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Reviving a slice of Pittsfield history

Century-old play set to return to Colonial stage


Contributing writer

A little more than 100 years ago, a local playwright and a composer dug into Pittsfield’s past to create a lighthearted look at the events near the end of the War of 1812.

The result was a comedic opera, called “The Happy Day,” that turned into a big hit for its time.

Now, as part of the city’s 250th anniversary celebration, a group of local people have dug up that play, modernized it and will present it in a staged reading Nov. 26.

Auditions for all roles will be held at the end of this month. Like the original, the revival will be performed on the stage of Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre.

The two men who created “The Happy Day” in 1904 were Edward Boltwood, who wrote the script, and Frederick Liddle, a musician who composed the score and directed the play.

In this year’s performance, the guiding lights are two Terrys, one male, one female: Terry Anderson, an actor, director and college professor who updated and adapted the play before he moved from Pittsfield to Minnesota; and Terry Wilson, who is executive director of the Berkshire Music School and is spearheading the production.

Early show at Colonial

The original version of “The Happy Day” set the pattern for a series of local theater productions in the Colonial’s early days. The landmark theater was barely a year old at the time of the 1904 production.

Boltwood, the playwright, was the son of Sarah Plunkett Boltwood and nephew of Harriet Plunkett, owner of the Longfellow House, now the site of Pittsfield High School on East Street. A Pittsfield native, Boltwood also wrote the third volume of the History of Pittsfield.

Liddle, a native of England who served as organist and music and choir director for St. Stephen’s Church, was known as a beloved band leader and music teacher in Pittsfield. According to an article in the Pittsfield Evening Journal on Oct. 13, 1904, he “was very well-satisfied with the performance” of the 60 local people who comprised the cast and chorus.

“He said that the opera was the work of four months on his part, and that it took Edward Boltwood about the same length of time to write the opera,” the newspaper wrote. “Certain it is no amateur production in Western Massachusetts has ever been produced equal to it.”

The 1904 production also featured the Colonial Theatre’s original architect, J. MacArthur Vance, as “the star comedian” who “deservedly won all the plaudits bestowed upon him,” the Evening Journal reported.

“Only words of the highest praise [were] heard from all who were present. It is conceded to be fully equal to most of the professional opera companies that come to Pittsfield.”

Proceeds of the production benefited the House of Mercy, a local hospital that was the precursor to Berkshire Medical Center. About $500, quite a lot of money for the time, was raised for this cause in the first weekend, and the opera was such a hit that repeat performances were offered on Oct. 27, 1904.

“The Happy Day” was the first of several plays on which Boltwood and Liddle collaborated to raise funds for various causes. Its success led to “Sunny Sicily” in 1905 and “The Princess Runaway” in 1906, both of which were staged at the Colonial Theater. By 1911, “The Silver Sword” and “The Red Lady” joined the list.

The local productions involved many people in Pittsfield and were an early incarnation of community theater in the city.

War and a wedding

Liddle’s music framed the story of a time at the close of the second war between Great Britain and the United States, about 1815. It is set in Pittsfield Park on the wedding morning of Agatha Sweetfern and Benjamin Raspberry, the young chairman of Pittsfield’s Board of Selectmen.

At the time, there was a prisoner-of-war camp located where St. Joseph’s High School now stands, but only one remaining prisoner was housed there. (The camp’s commandant was Thomas Melville Jr., whose nephew, born a few years later, was the writer Herman Melville.)

The prisoner, British Capt. Reginal McIntosh, manages to escape and disappears. The Sweetfern-Raspberry wedding is interrupted by the arrival of Col. Beacon Hill, an inspector of military prisons and member of the governor’s staff, who is in Pittsfield on official business.

There was, it seems, a Massachusetts law in 1815 that levied a steep fine on a town’s selectmen whenever the town permitted a prisoner’s escape. Raspberry, therefore, tries to conceal McIntosh’s disappearance by impersonating the British captain himself, a plan that works well until McIntosh reappears in disguise, falls in love with Sweetfern and steps happily into Raspberry’s place as the groom.

In Act 2, Raspberry tries to prevent the marriage by impersonating a local wizard who has the power to elicit speech from the venerable Old Elm of Pittsfield. Raspberry is soon unmasked. But just as Hill is about to decree punishments all around, he loses his authority, thanks to an official declaration of peace between Great Britain and the United States.

Rediscovering scripts, scores

The revival of “The Happy Day” was set in motion at the Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield’s public library, where the scripts and original scores of the Boltwood-Liddle plays have been preserved for more than 85 years.

Kathleen Reilly, supervisor of the library’s Local History Department and Melville Collections, said she and Ann Marie Harris first showed the play to Anderson, who then modernized and retyped the script and scanned all of Liddle’s elegant, handwritten scores.

Reilly said she and Harris helped to provide for scanning the fragile originals without compromising them.

Anderson said that when he first read the play, he was struck by its originality and the sharpness of its dialog. He thought it deserved to be put on stage in the Berkshires again.

“The characters were very well drawn,” Anderson said in an e-mail interview from Minnesota. “Most of all, it was extremely funny. Boltwood had a great sense of humor and knew how to use it to write comedy. He enjoyed poking fun at the people in the world around him. He was a member of the privileged class, but that didn't stop him from pointing out its silly pretensions.

“Apparently the people of the area could laugh at themselves, because the play was a smash hit in its day,” he continued. “That's why this piece is so special to the Berkshires. There is no other piece like it.”

Even so, Anderson said he had to make some changes, adding some dialog to Act 2 to resolve ambiguities that probably were clarified in the stage action of the original production, but in ways that weren’t written down.

Anderson gave copies of the scores to musicians Alice Spatz and Rahima Holstein, who are both on the faculty at the Berkshire Music School. The two Pittsfield musicians logged more than 150 hours painstakingly transcribing the originals and turning them into a modern score.

Wilson, the producer, met with Mary Rentz and Kit Dobelle, who head the committee organizing Pittsfield’s 250th anniversary celebration, last summer and proposed having “The Happy Day” be part of the festivities.

Wilson said the Nov. 26 performance at the Colonial will be a costumed, staged reading with vocal and piano arrangements.

The production is being supported by a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council through the Pittsfield Cultural Council.

Auditions are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 19-20, at the Colonial Theater. To set up an appointment, call (413) 442-1411, Ext. 13. Anyone auditioning should come with a 16-bar song to perform unaccompanied, as well as a monologue of no more than five minutes in length.

John Mason contributed to this report.

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