Roberta Sloan Brings Deborah Franklin to Paley Library
—By David Waldstreicher, Editor
On April 12th a room in Paley Library became Deborah Franklin’s shop on Market Street. Roberta Sloan, chair of the Theatre Department, transformed an afternoon audience of faculty and students into friends of one of Philadelphia’s least understood historical figures.
“There’s Riots—Stamps!” Deborah shouts as she strides in from the rear, carrying a gun. Immediately we are made aware that Deborah, no less than Benjamin, lived through revolutionary times. Within a few minutes we also become aware that Ben was not there in 1765 during the controversy over the Stamp Act. He’s been gone, in fact, for most of the past eight years.
Roberta captures, as no Franklin biographer has, the ambivalence Deborah must have felt in her aging years about the great man she helped make: “That runaway and rascal never made a move without me!” she exclaims, and we know she’s exaggerating and telling the truth. “Will I ever see you again?” she asks, both plaintively and accusingly in another flashback, on the eve of one of his departures for London. But we learn more about Deborah, and learn to delight in her, by the way the play moves her about the shop, the street, and the parlor, interacting with her Philadelphia neighbors and family. This is a woman who produced and sold her mother’s homemade (alcoholic) “nostrums,” a hard worker and an avid consumer, a slaveholder with regrets, a mother and stepmother, a proud and upwardly mobile Philadelphian who refused to move to London and be a mere colonial.
What most impressed me, a historian who has written about Franklin, is the play’s remarkable avoidance of cliché – its transformation, even, of familiar scenes into something unfamiliar, poignant, and yet reasonably faithful to the historical record. In his Autobiography Franklin writes of coming into Philadelphia in 1723 off the Market Street wharf in sodden, filthy clothes and buying a penny’s worth of bread, which turns out to be three huge “puffy rolls.” He’s walking down the street and gets spied, he tells us, by his future wife, Deborah Read, in a doorway. Franklin says only that he was quite an amusing spectacle. No doubt Deborah told him so.
But in Roberta’s hands this scene – the play’s final flashback – is reimagined from Debbie’s perspective. The humor in the scene becomes not merely retrospective – the irony of the great Ben’s humble beginnings – but also as gendered, and sexual, as we see the young drippy Ben through Deborah’s eyes and Deborah’s responses. She banters with him, displaying her craft, intelligence, and even her sexuality. She gets the last word: “I think you’ll do,” an understatement that shifts the irony into Deborah’s silent victory, and her relative silence in history.
After the performance, as part of the Committee on the Status of Faculty of Color’s and TU Libraries’ CHAT In the Stacks series, faculty members and advisors Susan Klepp (History), Laura Levitt (Religion and Women’s Studies) and Roland Williams Jr. (English) commented on the evolution of the work and its interpretive choices.
First Lady of Philadelphia, co-written with Dennis Moritz, MFA Playwriting student under the direction of Professor Robert Hedley, Head of the MFA Playwriting Department, ran for twelve performances at the Tomlinson Theater, and has already attracted offers from other venues. I asked Roberta some questions about the experience of working on the piece:
What were the origins of the Deborah Franklin project? What attracted you to the subject?
My husband Steve and I live on the Delaware River and so we walk on Market Street in old city all the time. One day, passing the Benjamin Franklin post office, I began to wonder about his wife – what was she like, was it difficult being married to such a famous man, why don't we know more about her? These questions led to the idea of conducting some research on her. Once I did, I thought that she would make a wonderful subject for a one-woman show, particularly since she seemed so misinterpreted historically. Mostly, she has been characterized as uneducated, not very pretty and quite inferior to the man she had married. I found out that was not the case at all. Then, my interest in doing the one-woman show that would tell the "real story" became a passion.
Is writing or producing a play about a historical figure a different process than other dramatic endeavors? Does it matter that this is a historical figure most people know of, but know little about?
Dennis Moritz, an MFA playwriting student, working under the direction of the head of the theater playwriting MFA program, helped me research the subject and did a lot of the writing. I think that the difference in writing or producing a play about a historical figure is that you have an obligation to try to make it historically accurate and yet still dramatically exciting. That is particularly true when writing about a Philadelphian in the city of Philadelphia, where the history is rich and an important part of the fabric of the city.
What do drama professionals think about one-woman or one-man plays about historical figures? Historians tend to like them, as do the public; are they respected or at least appreciated in the field? What has been your experience with this particular form?
I think that drama professionals like any drama that is exciting, enlightening and/or entertaining. The quality of the show is important, not how many characters are in it. It doesn't really matter if the main or sole character is a historical one. What matters is that it is an interesting one, which is well presented in a dramatic interpretation.
After the performance in Paley library you were joined for a panel discussion by three faculty members who had seen and commented on workshop versions of the play. How did this collaboration come about, and what difference did it make?
Professors Susan Klepp, Laura Levitt and Roland Williams, Jr. were absolutely essential to the development of the script. Their comments throughout the two year process, which included three public readings for invited guests prior to the actual production, helped us so much during the development stages of the script. Also, our director, David O'Connor, who is an MFA directing alumnus, was wonderful. He came into the process and had some terrifc ideas about dramaturgy issues. He helped us to shape the final script, and then, of course, I also believe he is a gifted director. When you have been acting for as long as I have, it's really important to be able to trust your director, and I trusted David implicitly.
This was an incredible experience for me personally. I felt strongly that Deborah Franklin's story should be told, and that she had not been appreciated by most historians. From conception through production, the play took two years - and I enjoyed every minute of the development process. Of course, when it came time to actually become the actress in the play, I had that moment of, "oh dear - what have I gotten myself into?" How will I ever learn an hour's worth of lines, be onstage by myself, and keep the audience's interest?
However, my husband pointed out to me that these were feelings of doubt that I always have when I’m acting in a play. He's right, of course. It happens about mid-way through rehearsal. I just never remember from play to play that this will happen to me, and think that I’ll never learn all the lines, and that I, "obviously" won't be very good. However, for all the years I've been acting, and there have been quite a few, I've never gotten a bad review (how lucky is that!), so I guess I should just keep the faith.
This whole process from beginning to now, after receiving so many complimentary emails and hearing wonderful compliments from people about the show, has been a heart-warming experience. Deborah Franklin's story has been told, and I helped to tell it. She was a remarkable woman. I believe that Ben Franklin could not have become Ben Franklin as he is known and respected today, if not for her. In a sense, this independent, feisty, honest, and sometimes funny woman, was one of the first women's libbers of her day. She did it all, and often, she did it alone.
I think that I will have the pleasure of presenting this piece many more times and in many places. I so look forward to that.