About a year ago, I was idly searching the Internet to see whether I could find anything interesting about the town of Livermore, Kentucky, population 1,482. It had been my father's hometown.
came across an article that, surprisingly, was in German.
I used my rusty college German to translate the first sentence. "In a small provincial theater in the fall of 1911, an unprecedented event takes place: on the bare stage, an alleged wrongdoer is lynched by an enraged mob."
In the late 19th century, my great-grandfather, Richard Foster ("R.F.") Thomas, had come from Springfield, Tennessee, to settle in Livermore in western Kentucky.
By "the fall of 1911," R.F.'s son (my grandfather Hubert Foster Thomas) would have been 30 years old. And H.F.'s son (my father Vernon Thomas) would have been two.
The German web page turned out to be a preview of a play which was to be presented at the City Hall in Dinslaken, a town in the Rhine valley about 20 miles north of Düsseldorf. The drama was called Die Schaukel, or The Swing. Written by the English playwright Edward Bond, then translated into German, it was billed as "a documentary play" and "a scandalous true story."
Had such an event happened in Livermore? If so, I wasn't surprised that I had never heard of it. The local citizens would not have celebrated a lynching as a great moment in their civic history.
So it really did happen. Did anyone from Livermore remember the story?
My father's younger brother Hubert Small Thomas was born in 1914. Married in 1936, he and his wife Martha lived in Livermore for half a century before moving to be closer to their grown children.
The previews of the play had mentioned some names: Kroll the theater owner, Skinner the rabble-rousing merchant, and Fred "the outsider" who was tied to a swing on stage and executed. I wrote to my relatives to ask whether they had heard of these names, or, for that matter, whether they knew of a local theater or opera house.
My uncle Hubert replied, "We are not especially proud of the story you told of the play. I am afraid it may be a true story. I do not remember when I heard it, or who told it, or the reason it was told to me; it was several years ago.
"The opera house was the last building on the right side of Main Street before getting to the river. It was torn down several years ago. There are, I think, two dwelling houses on that lot at this time. The building I knew that was there was a feed mill and warehouse. The upstairs was at one time used as an opera house, later as a skating rink. My grandfather, R.F. Thomas, was a miller; he may have worked in that building when he first came to Livermore. I have been told he worked in a flour mill; I think it was at that location.
"I am not familiar with the names you quoted; the playwright may have used fictitious names. You did not say if the 'outsider' was black. From what I remember, the one doing the swinging was."
I agreed that the names of the play's characters might be fictional. In particular, the playwright seems to have deliberately chosen Kroll as the name of the family who owned the local theater, which would have been known as the "Kroll opera house." I suspect that the choice was made to suggest a parallel between the American white supremacists, haters of blacks, and the German Nazis, haters of Jews.
You see, only a few weeks after Adolf Hitler came to power in Berlin in 1933, there was a fire in the parliament building known as the Reichstag. Hitler decided not to have the building repaired; instead, the members of the Reichstag thereafter met in another auditorium a few blocks away. This was an ornate old building whose floodlit stage provided an appropriately theatrical setting for Hitler's inflammatory speeches to his deputies. Its name was the Kroll Opera House.
Now I had to find a copy of the play. Further research revealed that The Swing is the second half of a 1976 double bill called A-A-America! I used the Internet to buy a used paperback edition of Bond plays, priced at £1.60, and started reading.
To answer my uncle's question, there is an African-American character in the play, named Paul. However, Paul is only the friend of the accused man, Fred. (After the execution, a stagehand remarks to Paul, "Mostly black folk die so spectacular.") Also, the alleged crimes are rape and vandalism, not murder.
Clearly, although The Swing is subtitled "A Documentary," it is merely based on what really happened in Kentucky in 1911. The English playwright wasn't particularly interested in white vs. black in America. His aim was not to report factual details of a long-ago case, but rather to involve the audience viscerally (in true 1970s fashion) and to get us thinking about our own attitudes toward "outsiders."
This is especially true in the climactic third scene, which takes place in the opera house. The real audience watching the play assumes the role of the fictional audience in the play. Skinner addresses them as Fred is tied to the swing: "This is how I've organized this 'do.' Every ticket-buyin' member of this audience is entitled t' one shot. Them that paid the higher prices git first shot." From the audience presumably prompted by actor shills in some of the seats come boos, applause, heckling, cries of "Shame."
Then a circus clown comes onstage with an old pistol. He and Skinner go into an excruciating comic routine in which the clown begs to shoot first. But he aims at Skinner, then at himself. Finally he aims at Fred and starts counting to three. "One. Two. Eleven. Eight. Seventy-two. Six. What comes after six? Can't hear. What they say? Three!" And he shoots Fred with a jet of water. Fred laughs weakly, "Oh, fellas. Fellas. I thought it was real. I thought you were goin'"
But the playwright is only toying with our emotions. The clown gets squirted himself, and, screaming, really shoots Fred. The audience immediately begins firing in a disorderly volley, the stage lights flicker, and Fred keels over and swings upside down, blood dripping over the stage. The scene ends with Skinner leading the audience in "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the lights go out for good.
According to the German national theater organization Landestheater Burghofbühne, "Edward Bond's 1976 play is always topical. Agitation, mass delusion, and violence against foreigners and minorities are still the order of the day. Whoever wants to prevent neo-Fascism should know how it begins.
"'Art always concerns itself with the cruelty of a particular time,' says Bond. 'The Swing is a call for civil courage and humanity.'"
I'll probably never find out for sure, but I hope that there was a spark of humanity in my family on that night in 1911, in that building where my great-grandfather once worked as a miller, in that town where my grandparents were raising three sons.
My ancestors did not stop the lynching. But at least I hope that they were not among the townspeople who bought their tickets and took their shots.