Walt Whitman spent much of his eventful life in Brooklyn. So the Old Stone House in Park Slope was a perfect setting for Matthew Aughenbaugh’s solo theater piece Song of Myself: The Words of Walt Whitman. The venue and London’s Upper Wimpole Street Literary Salon presented a single performance of Aughenbaugh’s fervid work last night as part of a program that also including brief, erudite talks and readings on Whitman from American poet Michael Ruby and translator, teacher, and lecturer Graham Fawcett.
The historic landmark known by the generic name the Old Stone House was reconstructed in the 1930s using some of the materials from the original Dutch 17th-century Vechte-Cortelyou House. The original farmhouse figured prominently in the Battle of Brooklyn (also called the Battle of Long Island) at an early, critical juncture of the Revolutionary War. Walt Whitman spent his long poetical career celebrating the people of the nation that still, to him, felt newborn and loaded with promise – a sense that didn’t forsake him entirely even after his profoundly sad work as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War.
Aughenbaugh weaves together a series of Whitman’s writings – mostly poetry but also letters – into a dramatic narrative monologue that forms a kind of selective biography. With just his voice and body and a few humble props the actor manifests the overflowing optimism and the imaginative spirit that blossomed into Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and other works. He also makes us feel Whitman’s sense of helplessness as he tended maimed and dying young soldiers during the war.
Like most artists of conscience, Aughenbaugh, who has taught English in Thailand and helped open a school for AIDS-orphaned children in Tanzania, seems compelled to comment on politics and the present cultural ills. Among other New World subjects, Walt Whitman talked about immigration, reflecting the quintessentially American philosophy that “if there is not enough room, we will make more room.”
But it doesn’t take a refugee crisis to transpose Walt Whitman into modern times. Whatever the subject, Whitman’s seething, exuberant free verse, with its ornate colloquialisms, howling neologisms, and flailing lines so long they seem to double back on themselves, feels unbound to any time. Appealing to the future more than to the past, it encompasses the American nation not just in her 19th century form but through time, like no other body of work ever has or likely ever will. In bringing his dramatic interpretation of some of this work to the stage Aughenbaugh pays a serious, loving, and artfully imagined tribute.