“History is an unending sequence of great and calamitous events. But that is the history of kings, nations and armies and it ignores completely the people who are caught up in its unyielding progression. To look at it from a different perspective, history is the story of life interrupted, suspended momentarily, and then put back differently. History is the constant reshuffling of the deck of cards that is the human experience. What fascinates me are the moments that history skips over: when calamity subsides and life is free to return to normal.
Of course, after such events, “normal” is rarely the state to which life returns. The deck is never shuffled the same way twice. A new “normal” takes the place of the old. How, for example, do you pass through the gates of a newly liberated Auschwitz and begin to live again? How, when the machetes are finally put away, does a Rwandan return to her quotidian routines? And how, after centuries of bondage, do slaves become free people? What is that first morning like? How long does it take to register the immensity of that change? What, simply, do you do? For American slaves, in particular, there was no “normal” to return to. Their deck wasn’t reshuffled. It was replaced entirely.
Those are the questions that prompted me to write The Whipping Man.
The Whipping Man could never tell that story in its entirety. No one piece of fiction ever could. My hope is that this play tells the story of the first tentative steps of the long, painful, hopeful journey that began in April 1865 and continues today.
And so, in one southern home in April 1865, two slaves and their former master, all self-identifying Jews, celebrate the observance of Pesach together. As they do, they each come to realize the immensity of the moment they find themselves in and of the tremendous scars, both real and psychological, they bear from their encounter with slavery. It is the story about when history ends and life begins again, much like the springtime in which the story is set”. ν
~ Adapted with permission from materials prepared by The Old Globe Theatre: The Whipping Man study guide, May 2010