Posted by Artistic Director Robert Falls
In the late afternoon of May 31, 1889, the thriving industrial town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was inundated with the waters of Lake Conemaugh, situated high above the town in the Allegheny Mountains. A torrential rainstorm the day before caused the dam containing the man-made lake to burst, sending 20 million tons of water through the Conemaugh Valley, where it swept away homes, factories and nearly everything else in its path. More than 2,200 residents of the valley perished in the deluge, at the time the highest loss of civilian life in a single incident that the United States had known—and the Johnstown Flood became an instant part of American folklore.
Today, few people know much about this storied disaster beyond the horrifying facts.
But the forces that led to the flood—a lake resort built for the entertainment of the town’s wealthy elite, a construction executed with too little regard for engineering sense and safety—presaged such other legendary disasters as the sinking of the Titanic and, more recently, the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Each has become a metaphor for class inequality in America: out of the hubristic dreams of the wealthy comes a disaster that disproportionately affects the poor.
In her extraordinary new play, A True History of the Johnstown Flood, Rebecca Gilman explores in vivid detail the social and economic forces that inexorably led to the flood. Much of the play is told through the experiences of a traveling theater company brought to Johnstown to entertain the wealthy clientele of the Lake Conemaugh resort with the melodramas that were the staple of American theater in the 1880s. It is this device which, I think, makes Rebecca’s play so timely. Should art reflect the values and sympathies of its primary patrons? Or should it strive for a greater truth, a more honest analysis of society as it truly exists, spotlighting the inequities and underlying forces that threaten to rip apart its delicate fabric? By 1889 these questions were already being argued by such European playwrights as Henrik Ibsen, Gerhart Hauptmann and August Strindberg, and they would soon be embraced by a new generation of American writers.
A True History of the Johnstown Flood is one of the most challenging plays I have directed at the Goodman, and is certainly one of Rebecca’s most ambitious works to date. Panoramic in its ideas as well as its theatricality, this compelling play asks us to re-examine one of the most terrifying events in our history through the lens of circumstances that continue to plague us today, too often with equally disastrous results. It has been a remarkable experience for all of us, and one that I am very proud to bring to you.
We hope you are as excited as we are about A True History of the Johnstown Flood! Please share your questions and comments with us, below.