Joseph Silovsky: "Send for the Million Men"
An interview by Sergio Reyes
Your theater of artifacts, depicting the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, premieres in December in New York. I have taken a peek to a few acts of the play and have a vague sense of how the play develops. We need your help in understanding your efforts better.
Why is it called "Send for the million men"
When Vanzetti found out that the Blue Ribbon Committee set up by the Governor had ruled against them, he lost his mind for a day- he called for hours from his jail cell to "Send for the Million Men." He sat down at one point and wrote a delirious letter to the Boston Defense Committee going over the details of how the million men should come to save him. I found this moment in their story to be an apex. Vanzetti was always so calm and collected, so intellectual and rigorous. The mental blow to him of that final rejection threw him over an edge. And for me that is an incredible symbol, a signifier of his torment. We all want the million men to come save us in our hour of need. And indeed there were hundreds of thousands of people all over the world that wanted to come save them- marches in Buenos Aires and Paris and London etc, and around Boston as well. But they were powerless. And as a poignant, ironic afterthought- their funeral procession, the largest funeral procession in Boston History, becomes for me the "million men" arrive too late to save them.
You have put a lot of work in creating an amount of "artifacts", projections, puppetry, why did you choose this media to express yourself.
I have always been an object based performance artist. I tell stories through objects, devices, etc, that I think highlight what is important about the story that I am saying. It is my medium, like words for a poet.
Beyond that there is also always the significance of the object for me that I have always tried to understand. I went to Harvard to research their story in the Ehrmann collection and they have a necklace that Vanzetti made for his lawyer's wife. It is simple made of small beads, daisy chains. But to have held in my hand something that Vanzetti's hands touched and crafted is a powerful moment. And I have always been trying to understand that power of objects.
You indicate that you have received "generous" contributions from foundations, how was this achieved? Did they see the political message behind the puppetry and the dark humor?
You never know exactly why a foundation decides to grant you money- the only basis you have are their mission statements. So some of the grants were specifically given to me for the puppetry- whether the board who decided were influenced by the politics I don't know. One grant- the Puffin Foundation- specifically notes that they give money to works that are out of the mainstream in terms of race, gender, or social philosophy. SO I believe the politics of this work helped secure those funds.
I saw a section of the play, the historical background of the lives of the two executed men, you called it "History; Taco and Spaghetti", referring to their trip to Mexico. Frankly, the imagery, the puppetry cannot be more stereotypical of Italians and Mexicans, almost if not totally offensive. Why did you choose to do this?
There were two scenes in that video- "The History of Sacco and Vanzetti as told through a series of objects in no particular order" and "Taco and Spaghetti." You are talking about The Taco and Spaghetti scene, which is based on the Punch and Judy/ Pulcinella puppetry that dates back to the 1600s in Italy. Punch is an offensive obnoxious character who beats his wife, throws his baby out the window, etc. So that is the reason the characters are so base and ridiculous. The same with the name. The scene is partially a loose historical account of Sacco and Vanzetti's time in Mexico when they were avoiding fighting in World War One. It is also a (warped) dream sequence of the possible future they could have had if history had been different and they had been freed. What would have happened to them? Though much of the world would have been thrilled, there also was a section of U.S. society that would have thought they were murderers on the loose. I don't think they would have been able to stay in the US, so I imagined them moving to Mexico. And since Sacco and Rocina used to perform skits sometimes at labor rallies, strikes etc, I imagined Sacco and Vanzetti forming a comedy troupe. But this imaginary world is warped by all the forces around it and it ends up being a brutal "Punch and Judy" version of what could have happened.
This brings me to the fundamental question. What do you want to achieve with this play?
I want to partially help Sacco and Vanzetti live on by spreading the word about them. I also want to metaphorically help them live on by giving them new robotic and virtual bodies (Vanzetti is played by a robot and Sacco is played by a virtual video game engine character).
I also find their story one of the most complex, fascinating and heart wrenching stories I have ever heard and I have been trying to convey that through my chosen medium. I feel that the same things are happening today- too many people are being executed on flimsy evidence. Dos Passos wrote after the execution "OK we are two nations." I still believe we are two nations, and the divide is getting even worse. Thus their story is ever more important to be retold, so that their might be hope that we can stop repeating it.
You are definitely using comic recourse throughout the play. Is this just comedy? If so, why use such serious case, such horrible circumstances, such historical injustice to have your audience laughing throughout the play?
It is not 'just comedy;' I actually doubt that even exists. I start the show with a description of objects, and I connect their story to the Oklahoma City Murrah Building bombing, in which my mother almost died. When McVeigh was on trial, my mother was one of the survivors who was arguing in the media that McVeigh should not be given the death penalty, she was so morally opposed to it. With Sacco and Vanzetti, you as a bystander are tortured along with them, watching seven years unfolding, the two never being able to escape the machinations of a fouled social system. It was partially fouled because people saw things in Black and White- you are either for us or against us. These stories and the moral positioning within them are actually so nuanced- there is no black and white, it is all grey. I have been trying to convey that greyness through my performance by embracing the funny, the serious, and the tragic throughout, without reverting to black and white detailing.
I would also like to say that the most touching and inspiring aspect of the the two men is their base humanity. Their humor, their earnest want of the simple things- a garden, a book- and their embrace of a utopian ideal to keep them moving forward- that is what I am trying to convey through the tactics I have used to tell their story.