Society’s need for righting a wrong, real or perceived, is as strong today as it was when a small town in America’s south hanged an elephant for ‘murder’ in 1916, according to playwright Caleb Lewis.
An award-winning graduate from the Flinders Drama Centre, Caleb returned to his alma mater to premiere his latest play, Clinchfield – A Tale of Good Citizens in July. In Clinchfield, Caleb takes the bizarre true story of the hanging in Erwin, Tennessee, of ‘Murderous Mary’, a circus elephant that killed its trainer, to explore issues of justice, retribution, racism and values in society. In doing so, the play also resonates with a contemporary world tackling intractable issues like terrorism.
“Its interesting that the elephant killed its trainer, ‘Red’ Eldridge, on September 12 and was hanged on 13 September. But the trainer was hired by the circus on September 11, 1916. So, I don’t need to spell out the parallels there, they are pretty clear in terms of a massive response to an original inciting incident,” Caleb said.
“We live in a fairly chaotic, at times anarchic, world, and narrative is a way of dosing ourselves against that, a way of telling ourselves that there is a purpose behind it, that there is meaning in what we experience. And I think that when something like September 11 comes along that is such a chaotic event, that we need to act in some way. I’m not talking about the ethics or morality of the response, I’m talking about the psychology of it in a way that makes us feel that things have been put right again.
“I find it fascinating that there are dozens of CSI and police procedural shows on television. Every one starts out with some wrong, some crime, and its all wrapped up and resolved neatly in an hour and we feel, having watched the show, that the world is a safer place after that hour than it was at the beginning. And I don’t think that is accidental.
“I did a lot of research on the nature of crime and punishment for this play. Punishment is necessary in a society, you need the threat of punishment to maintain societal equilibrium. But there are a lot of different schools of thought on how punishment should work and whether it’s about rehabilitation of the criminal, restoration of the victim, or whether it is simply about retribution. A story like this provided a really good case in point to look at all of those different reasons.”
Clinchfield, which played to sold-out audiences, does not provide the answers – “I try to present a range of philosophical approaches to a question and let the audience work it out for themselves” – but it draws on an event that occurred nearly a century ago to raise questions that are still relevant today.