10 December 2009

Johann Rall: A Historical Portrait, Part 1

[This account, derived from my masters thesis, is a record of an actor’s homework and the work on a new play. (This is Part 1; Part 2 will be posted in several days.) Because this was my thesis role, I documented my experience thoroughly, from my response to reading the script for the first time, through my research on the role, through the attempt to revive the production after its original run. The role is Colonel Johann Rall in William Mastrosimone’s Devil Take the Hindmost, an epic romance set in the midst of the Battle of Trenton, a turning point in the Revolutionary War. Rall is a historical character, the commander of the Hessian mercenaries who defended Trenton for the British against the American assault across the Delaware River on the day after Christmas, 1776.]

As soon as I was cast in Bill Mastrosimone’s Devil Take the Hindmost, I began keeping a journal and carefully recording research, notes, questions, and thoughts regarding all aspects of the role. This account is based on that journal as well as on my memory of the creative process and on whatever objective evaluations I made after the show closed.


Though Bill had been working on the play for over two years, very few had seen even an early version of the script. There’d been very little word of mouth except that it was a “big” play. As a result, my first contact with Devil was at the cold-reading auditions. Even then, no scripts were available to read beforehand, and even after casting was announced, we weren’t issued personal scripts. I had at this point no idea who or what Colonel Johann Rall was, either as a character or as a role. From Director Jack Bettenbender’s thumb-nail description of the plot, I knew we were dealing with the Battle of Trenton and that I was to play Colonel Rall, the commander of the Hessian garrison at Trenton. That was all I knew.

The first reading was more impressive for its length than its content. (There were only five scripts in existence to be shared among 34 actors.) I began to envision a production reminiscent of the Soviet film of War and Peace--eight hours long performed over two days! The plot of Devil is essentially as follows:

In the events surrounding the Battle of Trenton (26 December 1776), a small inn, the Eagle Tavern, becomes a focal point for the advancing and retreating forces of three armies: the Continentals, the British, and the mercenary Hessians. Though Innkeeper Jonathan Brock and his wife are opportunistic neutrals, their 17-year-old daughter, Virginia, has decidedly rebellious tendencies. Into their midst first comes a detachment of retreating rebels on their way across the Delaware. They bring with them a wounded comrade, Robin Sparks, whom they leave in Brock’s unwilling care upon their hasty flight from the pursuing British cavalry. Also remaining behind is Sherry Friend, a camp-follower fed up with dirt, cold, and ragged clothes.

The tavern changes hands as the British occupy Trenton and the commanding officer of the detachment, Captain Charles Worthington, puts Robin under house arrest. Falling in love with Virginia, Worthington asks her parents for permission to court her. They’re delighted with the prospect, but his orders send him away before Virginia can answer. The tavern and the prisoner are then turned over to the Hessian garrison.

The Hessians, uncouth and uncontrolled, become the masters of the tavern. While their commander, Colonel Rall, occupies himself with Sherry, the soldiers amuse themselves by terrorizing the Brocks. In the confusion, Virginia, who’s fallen in love with Robin, helps him escape. As a result of this and her feisty contempt for the Hessians, the soldiers lock up her parents and rape Virginia.

Before Rall, preoccupied with Sherry and drink, discovers these events, the Americans mount a surprise attack across the Delaware. Rall’s mortally wounded trying to rally his surprised and routed troops and the Americans take Trenton in their first important victory of the Revolution.

Briefly in control of the city again, the Continentals return to the tavern, but discover they’re no more welcome there than their Hessian enemies. The Brocks’ misfortune and Robin’s escape are revealed, but the Continentals again retreat across the river. Robin returns in search of Virginia, and is surprised by the British under Captain Worthington. The British, in turn, are surprised by the Americans and taken prisoner. Robin learns of the proposed match between the British officer and Virginia and leaves with his comrades. During the preparations for the Battle of Princeton (3 January 1777), during which a handful of Americans acts as a diversion in Trenton while Washington and his army march to Princeton in secrecy by the hither-to unknown “Quaker Road,” Virginia turns up in the rebel camp and joins Robin, not as a camp follower, but in the line as an equal.

Things became somewhat clearer when we got our own scripts, but it was still obvious that we were dealing with a romantic epic. My initial impression was that it was going to be fun: we were going to surround the audience with action and pageantry on a grand scale! My subsequent impression was that I had a lot of work to do.

I began working with the script immediately. I read and reread the play and found all references to Colonel Rall. I paid close attention to what other characters said about me and what I said about myself. With this “hearsay” information, I began making some elementary decisions: Who said it? Was it true? Why was it said? If there was a historical reference, I made specific note of it and checked it out during my research (which I had already begun).

Almost immediately, Bill began making changes in the script. Nearly every other night, he arrived with new scenes, rewritten scenes, line changes, cuts. The process of building the “play” from the manuscript had begun. As it turned out, the changes, though they began coming less frequently, didn’t halt until the second weekend of performance. This, of course, necessitated constant working and reworking of scenes as each small change created repercussions throughout the scene. In most cases, the changes made the scenes play better; in a few cases, this wasn’t so. The most troublesome scenes were often completely rewritten several times. The biggest problem with the script turned out to be simply its length. Eventually, whole scenes were cut to reduce the running time to a manageable three hours.

Strangely enough, my existence in the play was little affected by most of the rest of the play’s events. Certainly, historical accuracy protected Rall, but the structure of the play was such that, though the plot was extremely episodic, the Hessian presence on stage took place in seven almost contiguous scenes from the end of Act I to the middle of Act II. Because of this scriptural isolation, only direct changes in Hessian scenes affected my work, since I came into contact with only a small portion of the cast. (I had no dialogue with either the hero or the heroine of the play and was on stage only once with the latter.)

In spite of the constant changes in the script, I soon became comfortable with the play, the space, the cast, the director, and the playwright (who attended nearly all the rehearsals). This last was very important as it turned out, as Bill frequently discussed projected changes with the actors concerned and often solicited their opinions. He was also available for discussion of problems arising from the script. I frequently asked him why I said certain things: did I mean what I said literally, or was I really saying something else. Sometimes Bill provided valuable information regarding artistic license versus historical fact (for example: historically, Rall was shot in the chest or side, not in the back as in Devil. Bill made the change because of the ancient Greek tradition of not burying soldiers who died of wounds in the back. It was the ignominy of a soldier receiving wounds while having his back to the enemy which helped create the frenzy that ended the battle on stage.) Occasionally, Bill accepted requests to change or delete troublesome lines (a reference to Rall’s age was deleted so as not to require heavy make-up.)


First Impressions: As soon as I began reading the script, I started forming impressions of Colonel Rall. Certain specifics were indicated in the script: I was 51, a professional soldier, having fought in campaigns all over Europe. I was contemptuous of the fighting ability of the American rebels and had little respect for my British superiors. It was obvious that I had a life-and-death control over my soldiers, and that I bullied and mocked them at every opportunity. I was very jealous of my military reputation, and apparently more concerned with glory than victory. From my immediate attraction to the camp-follower Sherry, it was apparent that Bill envisioned me as a womanizer as well as a heavy drinker.

Historically, I learned that I had fought valiantly at Ft. Washington and had personally demanded its surrender. I also learned that I expected to continue my pursuit of the rebel army to Philadelphia and capture the capital; I had no intention of making a defense of Trenton.

From these snippets of information, I formed an early concept of Rall that remained the basis for my final work. I began to fall into a definite speech pattern and certain physicalizations began to suggest themselves to me. As rehearsals progressed, I began to know and understand this man fairly well. My earliest impressions, while rudimentary, turned out to be correct and appropriate.

As far as the role’s function, I served as the catalyst for the events of the play. It was the presence of the Hessians in the tavern that precipitated Virginia’s actions regarding Robin, and the rape of Virginia resulted in part from my own attitude toward the Brocks which allowed my men to behave as they did and caused Virginia to react as she did. Thematically, I was the contrast for all other forms of involvement in the war. I was neither neutral nor partisan: I fought for whoever paid. Against me were measured both those who fought for a cause (Robin, Worthington) and those who refused to fight or take sides (the Brocks). I was also the “secondary love interest”: my dalliance with Sherry was contrasted with the romance between Virginia and Robin. Historically, I was the inadvertent tool by which the American rebels gained their badly-needed first victory at the doorstep of the Continental Congress. In short, the role was a pivotal one, the fulcrum on which the rest of the play balanced.

Research: As soon as I got the script and had read it thoroughly, I began my research. This generally fell into three areas: the history of the events surrounding the Battles of Fts. Washington and Lee, Trenton, and Princeton (Winter 1776-77); the personal background of Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall; and the social, cultural, and historical background of Rall’s native Germany.

There’s no lack of information concerning the battles and Rall’s participation is fairly well documented. Military histories covering the Battles of Trenton and Princeton are abundant and generally confirm what was in Bill’s script. There were a few minor discrepancies (Rall was wounded in the chest or side, not the back; though he was drunk the night of the battle, there was no evidence he was with a woman; his age varied from 50 to 55 depending on the source). Most of these were explained by legitimate dramatic license and none were of major consequence to my work on the character. As for the rest, my research corroborated Bill’s facts: Rall was quite drunk the night of the battle; he had, indeed, refused to make defensive preparations, being contemptuous of his American adversary; he did, in fact, meet twice with the spy John Honeyman who misled him with false information about the colonial forces; and he was, indeed, mortally wounded in a vain attempt to rally his routed forces. Even his sobriquet, “The Hessian Lion,” was correct, having acquired it because of his bravery in Europe.

Research into Rall’s personal background was more difficult. Because of his participation in the Battles of Ft. Washington and Trenton, his military background is documented. I was able to gather basic information regarding his military career (his promotions and some of his campaigns), but I wasn’t able to gather information regarding the man under the uniform beyond the fact that he was born in Hesse-Kassel between 1721 and 1726, the son of the aide-de-camp of the Löwenstein Regiment. I also found that Rall was a tall, athletic man, but I was unable to find a portrait of him. As to his family life (or, indeed, if he even had a family), I found no reference. His educational, social, and financial status was entirely a matter of conjecture.

Unable to gather definite information regarding Rall the man, I had to interpolate to formulate background and behavior. For this, I leaned heavily on period research into the cultural and social history of Germany in the 18th century. Concentrating on the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel and its immediate neighbors in what is now Germany, I was able to gain an understanding of the forces that created Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall, a professional mercenary soldier. The most valuable research information came from this area.

From a combination of the fragmentary background of Colonel Rall and the prevailing pattern of his day and class, I was able to piece together a personal history of the man. Since all the research was in an effort to determine appropriate behavior, much of what I found became invaluable to my preparation. Among the significant facts I learned were:

Colonel Rall was “born to the regiment.” This meant that I grew up under the tradition that officers were accorded immediate and absolute obedience. I maintained a natural life-and-death authority over my men. Furthermore, it meant that I had to establish this feeling of authority over my soldiers for myself, the actor. Strangely enough, this was in part managed through the military drill Jack Bettenbender wanted for the Hessian soldiers. Because I taught and drilled the actors (I was only 2½ years out of active military service at the time of this work), it was as if I were training and drilling my soldiers: I was, in fact, their commander.

Soldiers were a separate class of German society. Once having entered the military, a soldier (officer or enlisted) left his civilian life and family behind. To me this meant I was answerable to no one but my military superiors. No civilian authority, whether Tory or Whig, had control over my actions. I therefore owed no consideration to the innkeeper Brock or his neighbors regardless of their affiliations.

The Germans of the period didn’t know the comforts of their French and English counterparts. Fireplaces, lighting, napkins, forks, baths, laundries, medicines, and beds were rare even among the wealthy. I took this to mean that I was not accustomed to these luxuries. The Eagle Tavern, as rude as it might have appeared to more sophisticated travelers, was luxurious to me. This made the tavern a particularly image-laden environment for me to work in. It gave me a feeling of luxury and expansiveness which allowed me to behave with a certain grandeur and elegance.

Rall was an impetuous battlefield commander, not adept at defense, but given to spectacular gallantry when on the offensive. On this fact I predicated my entire attitude toward the garrison assignment, the imminent attack on Philadelphia, and my previous actions at Ft. Washington. My career was advanced on my conspicuous valor on the battlefield, not on staying put in a defensive posture, and I was anxious not to lose another opportunity to distinguish myself. Meanwhile, I had to make use of my past exploits, hence the list I recount of past battles. It was even a private “bit” between Sherry and me: a red dress I present her was a gift from my spoils from Ft. Washington. We made a great deal of it and the fact that she should wear it to Philadelphia when I took the capital.

Rall had complete contempt for the Americans of both sides. Not being able to speak English (historically, Rall could not read the dispatches sent from his British commanders), he could not distinguish between loyalists and rebels. Not only did this give me freedom to declare that the rebels were not worth my efforts, but I could ignore and even enjoy my soldiers’ amusement at the expense of Brock and his family.

Thievery and looting was accepted among European soldiers (officers as well) during wartime. Pay was low and the “creature comforts” were not provided by the army as they are today. The difference was made up by what could be stolen along the march or around the camp. Directly from this fact came the justification for the line: “What we take is our wages for traversing an ocean to liberate the colonies from the rebels.” It also made clear that I had no intention of paying Brock for his accomodations or Honeyman for his cattle, even though they professed to be Tory sympathizers.

Rall was proud of his soldiers’ appearance and held daily parades, rain or shine. It did not take much of a stretch to see the “spit-and-polish” mentality of the man. This fact justified the inspection sequence in the play and gave me behavioral hints regarding my own appearance and dress. I knew I was the kind of officer who never appeared without a sparklingly clean, complete uniform of the highest quality and style. It would also affect my posture and poses on stage, and I became very conscious (not self-conscious) of how I looked when I sat, stood, or moved.

Though I never gave up looking for biographical information concerning Rall, I soon realized that I would have to rely almost entirely on general information concerning his period and native land for behavior and life style. By selecting appropriate facts, I was able to construct a reasonably accurate and detailed personal history of a man who might have been Rall. This was the basis of my character research.

Imagination: While I was doing background research for a factual basis to my character work, I was simultaneously doing my own acting homework on the role. Though this started as soon as I got my script, it was altered and refined as rehearsals progressed. Unlike historical fact, imaginative homework of an actor is often fleeting, transitory, and ephemeral until put into practice, so it took me nearly the entire rehearsal period to find the tools I needed.

As rehearsals progressed, when necessary I set about finding or identifying substitutes for characters with whom I came into contact, particularly Sherry; my soldiers Homburg, Schwabe, and Vaupel; Brock; and Honeyman. Of these, the most difficult to find was Sherry. Fortunately, I knew the actress and had worked with her previously in similar relationships. Eventually, I used a basic substitution of an old college “flame” and added a number of endowments to adjust the relationship.

As for the men under my command, I merely had to reach into my own military background to find similar relationships. Even General Howe had his counterpart in my army days. Brock and Honeyman, however, were special cases, but not impossible. Having been stationed in Berlin, I had functioned as an officer of an occupying force and many of the Germans still regarded us with deference in the manner of Brock. A little judicious enhancing of several of these older Berliners made up my substitution for Brock. And Honeyman was, after all, a Tory agent (according to the British) and a source of intelligence about the enemy. This was not far removed from my own work in Berlin: as an intelligence officer, I came into frequent contact with such sources--people who travelled back and forth into East Germany.

As for my own role, I drew heavily on my army background. In many ways, my Colonel Rall was me in an army uniform. It was, with minor adjustments for specific character differences, a role I had played in life for more than four years. (When I decided to leave the army and go to acting school, several colleagues remarked at the apparent disparity between my current situation and my future one. “No,” I recall saying to them, “it’s not so different. I’ve been playing the part of an army officer for the past five years.”) To this I added my knowledge of Germany, where I’d lived previously as a teenager also, and the behavior patterns of the German people and my own experiences as a foreigner in a country unfamiliar to me, cut off by an ocean and 3,000 miles of distance from my home and family. (Berlin, because of the Wall, intensified this feeling of isolation and separation. See my earlier post on “The Berlin Wall,” 29 November.) Though I have never been in actual combat or even served in a combat area, I had gone through some very vivid field training exercises (every one in the dead of winter) that served as referent for the war’s ever-presence. (Service in Cold War Berlin, because of the city’s location and the political circumstances, generated a mindset of constant edginess and wariness since the military stance was always that we were on the brink of hostilities.)

As for my main character action, the guiding principle of my life, I chose “To gain glory.” Since my situation, as I phrased it, was that I was “shackled to a stalled locomotive,” my metaphor for my stalled career, my character action became “To ‘jump-start’ the locomotive.” Having decided on my situation and character action, I then related the latter to each of the characters with whom I came into contact. In each case, I found that I was able to relate to them in terms suggested by my overall action. For instance, with respect to Sherry, my action became “To impress her with my past glories”; with respect to my men, it became “To make them surrogates for my dreams of glory” by drills, parades, and inspections. To have a complete picture, I included Washington, with whom I played in only one scene, but to whom I referred several times, and General Howe, who wasn’t a character on stage, but who was always present in my mind. This choice of action went along with several other character details I determined while doing my homework.

Miscellany: Because of the intracacies of the character’s physical life, I realized immediately that I would need a rehearsal costume with which to work. From my own wardrobe and with the assistance of the costume designer, I put together a semblance of an 18th-century suit of clothes. (The uniform was not too different from a suit.) I also had at home a saber which I began to wear immediatley so as to accustom myself to its problems. As a result of this effort, I found additional behavior, some dictated by the clothes (I had to do something with the hat and gloves) and some suggested by it. In the final analysis, this work made the transfer to the actual costume an easy transition.

Certain problems also suggested themselves with regard to the make-up of my Colonel Rall. Physically, he and I were very dissimilar: he was tall and athletic, I’m neither; he was in his early 50’s, I looked about 25 (I was actually almost 30). I couldn’t find a portrait of the man, but, fortunately, no one else was likely to know what Colonel Rall looked like either, so I was safe to imagine. Additionally, the nature of the production was such that heavy make-up would “read” badly, so I was limited in what I could do to suggest age and condition of health. I made certain decisions regarding the character and, with the help of the costume designer again, designed the make-up for my Colonel Rall. Basically, taking the fact that he was an athletic, vigorous career soldier, I decided that he didn’t “look” 50, but more an undefined “middle-age”--robust, even ruddy (as southern Germans tend to be). Of course, the white powdered wig would suggest age, so my design could take into account the need for little make-up. (In a make-up course I’d taken some time before, I’d learned an age make-up technique that focused on the eyes and deepening existing creases and hollows with shading. It’s excellent for working close to an audience.) The result was a subtle aging of my own features, avoiding the use of heavy lines.

Development: As I’ve stated, my original intuitive decisions about Colonel Rall remained the basis for my work on the role throughout the production. Needless to say, however, subtle changes took place over the seven weeks of rehearsal and performance. Working with the director’s wife and assistant, who served as acting coach, and Carol Rosenfeld-Massee, my acting teacher who was also a member of the Devil cast, I added many “wrinkles” to Colonel Rall’s character. Though I remained stiff and formal in most situations, I found a very particular sense of humor. The man wasn’t without charm and appeal, for all his bluster and blow, and in the scenes with Sherry, I began to soften and “humanize.” (Another acting teacher used to paraphrase Laurence Olivier: “Humor makes more human.”) I took great pleasure in my “jokes” on the men and in seeing my soldiers take command in the tavern. In military matters, I remained utterly humorless--especially when things didn’t go my way (General Howe’s orders to defend Trenton, for instance), but I found a humor, very peculiar to Rall, in most other situations (Homburg’s jumping in the Delaware; his breaking up the furniture; Honeyman’s appearance after his re-entrance to the tavern; Schwabe’s superstition about the effigy of Washington that didn’t burn).

One aspect that particularly changed was my attitude toward Sherry at our meeting in the so-called “contract scene” near the end of the first act. The work on that scene did a great deal to further “humanize” the character. Instead of cock-sure and controlled, as I began playing the scene, I became insecure and unsure. Sherry was no longer someone to be taken for granted, and our scenes together grew more playful. (This was made easier, of course, since I’d known this actress for over a year by this time.)

As all these elements accumulated and added to the aspects of the character retained from my first impressions, I began to feel that I was truly heightening my identification with the man who had allowed the untrained Continental Army to gain its first important victory. I soon felt I was creating a real man, and I understood him. In contrast to my experience the previous spring with another character, from whom I’d felt separated, I’d gotten inside Rall.

[Part 2 of the account of my work process on the role of Colonel Rall continues with “The Production” and includes our attempt to revive the show several months after it closed. Return in a few days to read how the effort turned out.]

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