Details surrounding the infamous execution of “Murderous Mary” the circus elephant — sentenced to death for killing an elephant handler named Red Eldridge — are as foggy as the September day in 1916 when she was hanged in Erwin’s Clinchfield Railyards.
But it’s the events leading up to Mary’s hanging that are the focus of a mini-production being staged at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va. Performances of Matthew Carlton’s “Hanging Mary” will continue through Aug. 10 at Barter Stage II, wrapping up Barter’s 2013 Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights.
Time and countless retellings have obscured exactly why and how the 30-year-old, five-ton elephant — the cash cow of the Sparks World Famous Shows circus — attacked Eldridge, who was hired just the day before his death.
A staff writer for the Johnson City Press-Chronicle suggested in 1936 that “for no reason that could be ascertained, Mary became angry and, with a vicious swish of her trunk, landed a fatal blow on his head.” Others argue that Mary flew into a rage after Eldridge prodded her behind the ear with a hook as she reached down to nibble on a watermelon rind.
Regardless, circus owner Charlie Sparks knew that the only way to save his two-bit business was to kill the elephant in public. On Sept. 13, 1916, Mary was transported by rail to Erwin, where a crowd of more than 2,500 people — including most of the town’s children — watched as she was hanged by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial crane. The first attempt resulted in a snapped chain, causing Mary to fall and break her hip as dozens of children fled in terror. The severely wounded elephant died during a second attempt and was buried beside the tracks.
“The play focuses on the way that people marginalize others — in this story, there are elephants who are hurt and made to live in captivity in a circus. The playwright calls further attention to how we marginalize others by requiring that all three of the elephants be played by African-American women,” said Director Katy Brown, who fell in love with the script last year when it received a professional reading as part of Barter’s AFPP, which gives voice to Appalachian playwrights and stories.
“There’s so much about it that puts me on the edge of my seat, and there’s so much about it that makes me uncomfortable,” she said. “This play, like Mary, stares us down and makes us ask questions we’d rather not. There’s a lot to be said for our lack of comfort. Our comfort is at the core of the matter.
“It’s our need for comfort that makes us refer to some people as ‘other.’ We separate ourselves; we tell ourselves that the others are less deserving than we are. We say, in essence, ‘They don’t feel it like we do’ or ‘They can’t be as three dimensional as I am.’ We ‘other’ those of different races, different religions, different species. We ‘other’ the people who live next door. And we do it to make ourselves feel better. Because if the others don’t feel it the way we do, then it feels less wrong to step on them on the way to what we want.”
As part of the AFPP, Barter invites audiences to share their opinions on the development of the mini-production. Audience reaction is extremely important to Barter and will be considered if the theatre decides to further develop the play. The 2013 AFPP began when Barter presented read-throughs of eight brand new plays at the beginning of July.
“One of our main concerns is to find a balance over the course of a season and give our patrons choices,” said Nicholas Piper, director of Barter’s AFPP. “Sometimes we want to be entertained, sometimes we want to be challenged. Our ambition with ‘Hanging Mary’ is to produce a theatrical event that will challenge people and have them thinking about the play and its themes long after they’ve seen it.”
Tickets to “Hanging Mary” are $22 and can be purchased by calling Barter’s Box Office at (276) 628-3991 or visiting www.bartertheatre.com.