04 July 2014

Reflections on My Portrayal of Louisa May Alcott

 I am privileged to live in Concord, Massachusetts just a mile from Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, where I have worked since 1977 in varying capacities, and now as executive director.  Through these years, I developed an original one-woman show, in which I portray Louisa May Alcott in as much depth as I can to show her complexity.  When in character, I enter the room where the audience awaits as if I’ve had a minor carriage accident and must wait for repairs.  As soon as I step in, however, I quickly leave, as one would do if one inadvertently walked into an assembled group.  The evening’s host must say something to the effect, “Wait, Miss Alcott, these people wish to meet you.”  My embarrassed answer: “But I am interrupting you!”  When assured that this is not the case, I confess that the young man who took my carriage to the livery mentioned that someone in the building had read Little Women and would probably enjoy meeting me, but I didn’t expect so many people!  I then interact with the audience for about an hour, staying in character and staying in Louisa’s time-period.  In some performances questions begin immediately and the entire time is a dialogue.  In other cases, the first part of the performance is more like a stage show and the audience warms up for questions later on.  The interaction with the audience is my favorite part of the experience.  For me this process is like having a large mental closet full of stories and quotations.  I pull out the ones appropriate for that audience.  I try to behave exactly as someone would if stranded in a very unfamiliar place but pleasantly surprised by interesting people.  My highest complement is when people tell me they feel that they’ve really met Louisa May Alcott.  One editor asked me to write of my experience portraying Louisa because, as he put it: “Figuratively standing in her shoes brings a special insight” into her life.  That request has inspired this blog post, as well. *

Louisa May Alcott has ignited passion in scholars and captured the attention of modern day readers because of her multifaceted personality.  I like to think of her, the strong-minded feminist, proud spinster, independent thinker, and rebel poised to enter the Civil War as a Union Army nurse.  In her November 1862 journal she wrote,

Thirty years old.  Decided to go to Washington as a nurse . . .. I love nursing and must let out my pent up energy in some new way . . . I want new experiences, and am sure to get ‘em if I go.

Who was the young woman who wrote those words in 1862?  At age thirty, she did not think herself to be young.  On the surface, one might say she did not think much of herself at all.  Continually self-effacing, Louisa did not consider herself attractive, socially adept or a great writer.  Rather, she considered herself a workhorse who had the harder road, at least compared to her youngest sister.  In one journal entry, she wrote, “She (sister May) is one of the fortunate ones, and gets what she wants easily.  I have to grub for my help, or go without it.  Good for me . . . cheer up, Louisa, and grind away.”

Louisa routinely identified with the outsider and wistfully acknowledged what she could not have.  The reader of Alcott’s journals may conclude that Louisa was jealous of her sister, but should also note numerous passages such as, “On the 17th go to B[oston] and see our youngest [May] start on her first little flight alone into the world, full of hope and courage.  May all go well with her!”   Keeping the whole person in mind as I portray Louisa, I take the view that her sibling envy is only on the surface.  Underneath, I see her deep love for her sisters and her strong spirit taking over.   Looking beneath that surface in order to understand her, one does see a strong-minded feminist, an independent thinker, a dutiful daughter, a humorist, an actress, a preacher, a repressed soul, sometimes frustrated not to be in a more traditional, cared-for role, a proud, independent spinster, a jealous outsider, a rebel, an optimist, and a pessimist.  Louisa was all of these, and reflected them in her writing.  She was, after all, a product of her age.  Women were strongly admonished everywhere in the Victorian culture to prepare themselves to fulfill their sacred duty to be wife and mother. 

Even as one sometimes sees traditional female roles reflected in her writing, one must remember her thriller tales, uncovered by foremost Alcott scholars Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern.  In tale after tale, with titles such as Behind a Mask, or the Story of a Woman’s Power, Louisa celebrated strong, independent, bold women.   I loved discussing these stories with Rostenberg and Stern, who become very close friends.  At our first meeting, I was extremely nervous, knowing that these Alcott experts were about to see me perform as Louisa May Alcott after a dinner at Trinity College honoring their lifetimes of scholarly achievement.  After the performance, Miss Stern said to me, “You are Louisa May Alcott.  Louisa would have loved this!”  As our friendship grew, I learned more about their thoughts on Alcott and also discovered that it was the depth of my characterization, and my willingness to include divergent aspects of Louisa’s personality that drew Miss Stern’s compliment (which I shamelessly treasure to this day).

In the bosom of a family that practiced what they preached, Louisa learned to value people more than things and greatly admired her mother whom she called, “The best woman in the world.”  Well-born Abigail May was a true philanthropist who gave out of her own need, when she could not give out of abundance.  She truly was the Marmee of Little Women, with more dimension in real life.  Indeed, the cheerful actions and words of Mrs. Alcott and her daughter were often exhibited in the midst of suffering and death.   Both Louisa and her mother also had an acerbic wit and could also express dismay and distress in their journals.  Even so, the Alcotts repeatedly made an intentional choice to search for joy in hard times.  Louisa loved finding or making fun.  Humor gave her a healthy perspective on her life and life around her, even in the midst of suffering.

Louisa dearly loved her philosopher father, Amos Bronson Alcott.  Although he did not provide well for his family materially, he nurtured his daughters’ inner beings.  Instead of mourning his lack of sons, he celebrated his girls as equally viable movers and shakers – remarkable for that time.  In an era when it was considered unlady-like for a woman to have a desk of her own, Mr. Alcott built his budding authoress her own desk.  Louisa enjoyed this personal encouragement, love and support even as she was sometimes frustrated by her father’s extremely idealistic impracticality.   She once wrote, “Why try to know the unknowable when there are still poor to be fed?”  Louisa also wrote, “I wish the stupid would wake up and pay him what he is worth,” after learning that as a lecturer, he was not always paid what was promised, even though his conversations had been characterized as going “to heaven in a swing.”

When preparing the role of Louisa May Alcott, I try to be honest and take her as a whole being.  I endeavor to take conflicting feelings and let them coexist in one person.  Indeed, we are all made up of contradictory parts, which we frequently do not see very clearly in ourselves.   Yet as a whole, these diverse pieces come together to create a vital, interesting person.  A problem with intelligent, complex historic people, such as Louisa May Alcott, is that when dissected in a purely academic light, one loses that sense of the whole.  For Alcott, as for others, like a pointillist painting, close inspection of the tiny pieces means loss of the whole where one sees the true character.

            A strong part of the popular culture, Louisa’s book, Little Women, is a useful reference point for understanding Alcott – to a degree.  Readers are not called upon to dissect and scrutinize tiny pieces of a character’s conflicting nature.  They understand conflict to be a normal part of an interestingly complex real person.  One of Jo’s most endearing qualities is that she is not perfect, yet she goes on loving, living, and doing her best to make a real difference in the world.
            In this way, I believe Little Women is an aid in understanding the young woman who stood at the brink of war and wished to plunge in!  Louisa was ready to make a real difference in the world, even as she was self-effacing.  To some degree, that modesty was a façade, fulfilling society’s expectation of a woman, yet the side of her that went forth and acted boldly anyway always won out over any doubts.  Such action is a sign of healthy esteem, even if you also look wistfully to what might have been, as Louisa sometimes did.  The imaginative and creative soul can envision oneself on the path not taken, feel a sense of loss, but refuse to dwell on regrets.

                        Louisa May Alcott was both a product of her times and a challenge to them.  Her autobiographical character, Jo March, has been hailed as a role model for women for over a century now and inspires people from all walks of life and all parts of the globe.  Women in particular draw inspiration from Jo March.  Yet, it is unfortunate that the very title, Little Women, creates a certain reluctance to reading the book in some males.  I am convinced that Louisa’s experiences in life and in the Civil War allowed her to cut through gender roles and convey the inspiration and attraction of her family experience to male and female alike.

            She begins her classic, Little Women, during the dark days of the Civil War.  To make her book more socially acceptable, the pragmatic author gave many of her own Civil War experiences to Mr. March.  The similarities are unmistakable:  A telegram brings the family the dreaded news that Mr. March is in a Union Army Hospital.  Mother leaves immediately for Washington, “praying that she is not too late.”  In reality, Louisa was the subject of just such a telegram and her father traveled to the Union Hotel Hospital, hoping that he may see his second born alive.

            In Little Women and in the Alcott home the warmth and support of family – no matter how flawed -- provides strength when far away and in trying circumstances.  With remarkable straightforward simplicity, Louisa shares what she experienced that the strength of a good family is a constant presence.

            In my role as performer, as well as in my job as executive director of her home, Orchard House, I meet literally hundreds of her readers every month.  I have been truly astounded by her impact on lives.  I am often asked to explain phenomena such as the hundreds of thousands of Japanese visitors who flock to Orchard House, brimming with enthusiasm.  I have come to believe that because Jo March displays strength and independence, while maintaining absolute respect for all members of her family and championing the value of family and people over material possessions and social standing, she is a universal role model.  Humans the world over long to find ways to maintain their inner spirit, while sustaining connections to those who really matter in life.

            Of all the statements that I have heard, however, a recent one really gave me pause.  A woman, who saw my Louisa May Alcott performance, told me that her fifteen-year-old grandson’s favorite book was Little Women.  She told me that he would not admit to his friends that he had even read it, much less how much he loved it.  I asked her if he had given her a reason for his fondness of the book.  She told me that he said it was because the March family was weird in a cool way.  I have turned this idea over in my mind a great deal since then.  “Weird in a cool way.”

            That pretty much sums it up, I guess.  In the midst of people who are afraid to be themselves, whether the year is 1861 or 2061, it can seem weird to be oneself with all of one’s conflicts and inconsistencies showing.  It can definitely seem weird to stand up for one’s unpopular beliefs and to act in ways that do not “fit in” with everyone else.  And in today’s vernacular, where “cool” means admirable; it is cool to see the bravery and integrity it takes to do these things.   Do I hero-worship Louisa May Alcott?  No.  Do I admire her?  Yes.  Her writings come from the heart and intellect of a person of tremendous integrity and spirit.  They accurately record events of the time, yet hold a timeless quality.   Louisa May Alcott imparts the unique perspective of a person whose family nurtured her with independence and integrity – a person. flawed, but definitely “cool”

* Parts of this blog originally appeared in my introduction to Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War from Edinborough Press, c 2007           --Jan Turnquist

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