Richard Strand’s Play, “Ben Butler”

The following is a guest blog post by Elizabeth D. Leonard, author of Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life.

Benjamin Franklin Butler was one of the most important and controversial military and political leaders of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Remembered most often for his uncompromising administration of the Federal occupation of New Orleans during the war, Butler reemerges in this lively narrative as a man whose journey took him from childhood destitution to wealth and profound influence in state and national halls of power. Prize-winning biographer Elizabeth D. Leonard chronicles Butler’s successful career in the law defending the rights of the Lowell Mill girls and other workers, his achievements as one of Abraham Lincoln’s premier civilian generals, and his role in developing wartime policy in support of slavery’s fugitives as the nation advanced toward emancipation. Leonard also highlights Butler’s personal and political evolution, revealing how his limited understanding of racism and the horrors of slavery transformed over time, leading him into a postwar role as one of the nation’s foremost advocates for Black freedom and civil rights, and one of its notable opponents of white supremacy and neo-Confederate resurgence.

Butler himself claimed he was “always with the underdog in the fight.” Leonard’s nuanced portrait will help readers assess such claims, peeling away generations of previous assumptions and characterizations to provide a definitive life of a consequential man.

If you have the opportunity to see Richard Strand’s play, “Ben Butler,” which debuted off-Broadway in 2016 and is still making the rounds at local theaters across the country, I recommend it. I saw the play in Portland, Maine, back in fall 2018 when I was deep into the research for my biography of Butler. Certainly the play exercises some artistic license, and I generally have limited patience with the way many creators/purveyors of “historical entertainment” play fast and loose with the details of the past. But I found this play’s manipulations of the historical record understandable and even acceptable, given the story it aims to tell in roughly ninety minutes. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Perhaps even more important, I am sure that Mr. Butler would have enjoyed it! Indeed, with his keen sense of humor and striking blend of self-regard and self-knowledge, I believe he would have laughed heartily throughout and, after the curtain calls, cheerfully shaken Mr. Strand’s hand and clapped the actor who portrayed him on the back.

In the Portland performance, at least, the acting was excellent, the theater was charming, and the set was well-designed to carry us back to Fort Monroe, Virginia, in May 1861. And although here and there some of the dialogue could perhaps have been condensed, Mr. Strand’s goal was clear: to methodically set up the complex process by which Butler reached his “contraband” policy, while also developing his character for an audience who might not know him. I think he was successful. But let’s talk about the play’s use of artistic license, the most obvious example of which, in my view, was having the runaway bondsman, Sheppard Mallory, address and behave around Butler in ways an enslaved man assuredly would not have done, especially when pleading for his freedom: namely, boldly and unsubmissively. I actually found this depiction of Mallory compelling, however, because in a play of this sort—all of which takes place in Butler’s office over the course of a few hours—it would be impossible to explain or demonstrate how much the enslaved had already contributed to their own emancipation in terms of their courage, intelligence, sheer grit, patience, cleverness—how much they had sacrificed, how many bold risks they had already taken—prior to the moment the play begins. So, although the Mallory character’s manner is not historically credible, I was able to accept it as an interesting and effective substitute for the long, hard history of enslaved people’s efforts towards self-emancipation.

Perhaps strangely, the one bit of artistic license that troubled me was that the actor who played Butler was so tall, when Butler himself was so short (5’4″). Although the actor captured Butler’s spirit nicely, I couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like to have someone who was closer to Butler’s actual size playing him, especially since the actor playing Mallory was shorter. Of course, we don’t know how tall the historical Mallory was (likewise either of the two other enslaved men who showed up that first day at Fort Monroe and who were excised from the script for simplicity’s sake). But it certainly would have changed the dynamic in interesting ways to have Mallory be taller than Butler, which may well have been the case.

As a final note, I sat for an interview with the audience and the artistic director after the show, and there were some folks in the audience who, in light of the seriousness of the subject, were troubled by the comedic aspects of the play. I actually was not troubled by them, in part because I was struck by how much I thought the historical Ben Butler would have loved and recognized himself in this depiction of his character. I also thought it made perfect sense to have the dialogue be so rich in, and so focused on, word play, because in the end, one could argue, it was his superiority in word play that enabled Butler to launch his contraband policy. And he knew it: he played with the word “contraband” till he could make it work for the case at hand. He played with the wording of the Confederate officer’s “demand” to have Mallory, Baker, and Townsend returned to their owners, etc. This is historical reality. The success of his contraband policy going forward, too, depended—at least initially—on a lot of shared, wink-wink interpretations of language and law. I thought the play’s humor captured that.

I do wonder how many people would go to a play called “Ben Butler” if they didn’t already know who he was and have some interest in the Civil War and/or his life beforehand. But on the day I attended, the theater was full. And if folks who know nothing about him or the war do take a chance on the play, they will not be disappointed.

Elizabeth D. Leonard’s previous books include Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky, winner of the Lincoln Prize.