Last week, my wife and I were in North Carolina visiting our daughter, her partner, and our two magnificent grandkids. Grandson Noah (10) and I decided we needed a boys’ night out, so we scampered off together for an overnight in Boone, to take a ride on the Tweetsie Railroad, and to pay a visit to Horn in the West.
Growing up in the summers on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I was an early devotee of The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island. So in 1960, I elected to write my undergraduate thesis on Paul Green, Pulitzer Prize winner (for In Abraham’s Bosom), and inventor of the outdoor historical form to be called “symphonic drama.” This of course justified my spending the last three weeks of the summer before graduation touring every outdoor drama I could get to. I started with Green’s plays, among them The Lost Colony, The Common Glory, The Stephen Foster Story, and quickly moved on to Kermit Hunter, who had been a student of Green’s at the University of North Carolina. In 1950, still with the Carolina Players, Hunter was commissioned to write Unto These Hills, for Cherokee, NC, the story of the Cherokee people and their forced removal from Appalachia in the notorious “trail of tears.” He followed that up two years later with Horn in the West, a play about Daniel Boone and the mountain rebels during the Revolutionary War.
In this theatrical day and age of cynical sophistication and technical wizardry, what a pleasure to find some of the simplicity of old-fashioned story-telling that wears its heart on its sleeve for all to see. Of course part of me still yearns for cynical sophistication and technical wizardry, but this game is played in an entirely different ball park. Four of the five historical dramas I mentioned above are still playing, and still heavily attended. They turn our attention back to old-fashioned values like family, and patriotism, and freedom, and appreciation for the efforts and trials our forefathers went through that let us become who and what we are today. They refuse to let go of our history, even blatantly preaching that we should never forget where we came from and who paid for our lives with their lives. These outdoor historical dramas are still staged for appreciative audiences all over the country in large gawky amphitheaters carved into hillsides, competing with air traffic above and auto traffic below. Lighting and sound effects are minimal, stage sets are primitive, and the echo of musket fire is deafening.
But in the end, you wouldn’t want it any other way. They cover all the bases in exploring what it is to be human in trying times that demand critical decisions. They may be the purest combination of entertainment and education we have left in America. They celebrate historical figures and events about which we remember very little. They are inspirational, and let’s face it, they are just plain fun.
A Horn in the West begins with the 1771 Battle of Alamance Creek, which resulted in the deaths of many Southern Rebels, and the flight of the survivors to the mountains near what is now Boone. There they opened new remote settlements safe from “His Majesty’s laws.” It was this circumstance that encouraged the already legendary explorer and Virginia legislator Daniel Boone, to blaze the Wilderness Trail into Kentucky in 1775, and open the West to new settlements. But by 1780, His Majesty’s patience had worn out, and Cornwallis dispatched Major Patrick Ferguson to bring the rebels back into the fold, threatening to invade their settlements, hang their leaders, murder their wives and children, and “lay waste their country with fire and sword.” Instead of slipping further into the mountains as might have been expected, over 1400 patriot frontiersmen rallied together, ambushed Ferguson’s army, and soundly defeated the British at the Battle of King’s Mountain. It was the beginning of the end for the American War for Independence.
Throughout the performance were the requisite song and dance numbers, rendered by an exceptionally enthusiastic and talented company, many recruited locally from Appalachian State University. There were love story sub-plots, and moments of high comedy, especially as provided by Brad Archer as the Reverend Sims. There were also, poignant moments of hollow victory, and a very touching father-son story which effectively suggested just how difficult it must have been to choose sides in this conflict that nobody truly wanted.
In the fifty-plus odd years it’s been since I first saw A Horn in the West, it has changed considerably, not that I would remember it substantively in its original form anyway. Still, Hunter himself undertook a revision in 1962 that somewhat softened the pro-white, anti-Indian ethic so prevalent ten years earlier. And since Hunter’s death in 2001, it has continued to be revised. Its current version demonstrates considerable respect and understanding for the Indian cause, and even for the British soldiers who died for their loyalty to the Crown. It’s become all very P.C., which in this case has made it better story-telling.
The audience ranging in age from 5 to 85 seemed to love what they heard and saw. I had been somewhat concerned that Noah might be bored with the whole thing, For me it was a trip down nostalgia lane, but for him … ?
“That was VERY cool,” he said. “And my eyes didn’t even get all stingy and blurry like they do after screen time. I think it’s better to have real people acting the story.” You can’t get a better endorsement than that these days. Lets hear it for live theater!