Tried by Sorrow: Stonewall Jackson at Rock Kiln Ruin

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 14 No. 3/4, "Changing Scenes: Theater in the South." Find more from that issue here.

Rock Kiln Ruin Theater may be the most unusual theater setting in the United States. This outdoor theater in Lexington, Virginia once served as the site for three kilns that converted rock from nearby quarries into lime.

The audience enters through a tent that serves as box office and lobby. Three hundred seats face a stone­walled amphitheater rising 30 feet above the pit, and three massive lime kilns stand at stage left. Time-bleached sycamores, box elders, and gnarled oak trees combine with moss and vines to surmount the crumbling walls. Narrow landings, broken spaces in the rock face, and steep paths create a large but very intimate visual space which is especially effective under dramatic lighting. It is now the setting for Stonewall Country, a musical drama based on Stonewall Jackson's life.

The site of the old kiln was obtained in 1983 by Don Baker, who wrote Stonewall Country, and a classmate from nearby Washington and Lee University in the 1960s. They formed a non-profit corporation, Lime Kiln Arts, obtained a 50-year lease for a dollar, and established a theater dedicated to presenting music and drama which would reflect, according to the Lime Kiln mission statement, "the life, history, and heritage of the people rooted in this place." Baker calls this region the "Scotch-Irish South," which he says stretches from West Virginia and Kentucky through Southwestern Virginia and North Carolina to the hill country of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Born in Pulaski, Virginia in 1944, Baker identifies strongly with Appalachia and draws the material for his plays from it. As a child, he and his cousins "did plays" for all their aunts and uncles based on books, movies, or television shows they had seen. After graduating from Washington and Lee, he performed at Washington, D.C.'s Theater Lobby, directed at the Back Alley Theater, and studied acting at the Washington Theater Club. He supported himself by painting and exhibiting pictures, by designing, building and renovating houses, and by teaching drama and art as rehabilitation therapy to psychiatric patients.

His life took an emphatic turn toward theater when he joined Appalshop of Whitesburg, Kentucky in 1974. Appalshop gave him the opportunity to draw upon his Appalachian heritage. Baker became founding project director of Roadside Theater (see article on p. 56), a repertory theater where he was actor, manager, and playwright for 10 years.

Baker sees himself as part of a new birth of theater in the South, one that is rich with dramatic material. Baker wanted to build a theater that makes sense for the Southern Appalachians. The instrument for making that theater is Lime Kiln Arts as well as Rock Kiln Ruin. Both emphasize local materials — to build plays as well as to form the theater. Baker aims to create plays reflecting

local values and cast in the language used by local speakers.

What possessed Baker to write a musical about Stonewall Jackson? He was looking for a subject with local and regional associations to the site of Rock Kiln Ruin. In Lexington and all over southwest Virginia and West Virginia, Jackson's name possesses instant recognition. He was the Confederate general who stood on the battlefield like a stone wall, and he was mortally wounded by fire from his own troops at Chancellorsville in 1863. Jackson taught at the Virginia Military Institute for many years and is buried nearby; his Civil War exploits captured the imagination of the world, and locally his name inspires pride.

Still, Stonewall Jackson-awkward, secretive, dyspeptic, strange enough to be widely thought crazy – would seem an unlikely subject for a musical play. But Baker has made him into the center of an American drama which neither glorifies Jackson nor savages him. Stonewall Country explores his peculiar but effective behavior in an effort to understand the man who has been called the ''American Napoleon." Baker juxtaposes episodes in Jackson's life and career as a soldier with other moments of Civil War history to bring individual life and historical matrix into perspective. It forces the audience confront some interesting issues about the war and about Jackson as one of its most fascinating — and in some surprising ways, most representative — figures.

Jackson comes across as mysterious, remote, and devoutly religious. The first words he utters on stage are, "I knew that if Providence set me a task, He would give me the power to perform it. So I resolved to grow up and you see I have. What I willed to do, I could do."

Jackson's secrecy was as intense as his devotion to God and duty. In the play, his fellow Confederate general Jeb Stuart says to him in a good­natured way, "General, I never knew a man so secretive as you." Jackson replies, "If my coat knew my plans, I would take it off and burn it. And if I can deceive my friends, I can be sure of deceiving my enemies. Always mystify," he admonishes the eager Stuart, who seems hardly to need such advice.

His secrecy is only part of the mystery of the Jackson in the play, however. To Baker, Jackson exemplified the Victorian spirit in America — a belief in the rightness of material abundance and worldly success, a pragmatic will to power, and a sense of moral superiority. As a result of an excellent West Point education and a lifetime of wide travel and extensive reading, Jackson shared those beliefs.

But something in his character also contradicted those values. Born in the mountains of what is now West Virginia, Jackson was the crude product of a wild frontier. To his West Point fellows, he was clumsy and out of fashion, a country bumpkin. All his life he was an outsider, and he carried to his dying day a strange kind of frontier Puritanism.

These conflicting pulls on Jackson become — in the play — the larger forces in American society that were sundering the social body. This then broadens with the hanging in 1859 of John Brown, the militant abolitionist who raided a federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia with the idea of using the arms to free slaves. Blood, sin, and guilt then dominate the play. A Yankee POW describes the thriving trade in dead bodies as "articles of merchandise" and talks about the fights that erupt over disputed ownership of corpses in the prison camp.

The play grapples with ideas like honor and freedom, with what the North called the South's "peculiar institution," slavery. Baker does not shy from the fact that Jackson, though he thought himself "civilized, Christianized, and chivalrous," owned a slave. But he also founded and taught a Sunday school for black children, at the time an illegal act. The mystery of the man — and of the society that nurtured him — deepens as the play searches.

The play's original music and most of the lyrics were written by the frequent Prairie Home Companion musicians Robin and Linda Williams, who researched Jackson with Baker. Some of the songs were adapted from traditional 19th-century music, but in original scores like "Duty," aspects of Jackson's character are revealed:

A Heart must be tried by sorrow

Like gold must be tried by the flame

I bless the cleansing fire

And the furnace of living pain.

This play and Rock Kiln Ruin are ideally suited. Part of the wall "blows up" and "rocks" and "boulders" come crashing down the cliff into the pit during the war. Battle scenes rage all over, and gunfire is heard from above the rim of the cliff and in the overhanging trees. Jackson's appearances have an unsettling effect because he usually appears at the rim of the cliff, posing statuesquely under a spotlight — as remote, unapproachable, and mysterious in the play as he was in real life.

For information write the Rock Kiln Ruin Box Office, P.O. Box 663, Lexington, Virginia 24450, or phone 705-463-3074.