By Amanda Caraway
There was a time in America when people planted by the signs and lived off the land. The values of the people, as well as the memory of their ancestors, were kept alive through an oral history found in folklore, myths, and song. History was passed through the generations with oral tradition, and no official archives existed. Viewing the play Foxfire gives us a chance to revisit this world and view the performance traditions that tell us so much about the fading culture of the Appalachian Mountains.
In her book The Archive and the Repertoire, Diana Taylor defines the archive as written history, and the repertoire as performance or “embodied practice or knowledge” ([Durham: Duke University Press, 2003], 19). Like most early American civilizations, the repertoire of the Appalachian region was strong throughout most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Unfortunately, the valuable history of the region began to die with the early inhabitants, since the performance traditions were not kept alive by younger generations. Grandparents across America have taken valuable memory with them to the grave because they didn’t think our generation cared to know.
However, thanks to the efforts of a high school English teacher and his Rabun Gap, Georgia students, an archive of these valuable oral traditions of Appalachia has been created. It began when the students interviewed local residents for a publication called Foxfire Magazine. The students chose the title for the story it tells. Foxfire is a tiny organism that glows in the dark and is frequently seen in the shaded coves of the mountains (The Foxfire Book [Garden City, New York: Anchor Press, 1972], 11). The goal of the magazine was to shed light on a part of American history that has been left in the dark for too long. The magazine was first published in 1968, and eventually the articles were printed in a series of books, again titled The Foxfire Book.
These valuable archives of Appalachian history were turned into a stage play, Foxfire, by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn. The play premiered at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1980. From there, it moved to the Guthrie Theatre in 1981, and in 1982 it opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway where is ran for 213 performances. The play received three Tony Awards and two Drama Desk Awards.
Foxfire tells the story of Annie Nations’s journey as she moves away from the land and her past toward her family and her future. The play uses poetic realism to disclose the values and traditions of a bygone world to a contemporary audience. The tale is set on an Appalachian farm, called Stony Lonesome, and a sense of place dominates the play. Foxfire is a play about passages: birth, marriage, death, burial, and the afterlife. Music is central to the story-telling in the play, just as music was central to the folk tradition of the Appalachian Mountains.
The primary character, Annie Nations, lives alone on a remote farm. It is likely that Aunt Annie, as she is called, is based on an actual woman, named Aunt Arie, who is featured in the first Foxfire Book (The Foxfire Book [Garden City, New York: Anchor Press, 1972], 17-30). Arie lived alone in a log cabin in the Appalachian Mountains, with no running water, a small fireplace, and her dead husband’s clothes hanging in her room. When the students interviewed Arie, she was preparing a hog’s head for souse meat, and she asked the visitors to help. Just like her counterpart, Annie is still deeply tied to the past and her dead husband, Hector. Annie keeps Hector’s clothes hanging up and ready to wear, and his tools under the bed. When we first meet Annie she is preparing souse meat, and she asks her visitors for help.
It is evident that a sense of place dominates the play. Appalachian literature is often distinguished by an emphasis on place and setting, which influences the motivations and values of the characters (A Handbook to Appalachia [Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2006], 199). The stage directions at the start of act one dictate that, “The stage is dominated” by the range of Blue Ridge Mountains in the background (Foxfire [New York: Samuel French, 1979], 7). Annie’s late husband, Hector, serves as a representation of the past and the strong connection that people had to the land. Hector claims his burial caused an apple tree to flourish. “The year after they put me down I had that ol’ apple tree bloomin’ like the finest spring” (91). The land values Hector, and Hector values the land. He tells us “y’ can’t put a price on dirt any more than you can put a price on a man’s life (90). Hector believes that if a man takes care of the land, the land will be take care of him. “Well, like m’ daddy used t’ say, y’ jus’ keep ploughin’ an’ plantin’ an’ the Lord’ll take care of the rest” (37). When Hector meets his grandson, he makes a point of taking the boy to plant a tree so that Heckie will have “roots” on the family land (59). Until the very end, Hector dominates the play, and his advice is the only advice that Annie will listen to. Annie also has a special connection to the land. She comments that she had children for the Lord’s sake and for “this place” saying “What else is there? Fam’ly’s gotta have a place” (59).
Although Foxfire is a play that heralds traditions and a respect for the past, it is primarily a play about transitions, and particularly Annie’s journey. Through flashbacks, the audience is able to experience the most significant moments in Annie’s life: Dillard’s birth (36–43), Hector’s proposal (61–63), and Hector’s burial (85–90). Throughout most of the play Annie engages with Hector as if he were still alive, and her connection to the past and her home seem impenetrable. Annie’s views begin to shift when she discovers that she has to choose between her family and her “place.” Hector tells her that Dillard and the grandkids are “growin’ someplace else. You an’ me was planted here.” Annie then asks, “Place ‘r family. That the choice?” (76). Annie comes to realize that in the modern world, these two things don’t always connect, and that a place needs a family perhaps more than a family needs a place. Annie finds that holding onto a “place” may not be worth losing valuable time with her living family members. “To everythin’ there is a season—a time t’ be born an’ a time t’ die—a time t’ pick up that which is planted” (77).
True to the Appalachian tradition of oral history, in the play Foxfire the story of the Nations family is told through Dillard’s music, and performances of significant past events. Dillard tells the story of his father’s successful trading career through music (45–46), and other key events in the Nations family history are performed in flashbacks. It is significant that act one both begins and ends with Dillard singing “My feet took t’ walkin’,” (9). Dillard represents the next generation of the Nations family and it is his responsibility to keep his family’s memory alive through presentations of oral history. By the end of the play, every member of the Nations family, except Hector, has walked away from Stony Lonesome, leaving the past for an uncertain future.
Stories found in archival histories like Foxfire have a lot to teach us about the survival of the human spirit. It is a way for younger generations to revisit the repertoire of a culture that was almost lost. These stories can teach us about the strength of human interdependence in a world without modern conveniences like cars and the internet.
During the Industrial Revolution, much of America turned from homegrown foods and products to factory goods. Simple home entertainments and stories of family history were traded for professional entertainment and stories that were largely impersonal. Recently there has been a revival of interest in the traditions of the American frontier. Natural foods and alternative medicine rooted in the homegrown remedies of the frontier have become all the rage. Folk artists, who often simply engage in activities that were once commonplace on farms, have begun to be seen as national treasures. There are several festivals across the country that celebrate folk arts and the traditions of our country’s founding civilizations. Perhaps this movement began as a response to the limitations of the urban lifestyle. The loss of traditional neighborhoods and sense of community has left Americans to search for a meaningful tie to the past. By experiencing the journey of Annie Nations, perhaps we can learn to embrace the traditions and values of the past, while still moving into the future.