Benjamin Butler, a Union major general in the Civil War, knew how to take a stand — whether it was against a 14-hour work day when he was a young lawyer or, later, when he made a bold move after an escaped slave arrived at Virginia’s Fort Monroe, where he was serving.
The law at the time required that Butler send this slave, deemed contraband, back to his owners in the Confederacy. However, Shepard Mallory, who was seeking sanctuary, argued that wartime means the law doesn’t always matter and perhaps that action was not necessary. Meanwhile, Butler told him that they were fighting to uphold the law.
This greater story will unfold in often comic detail when Richard Strand’s play “Ben Butler” opens at Gloucester Stage Company this Friday for a four-week run.
Butler, known for his prickly character, faces off with an equally intelligent Mallory in an entrancing tête-à-tête taking place within the confines of the fort while the fate of the young nation is being tested on the battlefields.
In an early scene of the play, Mallory meets with Butler, who offers the man a glass of sherry, a word and drink as foreign to the slave as the liberty he is seeking.
Director Joseph Discher, who directed the world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company, applauds the script.
“It’s a battle of wits and words, and the language is skillful. Butler is trying to understand the enslaved man, and Mallory is challenging the way Butler sees things. The wordplay is just incredible,” he said. “The writing of the play has this incredible combination of history and poignant drama, and surprising amounts of humor, considering the subject. I love doing plays with such powerfully relevant moments of humanity.”
Butler, who lived from 1818-1893, was raised in Lowell, but he also had ties to Gloucester, where he built a villa, and Greater Newburyport, which is home to Ben Butler’s Toothpick, a navigational aid erected in 1873. A father of four, the infamous lawyer and military leader has many descendants.
The details of his life beyond this period at Fort Monroe are equally quirky and sometimes nasty, from him being called “Butler the Beast” to the creation of Ben Butler chamber pots, which used his image in myriad iterations at the bottom of the pot. These chamber pots were popular on Mississippi riverboats in the decades after the war.
University of Massachusetts Lowell professor Robert Forrant teaches history through the life of this man, who, for most, remains a footnote of the past.
“For lack of a better single word, he is enigmatic,” he said. “He’s a bundle of fascinating stories. He takes progressive positions on what remain cutting-edge social questions even today. When I started my research, I soon found that I can teach late 19th-century history through his eyes.”
Forrant talks about Butler’s meager start in life.
“His dad passes away when he’s young, and he lives in a boarding house that his mom operates so she can make a living,” Forrant said. “He spends his formative years living among textile workers who walk to work every day from his boarding house.”
The community recognized early on the talent of the young Butler, and people arranged for him to attend Phillips Exeter Academy, but that did not last, perhaps in part because “he was not particularly civil,” Forrant said.
Butler later attended Waterville College, now known as Colby College, and then he returned to Lowell, where he studied law and became a practicing attorney in the city.
“His early clients are Irish immigrants and textile workers, which puts him against the establishment, which is Protestant, and he takes great joy in tweaking the big shots,” Forrant said.
In an example of Butler’s contrary nature, Forrant notes that when the city of Lowell passed an ordinance that required all dogs to wear a muzzle, “he parades around town with a dog and a muzzle on its tail.”
The professor shares a telling quote of Butler’s that appeared in American Heritage magazine and foreshadows his future stances: “God made me only one way. I must always be with the under-dog in the fight.”
In his illustrious career, he co-authored the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in Congress. As Massachusetts governor, he was the first to appoint an African American to a judgeship and he was the first to appoint a woman to an executive office.
Although Butler was a self-made man, a rags-to-riches sort of story, his business interests were broad, from textiles to granite. Plus, he married into wealth with his bride, Sarah Hildreth.
After the war, Butler returned to the political scene. He was elected to Congress in 1878 and elected governor of Massachusetts in 1882, after previous unsuccessful attempts. He also was a presidential candidate in the 1884 election.
Forrant notes that some of the same issues surfacing in Butler’s era continue to surface in the 21st century in terms of workers’ rights, women’s rights and African American struggles.
Actor Ames Adamson, who originated the role in the world premiere, will make his Gloucester Stage debut as Butler, a role he is reprising for the third time. The cast also features Shane Taylor as Mallory; Doug Bowen-Flynn as Lt. Kelly, a young West Point graduate; and David DeBeck as Confederate Maj. John Baytop Cary.
Adamson, who was once gifted a Ben Butler “thunder mug,” or chamber pot, from a director, delved into the history of this character he knew nothing about. But during his research, the man started to come to life in a new way.
“The subject of the play is essentially in every history book as a footnote, and they move on to the rest of the war, but Butler was so much more than that,” Adamson said. “In particular, he was pugilistic, combative, obstreperous and ornery, but he was a squishy pile of mush when it came to his wife. The letters he writes to Sarah are surprisingly lovely and childish and sweet. He was such a complex man.”
On a more global level, Adamson noted that many of the issues facing this county today — and the rest of the world — stem from ignorance of other people’s condition in life, which is at the heart of this play.
Discher, who is directing this play for the fifth time, notes that the feedback he has received from audiences is universal and consistent.
“They are blown away by the play. They are pleasantly surprised that they have learned something about history and are shocked that there are actually moments of laughter because it was incredibly funny, and yet, there are times they are moved, sometimes to tears,” he said. “There is one moment when the fugitive tells Butler something, and the audience gasps. They find the story both powerful and relevant.
“The first act is darker, and the second act changes with a more comic tone to it,” Discher said. “A lot of the humor comes out of the tension that is building up.”
If you go
What: “Ben Butler”
When: Aug. 2-25. Shows are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. The Aug. 10 and 17 shows will be followed by free post-show discussions with the actors.
Where: Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester
How much: $15 to $48
More information: 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com