block, Emily Drew, Jamla Fish, James Middleton, Daniel Pierce, Ron Robertson, Matt Smith, Jim Walton, Ruth Yancy Walton and Karen Waterman.
The poetry will be punctuated by traditional American music. Musicians will be Adam McKillip on mandolin, Jenna Moynihan on violin and Carol Svenson on keyboard.
John Fuchs will be in charge of lighting, which will be done with torches, lanterns and other natural lighting.
Coordinator of costumes will be Ann Thorp. Libby Nord will do choreography.
Co-producers of the event are the Fenton History Center and the Lake View Cemetery Association.
Andalora extended his thanks to all involved, including David Schein at the Arts Council, and to the Unitarian Church. The event received a grant in support from the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation.
HOW TO SEE IT
There are a limited number of spaces available at each performance. Andalora suggested that those wishing to see the performance purchase their tickets in advance. Tickets will be sold in person by the Fenton History Center. They will also by sold at the Fenton's Web site in the online museum shop. Go to www.fentonhistorycenter.org. Buy tickets at either of the Viking Trader Gift Stores - one in Bemus Point and the other at the Chautauqua Institution.
All tickets are $12, which includes both the cemetery tour and the performance. Tickets are for a specific performance, and are not inter-changeable. The tour does not require extensive climbing of hills and is accessible to viewers in wheelchairs, although due to the location of certain graves, it might be necessary for the handicapped to remain at a short distance.
While it is not mandatory that participants attend both the tour and the performance, Andalora stresses that the two events are closely linked, and the end result will not be nearly as effective if someone attends one without the other.
All tours begin at 8:30 p.m., except for one matinee and two late night tours. The matinee will be Aug. 2, and will begin at 2 p.m. The late night tours will be July 31 and Aug. 1, and will begin at 11 p.m. Late night tours are in addition to regular 8:30 p.m. tours on those dates. No one younger then age 16 can be accommodated on late night tours.
In addition to the graves of famous former Jamestown area residents, which will be seen on the regular tours, late night tours will also go inside some of the historic mausoleums within the cemetery. Tour plus performance will last approximately 90 minutes.
Audience members are strongly encouraged to arrive at the starting point of the tours at least 10 minutes in advance of the beginning of the tours. The tours will begin at the main entrance to Lake View Cemetery, which is located at the intersection of Buffalo Street and Lakeview Avenue.
Parking should be done outside the cemetery grounds on adjacent streets.
There is a small rest room at the cemetery, but audience members are encouraged to deal with that situation in advance of arrival, if at all possible. Audience members are encouraged to dress so they can stay outside for the tour and the performance. It also isn't a bad idea to apply some insect repellent before arriving at the cemetery.
Andalora stresses that it is urgent that the dignity of a final resting place be upheld at all times. Participants should not bring food nor any beverages with them on the tour nor to the performance, except for bottled water. No litter of any kind should be left behind.
Tour groups must stay with guides. No running nor wandering away from the groups can be permitted. Cell phones should be turned off before beginning the tour, and should not be used for any reason in the cemetery.
Audience members are welcome to bring flashlights to help them get around on the tour, but flashlights should be extinguished and remain out during the performance.
Seating at the performance will be on park benches. Audience members are welcome to bring seat cushions to the performance. They may choose to sit on the ground, if they prefer, on a blanket or towel. Lawn chairs and other furniture are not appropriate.
Anyone who needs to leave the seating area during the performance is instructed to find an usher, for assistance, as gravestones and other possible causes of falls might be encountered in the dark.
In the event of heavy rain, tickets for the missed performance may be used at future performances. Additional rain dates may be scheduled following the final scheduled performances.
There are a lot of rules, but this is an unusual situation and all of them are simply reasonable for the safety of the viewers and the effective presentation of a performance.
If you need additional information about the ''Spoon River Anthology'' performances, you are encouraged to go to the Fenton History Center's Web site at www.fentonhistorycenter.org. Organizers will attempt to post any rain cancellations on the site as soon as the decision is made. If your questions aren't answered on the Web site, you may phone the Fenton History Center at 664-6256.