By Mary Boyle
Perhaps no other man captured the spirit and life of early 20th Century America like Carl Sandburg. A true renaissance man and raconteur, Sandburg was born and raised in Galesville, Illinois and, after graduating eight grade, he went on to try just about every path a man of his time could try: laborer, hobo, soldier, college student, political activist, poet, journalist, biographer, musician, husband, and father. He traveled the country and the world, collecting the folksongs and stories of the people, adding stories and poetry of his own, and became the voice and memory of his generation.
Not everyone knows that Sandburg spent some of his most formative years in Milwaukee. The Cream City is where Sandburg met his wife and lifelong love, Lilian Steichen, when they both worked as organizers for the Wisconsin Social Democratic Party. Sandburg's concern and passion for the American worker formed the underpinnings of the majority of his work; work that has always been a favorite of Milwaukee native and well-known local actor, Jonathan Gillard Daly, who has spent nearly four years working to bring the Sandburg experience to a new generation. How fitting is it that the World Premier of The Eagle In Me: An Evening Of Carl Sandburg took place in Milwaukee, and was conceived, written and performed by a son of Milwaukee, in honor of one of the city's most esteemed residents? Talk about making history...
The show is simply Daly channeling what one of Sandburg's traveling performances likely consisted of around 1920: his poetry interspersed with the folksongs he collected and a smattering of small talk and observations, while simultaneously telling the story of Sandburg's life in chronological order. Though it's clear that Daly isn't an accomplished or confident guitarist, his skills are enough to carry the show at an even pace. Literature fans will likely recognize Sandburg's most popular poems, The Fog and Chicago, while folksong aficionados will most assuredly recognize the pieces Daly selected to share from Sandburg's famous American Songbag, published in 1927, including Hallelujah, I'm a Bum and Lincoln and Liberty.
Gale Childs Daly, who is both Director of the play and wife of its sole actor, said that Sandburg had a profound influence on her life. In high school, a teacher encouraged her to sign up for Forensics because she thought she would be good at interpreting poetry. Of all the poets on the list she was handed to choose from, Sandburg was the only name she recognized, and it was his book of children's poems (the only book of Sandburg's her school library had) that she selected poems from, winning first place in her first tournament. Adding more Sandburg to her repertoire, Daly went on to win many more tournaments, and "Forensics led to drama, drama led to a double major of English and Theatre in college, and that led to a 45 year career in show business." In fact, the Daly's credit Sandburg with their marriage: Jonathan recited one of Sandburg's stories to Gale when they met, and she knew they were fated to be together. "We've come full circle," she said.
Besides the Daly family, the production had a dedicated crew of Milwaukee theatre people who helped get it off the ground, including Michael Wright and Marcella Kearns at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, who hosted and guided the first public reading, and David Cecsarini of Next Act Theater, who guided its second reading. Finally, Chris and Jane Flieller of In Tandem Theatre Company agreed to give the production a home for its World Premiere; I can only imagine that the casual, easy atmosphere of the Tenth Street Theatre is a place that Carl Sandburg would have appreciated.
Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful, lest you let other people spend it for you.
The Eagle In Me: An Evening Of Carl Sandburg runs through October 21st at the Tenth Street Theatre, located at 628 N. 10th St. in Milwaukee. Tickets are available by calling 414-271-1371, or online at http://www.intandemtheatre.org/events/carl-sandburg/