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The Great Divide - Day 22

Forgive me if this entry begins to read like a history lesson.

I am just caught up in so many fascinating things about the time period and culture surrounding Ruth and her family in The Great Divide. And who knows, you may learn something!

The Great Divide was originally titled The Sabine Woman, referencing the historical rape of the Sabine Women. In my opinion, this places the emphasis on the event that occurs early in Act 1 that brings Ruth and Ghent together.. but it suggests that the focus of the play is Ruth and how she deals with that painful event. Changing the title to The Great Divide shifts the focus ever so slightly onto the relationship between the two lovers and their mutual struggle to find happiness despite their obstacles. So, bravo Moody! Good change!

In doing some research into the lifestyle of the early 1900's, I came across a wonderful encyclopedia full of useful information.

A ranch woman's life, or the life of a farmer's wife, differs from that of her city-slicker counterpart. But if asked to trade the country life for that of the town, most would answer that living an unconventional life in a day filled with conventionalities makes for a life that is never dull.       --Kristi A. YoungRonda Walker Weaver, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Regional Cultures: The Rocky Mountain Region
Ruth would absolutely choose ranch-life over stuffy New England society. Pre-Ghent, she is "just drunk with happiness the whole time," so much so that her brother, Phil is weirded out, "What's the matter with you tonight?" he asks her as she comments on the beauty of the desert. She is happy to be out west, working, and useful to her family. She embraces the difficulties and is hopeful about the future.

Americans have always been goal-oriented, but moving West was not a goal in the traditional manner, not one of working communally for the highest good but being independent, taking care of oneself, conquering the rock-hard ground of the West. Tackling an obstacle and conquering it—this lure was often called “end in view.” Those hoping to carve a place where the old way of life could be retained quickly learned that moving West also meant moving on. Old ways were soon transcended as a new land called for a new plan. Adapting the ways of the old world to fit the landscape and the livestock of the West kept many old traditions alive. In addition, adopting the ways of other immigrants and then melding them with traditions of one's own culture meant that westerners were always ready to be innovative.        --Kristi A. Young; Ronda Walker Weaver, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Regional Cultures: The Rocky Mountain Region
Ruth takes her independence to the extreme when she encourages Phil and Polly to go off and leave her alone at the ranch. "It only takes a moment," as the song says, and that moment is one she will regret until she comes to embrace her fate. 

Something I did not know very much about before beginning work on this play was the culture of the Navajo Indians in the early 1900s. They are very much present in the play, even though we never encounter them onstage. For Ruth especially, they are woven into her life, as she learns their rug-making and basket-weaving skills.

Navajo of New Mexico and Arizona

The Navajo, a nomadic people, came from Canada and migrated southward into the Southwest region between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. They remained nomadic hunter-gatherers until the mid-sixteenth century. The Navajo acquired sheep from the Spaniards, marking their transition from cultivating cotton for their textiles to using wool. They sheared the wool from their flocks, washed, carded, and spun it, and then dyed it using native plants such as wild walnut, lichen, and rabbitbrush. They traded chief's blankets to other Native Americans throughout the Southwest and Great Plains regions. But by the twentieth century, on the advice of their reservation trading post merchants, many Navajo switched to weaving rugs to sell to tourists. Although the Navajo adopted some agricultural practices learned from their neighbors, their economy primarily revolved around sheep.
The Navajo were slow to relinquish their warrior ways. The warriors ranged far and wide to resist Spanish, Mexican, and then Anglo-American domination. When the Anglo-Americans acquired Southwest lands from Mexico, violence broke out between the Navajo and the U.S. Army that had been sent into the frontier to protect settlers. Finally, in 1864, the Navajo were defeated and forcibly imprisoned at Fort Sumner (Bosque Redondo) in New Mexico. This left the Navajo decimated by disease and starvation, and in 1868 the U.S. government relented and returned them to their territorial lands on a reservation that straddles northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona, created for the Navajo. They reestablished their flocks of sheep and regenerated their economy by weaving wool blankets and learning to create silver jewelry from a former artisan of the Spanish mission system. Thus, art provided a means for the Navajo's economic survival.  --Jeremy Bonner, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Regional Cultures: The Southwest
Just as the Navajo Indians found a means of survival through their art, Ruth does the same. She earns her freedom (whether granted or no) through selling her handiwork to the "tourist mob." 
Many Native Americans saw the physical geography of the land where they lived as being animated with a life force that suffused everything. Therefore, any object made from natural materials of the earth was imbued with spiritual qualities. The process of creating such an object was viewed as part of religious ritual, like saying a prayer.                      --Jeremy Bonner, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Regional Cultures: The Southwest
I love this idea and believe that Ruth would absolutely think of each completed rug as a little prayer sent up to God. Penance for the wrongs she has committed. Though she has her own spiritual beliefs, learning the ways of the Navajo might influence her connection to the earth and the ritualistic nature of her handiwork.

Tickets are now on sale for The Great Divide! 
Purchase here

Tomorrow's Play: Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe


Ronda said...

So pleased to see you quoted the Greenwood series. Kristi and I are Utah folklorists - we love the West, and we both enjoy writing about it.

Best, Ronda Walker Weaver

Lauren Sowa said...

So lovely to read your words Ronda! It was quite helpful in my research for this play! Thank you! Lauren


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