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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Susannah: production notebook (I)

We've finished our first day of staging Opera Roanoke's premiere production of Floyd's Susannah. Since of our principal artists asked me what I'd read and researched before the production, I thought I'd share some of those notes here. The quotes are largely taken from biographies of Floyd and Arthur Miller, by Holliday and Bigsby, respectively.

A picture of Jimmy Ray Ward's set design model, built by the artist

Susannah – Notes and quotes (from Holliday biography) | background, context, premiere productions

Carlisle Floyd (b.1926) – son of a South Carolina Methodist minister

Studied piano and English literature at Converse College

MM in piano at FSU, where he began teaching and composing (1947-1976)

8 operas (not counting two student operas):

Susannah (FSU, 1955; NYCO, ‘56; Brussels, ’58;

MET premiere with Fleming/Ramey/Hadley, '99)

Wuthering Heights (Bronte, ‘58; Santa Fe)

Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck, ‘70; Seattle; HGO production/recording featuring Elizabeth Futral)

Cold Sassy Tree (Olivia Burns, 2000; HGO; “star turn” for Patricia Racette)

1976: founded Houston Opera Studio, began 20-year endowed tenure at Univ of Houston

2008: NEA Opera Honors with Leontyne Price and Richard Gaddes (Santa Fe Opera)

Susannah: 2nd only to Porgy and Bess in popularity among American Operas

NY Music Critics Circle Award in 1956 (Best New Opera)

Chosen to represent the US at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels


Product of McCarthy era and “blacklist” at FSU ("loyalty oath"): “Blacklisted” artists: Bertolt Brecht, Lillian Hellman, Burgess Meredith, Zero Mostel, Clifford Odets, Ayn Rand and Edward G. Robinson; “Gray-” (or Pink-) listed artists: Marc Blitzstein, Bernstein, Copland, Lotte Lenya & Kurt Weill, Jerome Robbins, and Roger Sessions, to name just a few...

FSU followed FL Gov. [Charley Eugene] “Johns Commission” protocols of targeting suspected communists, civil rights advocates, and GLBTQ employees, requiring “loyalty pledges”...

Floyd, a gay progressive, was scared: "all of it smacked to F of pressures at revival meetings… Just that spring…his father wrote: ‘I have made a terrible mistake with him somewhere.’ "(T. Holliday, p. 117)

"Floyd’s friend, Sam Blount proposed updating the action to the present day, with a final stage picture of the heroine dispersing an outraged populace with derisive laughter" (118)

"Susannah remains alone, strong and resigned to her fate…Floyd forces his heroine, along with his audiences, to discover unattractive truths… "[=Kafka’s art as axe to pick at the frozen regions of heart]

Floyd ingeniously combined and balanced elements of Greek Theater, Italian verismo, and Hollywood, everything imbued with rural southern colors, to create a totality all his own. (120)

Along with the folksong ballads as arias, the “deft imitations of square dance, and hymnody”

Floyd achieved “a new sustained lyricism” and adopted an American classical idiom reminiscent of Copland and sweeping Hollywood film scores (On the Waterfront, 1954)

Phyllis Curtin (1922-2016): It’s right-on-the-mark psychologically, so clear, so simple, so available, and so true, in everything that gets expressed. Those are the elements that make for strong theatre. (from NO Opera, 1962)

1955 critic after premiere called Floyd a man to be reckoned with in setting American grass-roots traditions to effective words and music.

FSU President Doak Campbell capitulated to Floyd’s defense of his work:

Pregnant? You do not understand the dramatic purpose of this so-called seduction?” ‘Well, it’s just sex.” When Floyd pointed out that this was how Blitch discovered Susannah’s innocence, Campbell began to back down, growling, ‘We’ll reread it.

Anyobody who’s offended does not understand it! (FSU’s “conservative Methodist secretary”)

Holton [B&H, Floyd's publisher] looked beyond its “pre-Down-in-the-Valley [Weill] atmosphere,” to “the personal moving tragedy which follows the folksy beginning” of “rustic square dance.” (131)


from Arthur Miller, Christopher Bigsby [Crucible as central influence on Susannah as parable/allegory] researching The Crucible in Salem, he [Miller] suddenly recognized that there was a connection between the severe Puritans, blending a faith in God and justice, a believe in rational process and a dangerous arbitrariness, and the Jewish patriarchs. Those Puritan divines were... 'ur-Hebrews, with the same fierce idealism, devotion to God, tendency to legalistic reductiveness... I knew instantly that the connection was: the moral intensity of the Jews and clan's defensiveness against pollution from outside the ranks. (37)

Miller found in Ibsen "a kindred spirit to the Greeks," … he was a reincarnation of the Greek dramatic spirit, especially its obsessive fascination with past transgressions as the seeds to current catastrophe.(106) [Note this parallel with Seneca's stoicism, and Susannah's kinship with all of the above...]

He staged the play [Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People] as an act of resistance, not least because it seemed to be a comment on conformity and denial. (405)

…its [unpopular] reception seemed to confirm the difficulty not merely of addressing contemporary reality…but of finding a language that could hope to capture Miller’s increasing sense of unreality, a culture destroying its values in the name of those values. (409)

…a flawed social world is of a piece with a flawed private one. The latter is at the root of an incapacitating guilt which seems to have the power to paralyze the will. (412)

In both periods – 1690’s, 1950’s – the demands of social unity reinforced the authority of leaders and undermined the legitimacy of dissent. (413)

Confession and betrayal were the necessary price for inclusion in the body politic… friends and neighbors were to offer one another up if their own innocence was to be affirmed… a basic theme of his work: betrayal and the need to discover a basis for the restoration of integrity (423)

To deflect punishment from themselves they accused others…

A key aspect of the events in Salem…was the sudden sense of licensed anarchy [= ‘Mob mentality’]… it was also seductively subversive…Dionysian (442)

Miller (journal note on Rev Hale): …the world is still gripped between two diametrically opposed absolutes…A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it, with diabolical malevolence. (446)

America in the 1950’s was charged with the electricity of the Cold War. It is the light from that charge which seemed to flicker around the stage [in 1953]. (453)

The Crucible remains Miller’s most produced play…It is so because the pressure to conform is a constant, because power will always exert its presumptive rights to define the real, and because it is never enough to watch history pass by as if it were something other than the produce of decisions made or deferred, as if the individual could indeed declare a separate peace and rest content and immune from the flawed institutions of flawed men and women. (453)

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