The Riots Within the 1863 New York City Draft Riots
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.
“The Banished Children of Eve”
Irish Repertory Theater
132 W. 22d St., New York, N.Y.
The keys of a piano clink softly to Stephen Foster’s classic song “Beautiful Dreamer” as Kelly Younger’s play “The Banished Children of Eve,” begins at the Irish Repertory Theater in New York. Shortly after the first notes of the song are finished we meet Jimmy Dunne, an Irish immigrant who has been drafted into the Union Army in the summer of 1863 under President Lincoln’s new and controversial conscription plan. Jimmy does not want to fight in the war and needs $300, nearly a year’s pay, to hire a substitute to join the army in his place. We find him scheming with his friend, Waldo Capshaw, to rob the home of a wealthy New Yorker to get the money. (Jimmy’s part in the plan is to take the Irish maid Margaret, the only resident at the time, out on a date to leave the house empty for his partner.)
Shortly afterwards, the notorious draft riots of 1863 erupt on the dark and tense streets of New York and residents seek shelter wherever they can find it to avoid the large, surly, murderous crowds that roam throughout the city.
Seeking safety with Jimmy and the maid are actor Jack Mulcahy, head of a minstrel show, his girlfriend Eliza, a performer in his troupe, their adopted black teenaged son Squirt, Euphemia Blanchard, an African-American laborer, Capshaw, and Mulcahy’s friends Mike Manning and Mr. Miller.
At first, Mulcahy and Squirt hide in the dressing room of a theater. The rest wind up in the lobby of a city hotel, with the doors securely locked. Inside, they argue about their relationships to each other. Mulcahy (who sees yellow halos above the heads of people who will soon die) and Eliza (who conceals her real name) argue constantly about bringing up Squirt amid their plans to move to Canada. Jimmy tries to prove his new-found love for Margaret but she just sees him as a conniver trying to rob her boss. Euphemia seems to be both the black and white conscience of the play.
The first act of the play moves far too slowly. The people in the cast are protecting themselves from the riot but do not seem involved in much of a story. We often cannot understand what Euphemia Blanchard is saying because of her thick accent. Famed composer Stephen Foster (“Beautiful Dreamer, “Oh, Susanna,” “Camptown Races”), ten years past his prime as a writer in 1863 (he will die within the year) appears in the play to offer up songs at different points in the story—for no apparent reason.
But “Banished Children of Eve” becomes as intense as the riots in the streets during the second act, when the people in the hotel realize that black teenager Squirt is missing. The men go off into the dangerous night to find him and take the audience with them in a riveting finale to the story.
The best part of the play, based on Peter Quinn’s novel, is the way that the sounds of the riot are constantly heard through the second act. Sitting in the theater, you fully believe that a riot is taking place around you. The sounds include people shouting, horses and explosions. They are vivid and frightening.
Director Ciaran O’Reilly makes good use of the small stage. It is, at times, a hotel lobby, theater dressing room and a street in New York. He does a fine job of helping to create a slowly building tension in the story. You just wish that the agonizingly slow first act was as sizzling as the second.
The director gets solid acting from his small but effective cast. David Lansbury is a delight as the minstrel actor who tries to balance work and family, and save his life. Amber Gray is convincing as his distraught love Eliza. Graeme Malcolm is a fascinating rogue about t own. Jonny Orsini, as Jimmy, Christopher Borger as Squirt, Patrice Johnson as Euphemia and Malcolm gets as Foster do a fine job. Kern McFadden and Rory Duffy round out the talented cast.
The problem with the history of this play about a tragic incident in the Civil War is that most of it is in the program and not on the stage. The program contains a story about the disturbances, but neither the play nor the program notes outline the true magnitude of the riots, the largest in American history. Six African Americans were hanged and another several dozen badly beaten. Draft offices and federal buildings were burned and businesses that employed blacks trashed. Newspapers had to defend themselves against rioters with Gatling guns. Several churches were burned. Well-dressed men found in the streets were mugged. The large Colored Orphanage was burned down (mentioned in the play) and the homes of leading Republicans and abolitionists ransacked. The four days of rioting only ended when an army of twenty thousand federal troops arrived to restore order. Altogether, more than one hundred people were killed. Almost none of that was mentioned.
The cause of the disturbance was Lincoln’s conscription act, passed to replenish Union forces because tens of thousands of enlistments were up and recruitment was slow for the seemingly never-ending conflict. The riots erupted after numerous incidents. Employment in New York was high, thanks to the soaring war economy, and men did not seek jobs in the military. But wages were low. The Irish were continually discriminated against; disease and crime were high in New York and living conditions dreadful.
The draft was unfair. Twenty percent of the eligible men fled their homes and did not report. Sixty percent were rejected because of physical or mental disabilities or because they were the sole means of support for their families. If you were drafted, you could get out of service by paying a “commutation fee” of $300 or hire a substitute (prompting critics to call the war a “rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight”). In the end, out of nearly one million eligible men, just 46,000 were left and called into the army. It infuriated them, their friends and family. And, many claimed, they did not want to risk their lives to free African Americans, whom they saw taking their jobs. It was not just the Irish who were unhappy, but many draftees.
“The Banished Children of Eve” is a decent play about history, but it needs more history.
Staged by the Irish Repertory Theatre, Charlotte Moore, artistic director. Choreography: Barry McNabb, Set: Charlie Corcoran, Costumes: Martha Hally, Lighting: Brian Nason, Music Design: Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery, Casting: Deborah Brown, Stage Manager, Pamela Brusoski
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