“Captain Jack’s Revenge”

La Mama, New York, 1970

It was Johnny Dodd’s interest in American Indians that prompted me to write a play about the Modoc War of 1873, the last major conflict between the native Americans and U.S. government forces. I researched it in the American history room of the New York Public Library, where I was pleased to find photographs of many of the principals as well as extensive contemporary newspaper and magazine reports.

The Modocs were a smallish tribe in the Klamath Basin, just north of the Oregon-California border. It is rugged country, with not many ways around the ridges and lakes, and unfortunately a southern branch of the Oregon Trail ran through the heart of the Modocs’ homeland. Beginning in the 1840s many whites passed through, and some stayed to establish ranches and settlements in the area. By the 1860s the settlers were becoming annoyed by the Modoc presence and the periodic raids and threats, although it seems to have been the Snakes from farther north and east who were responsible for most of the violent attacks. The Modocs, eager to adapt to the new reality, dressed like the newcomers, tried to be friendly, and frequently visited the town of Yreka, over the mountains to the west. Under pressure from the settlers, the government persuaded the Modocs to leave their lands and move onto a reservation with the Klamaths to the north. The Klamaths, however, were traditional enemies of the Modocs and made their lives miserable. The Modocs returned to the Lost River and tried to avoid trouble with the settlers. Their leader, Kientpoos, known to the whites as Captain Jack, tried to keep peace and begged for a small reservation of their own, in their own territory, but the settlers pressed the Army to move the Modocs back to the Klamath Reservation. On November 29, 1872, a detachment of the First Cavalry from Fort Klamath entered the Modocs’ camp and ordered Captain Jack’s men to disarm and return to the reservation. They started to comply, but fighting broke out, shots were exchanged, one soldier and killed and seven were wounded, and the Modocs fled. That same morning a group of volunteers attacked another band of Modocs under a sub-chief known as Hooker Jim, and several Modocs were killed. During their retreat around the north side of Tule Lake, Hooker Jim and his followers killed twelve male settlers on isolated ranches in their path. The Modocs reunited in the forbidding lava beds on the south shore of the lake. (This history is drawn from a booklet published by the Lava Beds Natural History Association for the Lava Beds National Monument.)

For nearly five months, a Modoc fighting force of fewer than sixty men held off an army many times their strength. During a failed attack on the Modoc stronghold in January, the Army counted thirty-seven casualties; the Modocs lost no one. The Army brought in more troops and set up a sizable camp in the desert west of the lava beds. Meanwhile public opinion in the East forced President Grant to order attempts at a peaceful resolution, and a peace commission was organized under General E.R.S. Canby. Little progress was made. The Army was unwilling to promise the Modocs their own reservation, and Captain Jack refused to give up Hooker Jim and the others who were responsible for killing the settlers. Fearful that Captain Jack might agree to the Army’s demands, Hooker Jim and his follower forced him to swear that he would kill General Canby. At the next peace meeting, Jack and other Modocs drew guns, and Canby and the Reverend Eleazar Thomas were killed. The Modocs fled back into their stronghold, but now the Army had enough soldiers and armaments, including mortars and howtizers, to prevail. Cut off from the lake, the Modocs fled to the south and were eventually captured in small bands. Captain Jack and others were tried and hanged, and the Modocs never returned to their land.

I felt a mysterious affinity with Captain Jack. I too felt embattled, although hardly in such a direct dire way. In addition, I imagined some kind of parallel with the Vietnam peace conference that was then being organized in Paris. I wrote two acts of the play in 1969, positing a contemporary couple, Jack and Mary, living in a loft in New York, Jack’s anomie echoing mine and the state of their marriage reflecting Johnny’s and my difficulties in balancing work and love and staying in the same place at the same time. A play-within-the-play was essentially a documentary on the Modoc War, reenacting the fatal peace conference and incorporating quotations and transcripts of the trial. I connected past and present by making Mary’s father a general, and they were sheltering a young friend, William, who was about to flee to Canada to escape the draft. Ellen Stewart gave me a date to do the play at La Mama in the spring and lined up a director for me. He admired the play so far, and I agreed with him that it needed a third act. A two-month trip around the world, studying traditional outdoor theatre, unexpectedly intervened. When I got back I wrote the third act. The director tried to persuade me to cut out the historical second act and concentrate on the modern couple. Having let “The Next Thing”, my previous play at La Mama, be reconfigured by the director, I wanted to do it my way this time, and I let him go and chose to direct it myself.

Production Credits

“Captain Jack’s Revenge” was first produced by and at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, 74A East Fourth Street, New York, April 3-12, 1970, with the following cast:

JACK   Ondine
MARY   Lucy Silvay
WILLIAM   Jeffrey Herman
GENERAL CANBY   Peter Murphy
ALFRED B. MEACHAM   Wallace Androchuk

The mise en scène was by Michael Smith, with set by Jerry Marcel,
lighting by Steve Whitson, and costumes by Joyce Marcel. The drummer was Gale Meyers and the stage manager was Peter Greene.

The production was dedicated to Joe Cino.

The Play

“Captain Jack’s Revenge” had some success, including at least three additional productions. I went to England after the run at La Mama and dropped off a script at the stage door of the Royal Court Theatre, and miraculously, Nicholas Wright, then director of the Theatre Upstairs, picked up on it and did a production there, which got some good reviews. I saw a student production at the State University of New York at Oneonta, and Dick Dunham directed a production at The Changing Scene in Denver. The play was translated and published in Germany. Bill Hoffman told me it was the “first seventies play” and included it in his anthology “New American Plays, Vol. Four” (Hill & Wang, 1971).


From The Village Voice, April 9, 1970

by Arthur Sainer

Michael Smith’s “Captain Jack’s Revenge,” currently in its second week at the Cafe La Mama, seems to me one of the more relevant theatrical events of this year. Relevant to my life, because I kept watching it, I kept wanting it to be there. Perhaps I saw it partly as one playwright seeing another playwright work out some interesting problems. But I found it freakily enchanting, even when at moments it creaked under the excessive weight of abstraction.

The play has a Godardian flatness, both in its language, which is curiously undirected, and in Smith’s staging. Unlike a lot of recent work, it isn’t manipulative, it doesn’t reach out, it rather removes itself from you so that you might be watching it from halfway down the block. It’s awfully cool, but its coolness turned me on so that I could float amiably among its various bizarre layers.

We’re hit early in the evening—the play is two and a half hours long—with the insane wealth of modern communication. At one time the following are activated simultaneously: the tv set, the phonograph, the slide projector, the movie projector, the telephone, and the doorbell. And hovering around on the floor—the mail. And with it all, with the full-bodied tones of Bach’s B Minor Mass and the Jackie Gleason show in color and the vast, efficient projections of exotic tribesmen, our three principal characters are together in a small, smartily tidily untidy apartment, out of touch with their lives.

The decor suggests an immaculate shipwreck. A spiritual dislocation has transpired with all the surfaces intact. Somnambulant role-playing goes on, and yet there are courteous explosions of inquiry, diverting seconds of despair that only tend to drive the characters closer to the action of role-playing. But drive is too strenuous a word for the discursive air that abounds through so much of the play. Better to speak of drifts. The experience could be characterized as a disorienting yet elegant stabilizing high. We’re out on the clouds, shot there through a series of lassitudinal eruptions.

Smith also plays with events mirroring events, and with plays within plays. “Captain Jack” seems to be both a working problem and a game. Its people articulate philosophic inquiry as a way of trying on ideas with which to then embody the characters they may be able to become after they’ve solved the problems hopefully stated in the ideas. The structure of the play also has the air of a working hypothesis, so that I at least had the eerie feeling that I was watching the exploration of a way of making the play.

Ondine (of Warhol productions) brings a slightly perturbed, toughy softness to Jack, the boyfriend. I missed a little tension but the muddledness seems appropriate. Lucy Silvay, as the elegantly floating girl who lives with Jack and is given to taking her spiritual temper before and after lunch and bed, seemed to me absolutely right, a charming vessel of unused resources. I found Jeffrey Herman, as William, the draft evader who lives with the couple, believable in still moments, but was bothered by an awkwardness in his movements about the stage. John Vaccaro as Reverend Thomas, Wallace Androchuk as Alfred Meacham (someone connected with Indian affairs), and Peter Murphy as General Canby, father of the girl (also called General Despair, if I heard correctly), all seemed valid in their own right but did not always seem to be in the same play.

“Captain Jack’s Revenge” is amiable, spooky, pokey, and delicious. But I felt no community sense at La Mama—a mixed-bag audience. Still, the play had its own integrity and respected that of its audience. It didn’t con them, didn’t sell them, didn’t suggest it was the last word in revolutionary technique, didn’t threaten, didn’t applaud itself. It simply, with much devotion, tried to work out a series of theatrical and deeply felt social and psychological ideas, and it let us meet it on whatever terms could make us comfortable. As I said, I wanted to be there because I liked its problems, I liked its terms, and I liked its people.

From The Village Voice, April 16, 1970

by Dick Brukenfeld

Two hundred years after “Ponteach” [another play reviewed in the same piece], we meet the noble savages of Michael Smith’s “Captain Jack’s Revenge” (at the Cafe La Mama) in a contemporary apartment. First they appear as a trio of disaffected Americans, a young man, his girl, and a draft-dodging friend. For Act Two they drop back a century to become Modoc Indians. In a play within the play, they perform the story of Captain Jack, the Modoc chief who climaxed fruitless negotiations with the government by shooting its head negotiator, General Canby.

Opposed to the young people are a trio of establishment oldies who appear first as the girl’s father and his friends, then as the government negotiators. But the actors’ attitudes persist through changes of time and role. To both daughter and the Modoc Indians, the father cum general is consistently paternalistic. Both as Indians and as their contemporary non-selves, the young trio seeks a “home in our own country.”

But I make “Captain Jack” sound too neat. Much of the play has a two-dimensional, almost oriental quality which leaves things open-ended. When the author raises an issue, he confronts us too with its contrary. Statements are balanced by their opposites. “What do you want to tell me?” the draft-dodger asks, and his host replies, “What do you want to hear?” The audience supplies the third dimension.

This balancing of opposites creates a style which reinforces the play’s anti-paternalistic theme. “Captain Jack” doesn’t dictate, it respects, it allows.

After immersing us in an image of the young trio’s disoriented life, filled with stimuli, empty of connections, Smith takes us into their imagination. Although the Captain Jack story is historical fact, in the play it becomes their shared fantasy. And it’s only through this myth that they can act and find purpose.

One point the play speaks to in its final moments is the necessity of imagination. It is precisely this lack of vision which prevents the father/general here and the Yankee traders of “Ponteach” from seeing the Indians as individual beings, like themselves yet separate.

But “Captain Jack” is a much richer, more subtle play than Major Rogers’s rustic effort. “An oriental, acid Pinter,” I noted. If Smith’s work seems occasionally diffuse, I find it a small price to pay for its open attitude toward the audience, its integrity of style, and its good use of the American past. Of the fifty or so plays I’ve seen over the past year, this is one of the handful I’d like to see again.

From The Guardian, February 22, 1971

by Nicholas de Jongh

Michael Smith’s play is extraordinary: an impression of life wavering between fantasy and fact, between idea and vision. Its structure, its atmosphere and its analogies fuse easily and its reverberations survive however obscure and diffuse they are. At first the form suggests little more than a triangle of young American dropouts, deep in Greenwich Village with an acid taste on their tongues which long ago penetrated their minds. But they and their emotional disasters are used to fuse and connect with an episode from undead American history.

They are involved with the California of 1873 and a tribe of Indians oppressed by the American army. The arrival of the girl’s father (a General) with chaplain and liberal friend is the reason for a play within the play in which they all enact that history and that betrayal. The three visitors become the threatening and “moderate” 1873 Americans whose intransigence is their glory, while the young become the Indians with that race’s pride and obstinacy. The betrayal that the American army inflicts, causes the death of its own leaders, which parallels the girl’s double betrayal by her father. Where the Indians could avenge, the modern young trio can only make words, dream of revolution, take their acid trips, their pot: what ghastly blessings these prove.

For what extends and deepens the whole play is its powerful atmospheric of dislocation: by the end of the second act we are in a limbo somewhere between fantasy and fact. It is a void which the author has scrupulously prepared for: a void hinted at by the mysterious telephone calls, the alienated chatter, the persistent talk of illness invading the bodies. “I have just woken up and it’s nearly dark,” one of them says. The play drifts and wavers; a moral and actual vertigo. In the life of small talk there is betrayal, in that of fantasy dreams.

Certainly the whole is much too long, the characters indulge in too much instant poeticism and self commentary which block the play’s unnerving and uneasy pulse, but the experience of disorientation remains wonderfully strong. Nicholas Wright in the finest production he has achieved for this theatre breautifully paces and controls and restricts the players so that nothing teeters into histrionics. Michael Pennington’s Jack, though too young, is ideally disturbed.