There is an old story - possibly true - about a wireless telegram which was sent by a passenger aboard the steamship Titanic, during its only voyage, during which it sank in the North Atlantic. The message: ''This is the most wonderful trip I've ever taken.''
The obvious lesson? To quote the colorful Yogi Berra, ''It ain't over, till it's over.''
Throughout human history, both literature and non-fiction have been written, volume after volume, weighing in on the meaning and the value of someone's life. Of course, some people write about other people's lives, which they understand only obliquely, at best.
The green beauty of Lake View Cemetery, located at the intersection of Lake View Ave., and Buffalo St., will be the scene for this year's production by local actors and musicians, of Edgar Lee Masters' “Spoon River Anthology.”
For the rest, the trouble is, of course, if the author is writing, he's sending a proverbial telegram from the Titanic. The complete answer isn't available until it's too late for the consequences to be taken into consideration.
All of this is an introduction to a most unusual and meaningful cultural opportunity. Next week, you have a chance to hear from those who do know the entire story of their own lives, because those people are dead.
It's called ''The Spoon River Project,'' and it has a most appropriate setting. It will be performed in one of the most beautiful places in our county: Lake View Cemetery, on the north side of Jamestown. And, just for atmosphere, all but one of the performances take place after dark, by the light of lanterns and torches.
Let me give you the specifics of this amazing production, and then I'll tell you something about the people involved and the project's history.
JUST THE FACTS
Evening performances will be Tuesday through next Saturday evenings, at dusk. For those who like precision, those performances begin at 9:30 p.m. The one performance in broad daylight will be Aug. 1 at 4 p.m., for those who prefer their cemeteries fully illuminated.
If you show up somewhat before dusk, which is to say 8:30 p.m., you can also take a guided tour, conducted by volunteers from the Fenton History Society, of the graves of some of Jamestown's most prominent former residents. Have a look at how the Prendergasts, the Fentons, and others of the families for whom our community and our streets are named, prepared to face eternity.
And, if you've ever wondered what lies inside some of the large mausoleums which are to be found in the cemetery, on Friday and next Saturday, at 11 p.m., you can have a tour inside them, as well.
And, if that isn't enough, for those who enjoy a little gnosh with their tomb visits, representatives of the Marvin House will sell home made snacks before each of the late night performances.
Then, when you've had a look at our community's real past, your guides will escort you over to a site, deep within the cemetery, where park benches have been drawn together, and you will see actors from our area perform a play which has been adapted by Jamestown native Tom Andolora from Edgar Lee Masters' moving collection of poems, ''Spoon River Anthology.''
Tickets are $15 per person, which includes both the tour and the performance. Purchase them from the Reg Lenna Box Office, from the gift shop of the Fenton History Center, from the Labyrinth Press on E. Fourth St. in Jamestown, or from either the Bemus Point or the Chautauqua Institution gift shops, called The Viking Trader. You can also purchase them on line at www.TheSpoonRiverProject.com.
Seating is limited, and the previous year's performances sometimes sold out even though in 2009, it rained like Niagara Falls, all through many of them, so if there are spaces available at the beginning of a performance, you can buy a ticket at the door, but you risk being sold out.
If you want more information about the performances, you can use the web address which I just gave, or you can phone 664-6256.
The organizers have asked me to tell you, you're welcome to bring blankets or towels to sit on, if you don't enjoy wooden park benches, but please don't bring lawn chairs or other furniture. If you feel the need to bring a flashlight to help you walk through the cemetery in the dark, you can do so, but if you start flashing them at the actors or annoying other members of the audience, there will be ''grave'' consequences.
[Here a blood-curdling laugh.]
The tours begin from the corner of Lake View Avenue and Buffalo Street, which is the main entrance to the cemetery. There is a great deal of free, on-street parking near that intersection. Just please remember that for the July performances, you should park on the side of the street where the odd-numbered house numbers are located, and in August, park on the side where the even-numbered house numbers are found.
And, while we're giving words to the wise:
Most of all, remember, you're in a cemetery. The production will treat those grounds only with dignity and respect. Surely the audience should do the same.
''The Spoon River Project'' is being produced by the Fenton History Center, the Lake View Cemetery Assn., in association with Robert John Terreberry.
It has been adapted from the original Edgar Lee Masters poems by Jamestown native Tom Andolora. He has also directed the production.
The person responsible for the costumes worn by all performers is Ann Thorpe.
The lighting and sound are the work of John Fuchs.
Actors in this year's production are Skip Anderson, Emily Blackwood, Mary Hoover, Adam Hughes, Mike Nichols, Daniel Pierce, Merle Szydlo, Robert John Terreberry, Ralph Walton, Karen Waterman, and Kristy Woodfield.
Musicians this year are Eric Grundstrom, Adam McKillip, and Carol Svenson.
THE ACTORS SPEAK
I thought readers might enjoy hearing from some of the actors who participated in last year's production, who have returned to this year's version. I wasn't able to reach all the repeaters by phone, but I think I got enough to give us a flavor.
Perhaps it will give us some depth perception about the coming production:
Karen Waterman is preparing to perform in a Spoon River production for the third time. She said, ''Tom Andolora has presented a number of summer acting workshops in town, and he began using the poems of 'The Spoon River Anthology' as material to give his students a similar style of literature, a similar length, etc. That was my first, and last summer was my second production. Each of the three productions have been different, but obviously, they have a great deal in common, as well.''
Perhaps the most significant difference has been the addition of music which would have been familiar to the characters who speak of their lives. Songs such as ''Blessed Be the Tie That Binds,'' and ''We Shall Gather at the River,'' help create a sense of the time period, and help us understand the values and lifestyles which would have been familiar to them.
In his book of poems, Masters wrote 244 fictional and semi-fictional epitaphs for people who lived in a small town, not unlike our own, around the turn of the 20th Century. The actress said that one of the things she likes is that with each production, Andolora selected epitaphs which suited the physical appearances, ages, energy levels, and other elements of his actors.
Since some of the actors who performed last year have moved out of town, or have other responsibilities which make them unable to repeat their roles, many of this year's performers will be different, and so the characters they play will be different.
''I think we're really working hard at getting this ready, and yet it's fun,'' Ms. Waterman told me. ''I like working with Tom Andolora. He has wonderful ideas about how to portray the characters, but he doesn't force his ideas on us. He lets the actors decide how to portray the personalities of the characters each of us presents.''
She added that because the events of the characters' lives take place in a small town, each person's story inter-relates to the stories of nearly everyone else. Sometimes a character will talk about a woman who helped him, or a man who was a rival for something he wanted, and an actor might not even realize that the other actor is talking about one of his or her characters.
''I'm repeating some characters I played last year, so I mostly understand how those people inter-related with the other characters. On the other hand, I'm doing some new characters, and so I need to fit them, into the other actors' work,'' she said.
Among the characters she'll be repeating is that of Mrs. Merritt, a woman given no first name. Her epitaph tells us that she loved her husband, but she took a young lover. Also among the collection is the memories of the husband. This year, they've also added the epitaph of the lover, as well, so they'll be adjusting their portrayals slightly to include his point of view.
The actor playing Tom Merritt, the wronged husband in both productions, is Daniel Pierce, better known as Deacon.
Pierce finds it astonishing how many people think that, because the production will be held in a cemetery after dark, that the play is a ghost story, or that people will find it frightening.
'''The Spoon River Project' is about people's lives,'' he said. ''Yes, some of them led violent lives or weren't as good as we would like them to be, but others were gentle and kind, faithful, honest and clean. It's just as though you took a group of people from Jamestown today. The play is about people, allowed through literature to look back on their lives, and to share with us whether they're happy about them, or ashamed or whatever.''
He said that among the changes from last year has been a change of some of the songs, which the director believes better sets the tone of how the characters lived.
The actor said he is impressed how well the director knows the original book, on which the production is based. ''He knows it cover-to-cover, that's for sure,'' he said. ''If someone is rehearsing his part and he or another actor comes up with a question about what he's saying or what might have caused something to happen, he is able to go right to the poem which answers the question. If it's important to understanding the segment, we'll add the new poem.''
And, what are Pierce's feelings about the project? He answered, ''This is well worth anyone's time. Hearing people talk about what they've done and what they wish they'd done is valuable for anyone.''
THE ORIGINAL POEMS
Edgar Lee Masters wrote his book of fictional epitaphs in mid-life, publishing them in 1915.
The 244 poems tell of people who lived in the fictional, Central-Illinois town of Spoon River, during the last years of the 19th Century and the early years of the 20th.
The book set off two separate controversies. First of all, Masters borrowed the names of his characters from people he actually knew, growing up in the area around Lewistown and Petersburg, Ill. It is believed he gathered other names by borrowing them from gravestones in actual cemeteries, in that part of the country.
If he used a real name and associated it with a character who has lived a regrettable life, or a violent one, the families of the named person often believed their loved-one had been slandered.
A few of the characters in the poems reveal that they didn't die in the way their death certificates claimed. Those were especially controversial. Many believed he included his personal beliefs and feelings about actual people in his writing, although he always insisted that they were fictional.
The character of Lucinda Matlock, a hearty pioneer woman who worked hard and lived a difficult but decent life, is believed to be a portrait of the poet's own grandmother.
Master's poetic claim that Ann Rutledge was the first love of Abraham Lincoln, has resulted in profit-seeking businessmen erecting an enormous tomb over her grave and seeking to attract tourists to the area, although there is little concrete evidence that any relationship existed between the 16th president and the woman buried there.
Secondly, while the poems don't spend a lot of time discussing Heaven and Hell, mostly reflecting back on the characters' earthly lives, that very omission made many people believe that the poet was suggesting that there is no afterlife or that everyone drifts into a sort of Limbo, regardless of how closely they lived their lives to the doctrines of one religion or another.