Sally, Maria, Patsy, and Tom …

Why did I write a play set in Paris more than two hundred years ago?

It’s something of a cliché that Thomas Jefferson is just about the most contradictory figure in American history. In his Declaration of Independence, he articulated the very founding ideals of a new nation—the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal” and were “endowed” with the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And yet the writer of these eloquent words was a lifelong slave owner.

I started working on The Shackles of Liberty during the 1970s, when I read Fawn M. Brodie’s biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Before the appearance of Brodie’s book, the story of Jefferson’s lifelong relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had been a nagging rumor that few historians took seriously. The evidence Brodie presented was groundbreaking—and extremely controversial.

When I first cracked the book open, I immediately came across a story told by Sally’s son Madison Hemings about his mother’s relationship with Jefferson. It began in 1789, when Jefferson was in Paris serving as America’s Ambassador to France:

… [D]uring that time my mother became Mr Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called home she was enciente by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. She refused to return with him.

I was instantly hooked on the Story. I imagined the extraordinary scene. Sixteen-year-old Sally, three quarters white and the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha, stood face to face with her 46-year-old master to demand her freedom. For a stunning moment, this courageous young woman demanded complete equality with one of the most powerful and influential men in the world. Then came the bargaining as described by Madison Hemings …

To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia. Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father.

I knew right away that I had to write a play that culminated in Sally’s fateful bargain. In my mind’s ear, I started hearing fragments of dialogue:

SALLY: You won’t free me, free our child.
SALLY: Little by little, not right away, over lots of years.
THOMAS: I can’t.
SALLY: Teach him. Things you know how to do. Fiddling, cutting stone, working with wood.
THOMAS: Impossible.

As I read Brodie’s book (and many years later,  Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family), the story grew richer and richer, and Jefferson’s contradictions grew ever more troubling. While Jefferson could at least conceive of the emancipation of African-Americans, the same was not true of women. In Paris, he was shocked by the power and assertiveness of European women,

some on foot, some on horses, & some in carriages hunting pleasure in the streets, in routs & assemblies, and forgetting that they have left it behind them in their nurseries …

How different were these independent women from the docile ladies he had left behind in America? To him it was “a comparison of Amazons and Angels.”


Martha Jefferson Randolph

Not surprisingly, Jefferson was something of a despot to his two daughters, albeit a loving one. In 1783, he wrote these explicit instructions to his eleven-year-old daughter, Martha:

I do not wish you to be gaily clothed at this time of life, but what you wear should be fine of its kind. But above all things and at all times let your clothes be clean, whole, and properly put on. … Nothing is so disgusting to our sex as a want of cleanliness and delicacy in yours.

Slaves, women, and children. They all shared a strange place in Jefferson’s mind. And he had crises with all three during his years in Paris.


Self-portrait of Maria Cosway

For one thing, he fell in love with the brilliant European painter Maria Cosway, a woman with talents, thoughts, and ambitions that were very much her own. Beautiful, charming, and diminutive, she nevertheless had something of the European Amazon about her.

Meanwhile, Jefferson’s daughter Martha, better known at the time as “Patsy,” was studying in a Parisian convent school. Imagine her anti-clerical father’s shock when she announced that she wanted to become a nun!

Finally, there was Sally, whose voice kept calling out to me about freedom and hope …

It’s awful, hope—like drowning. Or not drowning, but getting held under, and you can’t guess how deep. And you’ve got to hold your breath, and your lungs are busting, and you can’t keep it in long, but you know when you let out the air, you’ll only have water to breathe in again. Hope’s just this—long—holding in of something you know you can’t keep.

So there they were—Jefferson and three women, who together somehow embodied the conflict and contradictions that we all live with today. Appropriately the backdrop of the play was Paris in 1789—the dawning of the French Revolution. In those days of precarious hope, Jefferson’s words about liberty and equality hung in the Parisian air.


(The Shackles of Liberty is the winner this year’s Southern Playwrights Competition, sponsored by Jacksonville State University.)

The Shackles of Liberty

230px-Us_declaration_independencePat and I are excited! My full-length play The Shackles of Liberty has won this year’s Southern Playwrights Competition. The Jacksonville State University Department of Drama will present it as part of its 2016-2017 season. It’s a wonderful honor.

The Shackles of Liberty is a fictionalized account of Thomas Jefferson’s last day in Paris in 1789. It focuses on his relationships with three women—his European lover Maria Cosway, his older daughter Martha (“Patsy”), and his young slave mistress Sally Hemings.

I hope I’ve written a play about today and the America we live in. A century and a half after slavery ended, we still need to be reminded that “Black Lives Matter.” A little less than a hundred years after women gained the right to vote, the fight for gender equality is far from over. And not to sound pessimistic, but it seems to me parents and children will always be at odds about one thing or another.

These are a few of the issues I’ve tried to explore in The Shackles of Liberty. I am grateful to Jacksonville State University for the opportunity to bring this play to life in the theater!

THAT Soliloquy — Is It About Suicide?

“To be, or not to be—that is the question …”

… but what is the question, really? What is Hamlet actually talking about? I was pretty slow as a teenager, so when I asked a high school English teacher this question, of course he told me, as teachers always do …

Hamlet is contemplating suicide.”

The trouble was, I couldn’t quite make sense of it. Yes, I understood what all the words meant—that “quietus” was a settlement of a debt, a “bare bodkin” was a dagger, “fardels” were burdens or loads, the “undiscover’d country” was death, and all the rest of it.

First Folio, 1623

First Folio, 1623

But wasn’t taking “arms against a sea of troubles” a rather odd way of describing suicide? And what about those “enterprises of great pitch and moment” that “lose the name of action” that Hamlet talks about at the end? Surely, I suggested, Hamlet wasn’t talking about suicide there.

I succeeded only in convincing my English teacher that I was a great deal dumber than he already knew me to be. And who was I to argue? I let the matter rest for a long time.

It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered the 1982 Arden edition of Hamlet, edited by the late Shakespeare scholar Harold Jenkins. Thirty years in the making, it was so exhaustively (and exhaustingly) annotated that Jenkins couldn’t fit all of his annotations on the pages of the text itself; he added another 150 pages of notes at the end. It was a dream for a Shakespeare geek like me. I devoured every word.

And when I got to that all-too-famous soliloquy of Act III, scene i, I was in for a special treat. The speech was annotated first with about a page and a half of footnotes, then with another eight and a half pages of endnotes—a total of around 10 pages of annotation altogether.

To my delight, I found that Jenkins devoted most of those notes to proving my high school teacher (and just about everybody else) wrong …

It is impossible … to say that Hamlet ever contemplates suicide for himself or regards it as a likely choice for any man.

For one thing, this is the only soliloquy of Hamlet’s (out of seven in all) that never once uses first person singular pronouns like “I” and “me.” Nor does he mention his father’s murder, his uncle’s usurpation, his mother’s remarriage, or anything else having to do with the story of the play. Hamlet isn’t talking about his own specific situation at all, but about what life is like for all of us.

And his “question,” as Jenkins sums it up, is simply, “Is life worth living?” Hamlet goes on to give us a lot of reasons why life might not be …

… the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes …

And of course, right then Hamlet does mention the possibility of suicide—after all, one could always do oneself in with a “bare bodkin.” But according to Jenkins,

this is a rhetorical question, which already presupposes its answer, a hypothetical question brought in only to be dismissed.

It’s the same with just about any positive action we might take. We don’t wind up doing much of anything about life’s “sea of troubles.”

And according to Jenkins, that “sea” is a richer image than we may have realized:

Edwin Both as Hamlet, ca. 1870

Edwin Booth as Hamlet, ca. 1870

The metaphor appears to be based upon well-known instances, notably that of the Celts, who, as described by various ancient authors, rather than show fear by flight, would draw their swords and throw themselves into the tides as though to terrify them.

A desperate and futile gesture, certainly. You could even call it suicidal, since it’s surely not going to end well. But suicide isn’t really the point. It’s about doing something—anything—against the manifold torments of existence. It’s also about accepting the fact that you’re doomed to lose—or at the very least to die in the attempt. Hamlet learns this bitter truth himself at the end of the play.

Most of us don’t dare undertake any such endeavor, in no small part due to our fear of the “undiscover’d country” of death …

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

As Jenkins puts it,

we come to the end of life’s “troubles” not when we put an end to them but when they put an end to us.

Intimations of Immortality

I find myself reflecting on mortality these days—wondering as we all do whether the elusive entity that we call “self” survives the death of the body. One of the most tantalizing suggestions I’ve heard comes from psychologist and neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn. Back in 2005, he was asked this question:

“What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”

His answer really intrigued me:

Your mind may arise not simply from your own brain, but in part from the brains of other people.

Sobo_1909_624Kosslyn’s explanation is simple and utterly non-mystical. To sum it up crudely, your mind is not entirely self-contained within your skull. In order to perform certain complicated mental tasks, you must extend the limits of your physical brain with “prosthetic systems”—for example, an electronic calculator to multiply 756 by 312, which is rather difficult to do in your head.

As it happens, people perform this very same function for one another. Human beings set up what Kosslyn calls “Social Prosthetic Systems” (SPSs) in which people share their brainpower to solve countless challenges. A marriage might be the most sophisticated SPS of all—a relationship in which two people are constantly (and quite literally) sharing brains. As Kosslyn puts it,

parts of other people’s brains come to serve as extensions of your own brain. And if the mind is “what the brain does,” then your mind in fact arises from the activity of not only your own brain, but those of your SPSs.

Kosslyn isn’t blind to the enormous implications of this idea:

In fact, one could even argue that when your body dies, part of your mind may survive.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter has expressed much the same notion:

You can imagine a soul as being a detailed, elaborate pattern that exists very clearly in one brain. When a person dies, the original is no longer around. But there are other versions of it in other people’s brains. It’s a less detailed copy, it’s coarse-grained.

This concept of life after death might strike you as painfully prosaic. It’s certainly a far cry from Wordsworth’s belief in a soul that not only survives the death of the body, but has existed always:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home …

I’m open to such sentiments, which harmonize well with mainstream religious and mystical beliefs. But the simplicity and earthiness of Kosslyn’s idea holds a certain beauty for me. And I don’t seem to be alone in feeling this way.

After Hofstadter’s wife, Carol, died in 1993 at the age of 42, he experienced an epiphany while looking at her picture one day. In his book I Am A Strange Loop, Hofstadter describes how he was overcome with the realization that Carol’s soul and his own had fused “into one higher-level entity” shaped out of shared hopes and dreams for their children. Their hopes

were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that wielded us into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain.

That sounds to me like a kind of immortality well worth hoping for.

Gaia and the Octopus

Mimic Octopus by Steve Childs from Wikimedia Commons

Mimic Octopus by Steve Childs
from Wikimedia Commons

“Gaia is a tough bitch.”

So observed the late biologist Lynn Margulis, who formulated the Gaia hypothesis in collaboration with James Lovelock. Margulis was warning us not to sentimentalize Gaia as “an Earth goddess for a cuddly, furry human environment …” Despite humanity’s perverse determination to destroy biodiversity, Gaia will eventually bounce back—but “probably in a world devoid of people.”

But if human beings go the proverbial “way of the dodo,” which animal might take our place as the planet’s dominant species? Not that there has to be a dominant species, of course. After her dismal experience with us, Gaia might prefer to do without one altogether.

Even so, Pat’s and my money is on octopuses. We’ve been running into story after story about their vast dexterity, sensitivity, intelligence, and grace. With excellent eyesight, light-sensitive skin, and suckers equipped with ultra-keen taste receptors, octopuses undoubtedly enjoy a far more vivid sensory experience of the world than we clunky humans do.

Octopuses are also tool users that have been observed turning broken coconut shells into “mobile homes.” And they are infinitely resourceful, even capable of deliberate trickery. Once at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the staff noticed that its live crabs were mysteriously disappearing at night. It turned out that a red octopus had secretly entered the facility by stowing away on the back of a sponge. The creature hid in a tank during the day, then by night sneaked out of water and across the aquarium floor to the crab tank, where it partook of tasty crab dinners.

Pat and I are most dazzled by the abilities of the mimic octopus, with its ability to swiftly assume the shapes of algae-encrusted rocks, sea snakes, venomous sole, sea anemones, lionfish, flatfish, jellyfish, and an untold repertoire of other forms. Moreover, mimic octopus’s choice of shapes requires highly sophisticated decision-making. This video takes our breath away:

As Caspar Henderson puts it in an excerpt from his new book, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary, the octopus has

a mind that calculates and even, perhaps, possesses a form of awareness. In some ways, their abilities surpass ours.

Considering that the nearest common ancestor of humans and cephalopods disappeared some 540 million years ago, Pat and I can’t help but wonder—why isn’t the octopus now the world’s dominant species instead of Homo sapiens? Virtual reality pioneer and octopus-fancier Jaron Lanier has asked the same question:

[They] taunt us with clues about the potential future of our species…. [Their] raw brain power seems to have more potential than the mammalian brain…. By all rights, [they] should be running the show and we should be their pets.

The explanation is painfully simple, as Henderson explains,

The Common octopus typically lives less than a year and even the largest species only live three to five years …. As a consequence, they do not get a chance to pass on what they learn to the next generation. Cephalopods have no culture: no childhood in which they are guided by their parents. They must start from scratch in every new generation.

But this might not be the status quo forever. In less-explored ocean depths, cephalopods are now thought to live markedly longer than they do in more familiar waters. Recently, a deep-sea octopus was observed protecting her eggs for an astonishing 4.5 years. As science writer Megan Gannon puts it,

Not only is that four times longer than most shallow-water octopuses even live, it’s also the longest brooding period known of any animal on the planet, elephants and emperor penguins included ….

“In the deep sea, we have so much to discover,” commented zoologist Janet Voight.

Indeed, might some new type of culture already be burgeoning in uncharted depths? And if Gaia, tough bitch that she is, soon relegates the Homo sapiens nuisance to the ash heap of natural history, mightn’t she summon forth cephalopods to be the new Stewards of the Earth?

A Magic Circle


Why do we lowly humans experience aesthetic beauty? Life started evolving on our planet somewhere between 2.7 and 3.5 billion years ago. Something happened during that time that blessed us with the ineffable pleasures of music, visual art, poetry, and the wonders of nature. What could that something be?

It’s the sort of question that Pat and I ask each other as we pursue our unending fascination with Story. The other day, Pat ran across a bit of news that seems to offer a tantalizing morsel of an answer to that question.

Not along ago, underwater photographer Yoji Ookata spotted something amazing while diving near the Japanese island of Amami Ōshima. About 80 feet below sea level, a beautiful circular design was carved in the sandy seabed. The “magic circle” was about 6.5 feet across, exquisitely shaped from meticulously raised ridges, and decorated around the edges with tiny seashell fragments. What artist would have gone to the trouble of sculpting such a work there, where it was doomed to be washed away by ocean currents unseen by humans?

As it turned out, the creator of such patterns is the 5-inch-long male puffer fish. The design is intended to attract a mate. If a female puffer fish finds the circle sufficiently attractive, she lays her eggs in its center. The male fertilizes the eggs and buries them; the circle’s ridges will offer protection from ocean currents, and the sea shell fragments will supply vital nutrients. A BBC video narrated by Richard Attenborough shows this process from beginning to end.

The circle bears a stunning resemblance to the mandala, that ancient Hindu and Buddhist symbol of the universe. Countless human artists have been inspired by this sacred shape, including painter Linda Laino.

by Ma Le of San Francisco, from Wikimedia Commons

Amazing Sand Mandala by Ma Le of San Francisco, from Wikimedia Commons

Pat and I are especially struck by parallels to the modern Zen practice of making sand mandalas. A video made at Clark College shows a group of Tibetan monks creating such a mandala. This large and dazzling image is built with meditative patience, just a few multi-colored grains of sand at a time. The Zen mandala is ritually destroyed after its completion, much as the puffer fish’s “magic circle” is destroyed by the sea. All beauty, after all, is transient.

In his book The Diversity of Life, biologist E. O. Wilson writes about humankind’s aesthetic fascination with nature. He calls this fascination biophilia, which he defines as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.”

Looking at these newly discovered designs, it occurs to Pat and me that such subconscious connections predate the human species by eons. When we look into these undersea mandalas, we gaze deep into the evolutionary matrix of aesthetic beauty. The puffer fish’s circle brings us full circle. Our love of beauty is as one with our unceasing quest for life.

This post is dedicated to William S. E. Coleman.

Ruins for the Future


I see this meme pop up from time to time. And yes, I too feel a certain pang about the Library of Alexandria. Even so, I can’t help but wonder if our grief might be a tad misplaced. For one thing, just which of the four fabled destructions of the Library of Alexandria is supposed to still upset us? Its reputedly accidental burning by Julius Caesar in 48 BCE? Another accidental ruination by the Emperor Aurelian ca. 270 BCE? A markedly deliberate destruction at the orders of the Coptic Pope Theophilus in 391 CE? An apparently apocryphal ravaging by Caliph Omar in 642 CE?

A single iconic “Burning of the Library of Alexandria” seems to linger in literate imaginations as a catch-all metaphor for the loss of any and all intellectual riches throughout the ages. But just what percentage of all the great ideas lost to time can really be blamed on those four purported catastrophes in that one place? A pretty small percentage is my not-so-humble guess.

A more pertinent if more unpalatable question might be — should we still be upset about it? In his book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright doesn’t specifically mention Alexandria, but he does mull over another catch-all metaphor for cultural waste, the so-called Dark Ages. Wright challenges Thomas Cahill’s assertion in How the Irish Saved Civilization that Irish monks singlehandedly rescued humanity’s most indispensable treasures from barbarian hoards after the fall of Rome. Wright quotes Cahill:

Had the destruction been complete — had every library been disassembled and every book burned — we might have lost Homer and Virgil and all of classical poetry, Herodotus and Tacitus and all of classical history, Demosthenes and Cicero and all of classical oratory, Plato and Aristotle and all of Greek philosophy, and Plotinus and Porphyry and all the subsequent commentary.

Wright’s response to Cahill:

Well, them’s the breaks. But what people of the early Middle Ages most needed wasn’t a good stiff dose of Demosthenes. They needed mundane things, such as a harness that wouldn’t press on a horse’s windpipe.

Wright isn’t being as callous as he might sound. His guiding optimistic idea in Nonzero is that human history is a halting but inexorable proliferation of “non-zero-sum” games — a sometimes wobbly but ever-forward march toward increasing intellect, sophistication, and cooperation. This perpetual advance will continue, Wright insists, with or without the all-too-perishable poems, plays, novels, and artworks that we so touchingly revere. The truer essentials of progress are the more prosaic but vastly more durable technological memes ranging from horseshoes to iPhones — and these have an uncanny way of turning up when we need them.

Another such argument is voiced in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. In a scene set in early nineteenth-century England, a precocious fourteen-year-old pupil pines to her tutor about Julius Caesar’s destruction of the Library of Alexandria:

Oh, Septimus! — can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Aristotle’s own library … ! How can we sleep for grief?

Septimus replies:

By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.

Much more trenchant is a passage from Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra. Here the elderly tutor Theodotus brings Julius Caesar desperate news:

THEODOTUS. The fire has spread from your ships. The first of the seven wonders of the world perishes. The library of Alexandria is in flames.

CAESAR. Is that all?

THEODOTUS (unable to believe his senses). All! Caesar: will you go down to posterity as a barbarous soldier too ignorant to know the value of books?

CAESAR. Theodotus: I am an author myself; and I tell you it is better that the Egyptians should live their lives than dream them away with the help of books.

THEODOTUS (kneeling, with genuine literary emotion: the passion of the pedant). Caesar: once in ten generations of men, the world gains an immortal book.

CAESAR (inflexible). If it did not flatter mankind, the common executioner would burn it.

THEODOTUS. Without history, death would lay you beside your meanest soldier.

CAESAR. Death will do that in any case. I ask no better grave.

THEODOTUS. What is burning there is the memory of mankind.

CAESAR. A shameful memory. Let it burn.

THEODOTUS (wildly). Will you destroy the past?

CAESAR. Ay, and build the future with its ruins.