♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ Were you there ♪ ♪ When they crucified my Lord?
♪ (explosions, gunfire, people shouting) ♪ Were you there ♪ ♪ When they crucified my Lord?
♪ ELISA NEW: "The real war will never get into the history books," wrote the poet Walt Whitman, as he looked back on his Civil War years in Washington, D.C., years he chronicled in the 1865 volume, "Drum Taps."
(distant drumming) The 42-year-old New Yorker had already authored an ambitious celebration of American greatness.
And like most in 1861, Whitman was ready to beat the drums of war.
But his exposure to the wounded and dying changed him, and changed his understanding of his nation.
DAVID STRATHAIRN: "Arous'd and angry, I'd thought to beat "the alarm, and urge relentless war, "But soon my fingers fail'd me, "my face droop'd and I resign'd myself, "To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead."
TINES: ♪ Were you there ♪ ♪ When they crucified ♪ ♪ My Lord?
♪ ♪ ♪ NEW: For the rest of his life, Whitman would continue writing about his experiences on the battlefields and in the hospital wards of Washington, D.C., publishing journalism, works of prose, and reworkings of his volume of war poems, "Drum Taps."
The centerpiece of that work is "The Wound-Dresser."
To explore it, I gathered seven interpreters: two physicians who are also celebrated writers, a Civil War historian, a composer of a Civil War opera, and the international star that opera launched, a playwright and screenwriter of the film "Lincoln," and a great actor from that film and many others.
An old man bending, I come among new faces, Years looking backward resuming in answer to children, Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me... Now, be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth, (gunfire, people shouting, horses whinnying) Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
Why does this poem begin with the telling of a tale?
It's almost a framing device, isn't it?
The young people are a frame to allow him to put this into context.
The speaker is approaching this experience, is looking back on this experience, through the lens of time and through the lens of memory.
He's trying to find a kind of voice, a kind of relation to, to these events.
The national voice that he assumes here is a voice that understands that this cataclysmic event of the Civil War is going to need a teller.
NEW: And that it's the role of the poet... - To tell.
♪ ♪ NEW: Recounting the story of the heroic past of the nation's epic founding in war, this, since Homer and Virgil, had been the poet's highest calling.
In early 1861, Whitman's contemporary, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, published just such a stirring retelling of the birth of the United States.
Nostalgic poems are all the rage.
The young people are expecting something romantic, and they're waiting for Whitman to come up with this romantic notion about war.
The poem doesn't end up going anywhere where these young folks who had asked him about war think it's going to go.
You say, okay, you want to know what it's like?
Come knee walk with me through the tents.
You almost feel like he's trying his best to shock them.
♪ ♪ DREW FAUST: He would have read about war in the newspapers, but he would not yet have seen it face to face.
I believe the first time he really confronted the horror of war himself was when he went to look for his brother at Fredericksburg late in 1862.
He comes across this pile of amputated limbs that remains this vivid image in his mind.
NEW: His brother's wounds were minor, but this glimpse of the war convinced Whitman to stay near the front.
In Washington, working as a civil servant, Whitman went every day to the military hospitals, where he witnessed the work of doctors and nurses, dispensed gifts to patients, and comforted the sick and dying.
♪ ♪ STRATHAIRN: "With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, "while for you up there, Whoever you are, "follow without noise and be of strong heart.
"Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, "straight and swift to my wounded I go, "Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in, "Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, "the ground, or to the rows of the hospital tent, "or under the roof'd hospital, "To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return."
CAMPO: The hospital space itself is a way of compartmentalizing suffering, and Whitman, I think, speaks to this in the poem as he goes, you know, row to row.
There's a really interesting tension between containment and, on the other hand, seeing these wounded soldiers bleeding into the grass.
STRATHAIRN: An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail, Soon to be fill'd with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill'd again.
FAUST: Many people expected there would be no bloodshed at all.
When the war began, there was an expectation there would be one battle and the North thought it would win decisively, the South thought it would win decisively and everyone would stop.
(explosions echoing) And month after month, and year after year, the war ground on with higher death tolls-- an estimated 750,000 individuals.
Which would be about seven million people as a percentage of our population in the United States today.
NEW: After long days in the wards with the wounded and dying, Whitman often walked to the Capitol building, which was under renovation.
KUSHNER: They've rebuilt the old Bullfinch building, but they haven't put the dome on yet.
The dome of the old Capitol is sort of modeled on, sort of, Palladian dimensions.
And it was seen as an emblem of a kind of Republican modesty.
NEW: Of one such visit, in 1863, Whitman wrote to his brother, shocked by its opulence: "The paintings of cupids and goddesses spread "recklessly over the arched ceiling, "the richest and gayest and most un-American and inappropriate ornamenting."
KUSHNER: Somebody compared this multitiered thing to the pope's tiara.
NEW: "America seems to me now, though only in her youth, "but brought already here feeble, bandaged, and bloody in hospital."
CAMPO: To see all of those broken bodies, what he witnessed then was, I think, our broken nation.
♪ ♪ STRATHAIRN: "I onward go, I stop, With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds."
What an image.
How often do you think about going through a door and your knees are hinging.
It acknowledges a vulnerability.
VERGHESE: To me, they spoke of lowering himself to their level.
He wasn't standing above the bed and pontificating.
He was doing what we recommend you do, which is, you know, get the bed up or get yourself down so that you're not looking down on them in this paternal way.
STRATHAIRN: On bended, hinged knees-- how many images come from that?
Prayer, supplication, begging.
"One turns to me his appealing eyes-- poor boy!
"I never knew you, "Yet I think I could not refuse this moment "to die for you, if that would save you."
Despite our attempts to organize suffering into these long rows, and despite our attempts with language to create some kind of container for this suffering, there are moments when death is not necessarily the enemy.
It can't come fast enough.
It's a kind of salvation.
TINES: ♪ Swing low ♪ ♪ Sweet chariot ♪ ♪ Coming for to carry me home ♪ ♪ Swing low ♪ NEW: What is the good death?
FAUST: The good death is a set of widely shared assumptions in 19th century America about how to die.
This originated in a Catholic tradition and then was shared widely across Protestantism.
It was believed you lived a better life if you were always conscious of its possible ending and prepared for that ending.
It was a death that took place among loved ones in the home.
TINES: ♪ A band of angels... ♪ FAUST: And one finds significant efforts by nurses and doctors and commanders on the battlefield to improvise versions of the good death.
Nurses would actually pretend to be sisters or mothers to soldiers who were delirious.
NEW: Whitman himself penned many such letters.
STRATHAIRN: "Hard the breathing rattles, "quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard.
"Come, sweet death!
be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly."
(singing in Italian) MATTHEW AUCOIN: This is a way that Whitman has a lot in common with opera.
In opera, deathbed scenes are the most extravagant.
They're the big showpieces, they often last longer than feels plausible.
Whitman has some really touching, really painful, but also really lavish scenes that feel almost too intimate.
ZORY: (singing in Italian) AUCOIN: These scenes walk a very fine line between being heart-rending and perhaps aestheticizing.
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood.
(gunfire) NEW: Even as he reaches for soaring, transcendent language, Whitman's journalist's eye records the effects of the new lethal technologies of war.
The key technological development on the battlefield is the development of the minie ball, that can extend the range of soldiers' weaponry significantly, maybe three times as much as it was before the war.
You also get breech-loading weapons so you can get off many more shots.
(gunfire) So if you marched across an open field, you were likely to be exposed to much more fire for much longer than in the wars that had preceded.
Medicine at that time was still very, very behind in terms of the advances that we see now.
VERGHESE: The main role of medicine in that era was to chop off the limb.
Why is that?
Why did they have to do so much amputation?
I think the nature of the musket wounds and the balls that were used absolutely shattered the bone and soft tissue, and there was no repairing them.
STRATHAIRN: "Back on his pillow, the soldier bends "with curv'd neck and side falling head, "His eyes are closed, his face is pale, "he dares not look on the bloody stump, And has not yet look'd on it."
CAMPO: The person suffering can't bear his own suffering in a sense, can't bear to see the wound himself.
And so Whitman there, I think, is also reminding us that our role, perhaps, is to be able to see it, to not avert our gaze, not deny it.
NEW: What is it to be a wound-dresser?
STRATHAIRN: The "dressing of" has a lot of connotations.
Adornment, hiding, not just healing, not just stopping the blood.
Soldiers will do triage as quickly as possible.
You're okay, you're okay, okay, all right.
We got, you know, boom, not just a medical thing, but I think it's also a psychological thing.
You know, any medic knows what the physical evidence can do to a person's psyche.
In this poem, because in some ways it is so graphic, he wants us to be present and to remove the dressings, in a sense.
It's a kind of a paradox of the poem, that he's dressing the wounds, but he's also, he's also making them more visible to us.
VERGHESE: This was pre-antisepsis, this was pre-antibiotics, and so infection was almost inevitable.
A surgeon might stand and operate on two dozen patients in a row and never wash his hands.
So the spread of disease was unstoppable.
"I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep, "But a day or two more, "for see the frame all wasted and sinking, And the yellow-blue countenance see."
I'm drawn to the astuteness of the clinical observations, you know, the person who's dying was yellow, blue, which to me speaks of jaundice and cyanosis, they don't have enough oxygen.
CAMPO: These are details that are clinically important.
He's not sensationalizing here.
He's documenting what he sees.
STRATHAIRN: "I dress the perforated shoulder, "the foot with the bullet wound, "Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive."
I should also say that Whitman himself was probably at risk in there.
There are people dying of more than war injuries, in fact, many more people died of typhus and typhoid and cholera than they did of their wounds.
TINES: ♪ Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel?
♪ ♪ Deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel?
♪ NEW: Disease ran especially rampant in Washington's teeming contraband camps, where enslaved persons who'd escaped across the lines lived in squalid conditions, dying of cholera, typhus, and dysentery.
In a letter to his mother, Whitman writes, "I went once or twice to the contraband camp, "but I could not bring myself to go again.
"When I meet Black men or boys among my own hospitals, I use them kindly, give them something."
AUCOIN: Walt Whitman tends to frame the war in terms of this great struggle for the soul of the country, but he doesn't take the next step and say, "And the question of whether the soul of this country will be saved or not is whether or not we abolish slavery."
TINES: ♪ What is it then between us ♪ AUCOIN: So when I put Whitman on stage in my opera "Crossing," I invented a character named Freddie Stowers, a Black man who had escaped from the South.
There are so many dynamics that are immediately at play.
He's a Black man, this is a white man.
He's a slave, this is a man of some sort of stature.
In a very private moment, this man is asking him about what's going on.
♪ Where is it that... ♪ AUCOIN: It just felt really important for someone whose experience was radically different from Whitman's to address him and share that experience.
(Tines vocalizing) STRATHAIRN: "The fractur'd thigh, the knee, "the wound in the abdomen, These and more I dress "with impassive hand, yet deep in my breast, a fire, a burning flame."
♪ ♪ NEW: While increasingly steady in his clinical understanding, the speaker of this poem nevertheless reveals the turbulence within.
Parenthetical asides, like little arias, show his personal struggle to bear and to be equal to all the need and suffering.
Parenthetical doesn't necessarily mean removed.
I believe it means heightened.
I want them to have a resonance.
♪ ♪ So that the parenthetical ones are actually being worded in him, out loud to himself.
AUCOIN: In that moment, we get a window into a very vulnerable, private, individual Walt Whitman.
Many of us come to medicine because we are wounded ourselves, and in ministering to others, we're sort of healing our wounds, so to speak, and you can almost see Whitman in his desire to help them, he's taking care of something in himself.
STRATHAIRN: "The hurt and wounded I pacify "with soothing hand, I sit by the restless "all the dark night, some are so young, "Some suffer so much, "I recall the experience sweet and sad, "Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck "have cross'd and rested, Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips."
AUCOIN: Whitman is as full of love as any writer that ever lived, but it wasn't easy for him to find an outlet for it.
He was almost certainly what we would today call gay.
CAMPO: The kisses dwelling on his lips.
These are just such extraordinarily intimate details and convey a kind of care and compassion that, you know, really suggests a kind of erotic component.
That you can't be in such close proximity to these bodies without recognizing their beauty.
It goes all the way down, and ends with something that dwells.
I love the word "dwells" because that means it stays.
He, quite frankly and honestly, says I was brought to my knees, literally, by the love, whether it's brotherly love or erotic love, to the face of one of the soldiers.
♪ ♪ TONY KUSHNER: I was just walking in Central Park and looking at the Seventh Armory Regiment or whatever it is, the statue, and it's an absolutely gorgeous young man in a Civil War and a Union soldier's, infantryman's hat with a gun.
And it looks like, you know, if you had dressed up Michelangelo's David-- and it's just a beautiful classical figure.
(birds chirping) ♪ ♪ NEW: The abstract beauty of the warrior and the spectacle of sacrificed youth, which the classical authors had made so central, Whitman, too, embraces.
All varieties of intensity and love-- brotherly, paternal, erotic, spiritual-- find their place within this lofty vision.
AUCOIN: It's not just at the level of individual soldiers that Whitman found beauty.
It's also at the level of what the whole Union army was trying to do.
KUSHNER: These people who sacrificed so much for these beautiful ideals, for democracy, for the Union, for an end to slavery, you know, gave up life and limb for this.
STRATHAIRN: "The Wound-Dresser" is about an undressing of our wounds, of our realities, of our shortcoming.
CAMPO: Whitman is saying we can't look away from this national wound.
We must come together and bear it.
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