Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Acorn Planter by Jack London

Best avoided by even the most avid London fan
Jack London is primarily known as a novelist and writer of short stories, but during his brief but prolific career he did find time to dabble in poetry, drama, and even film. Given the fame and respect he achieved during his lifetime, one would think the theatrical world would have been clamoring to see this great author’s works upon the stage. Unfortunately for him, however, that was not the case, and none of his efforts for the stage proved successful. London wrote a handful of plays, roughly half of which were based on previously published short stories. Though The Acorn Planter, originally published in 1916, is not one of these recycled stories, it nevertheless provides a rehash of many of the common themes that permeate London’s books.

The cast of the Acorn Planter is composed mostly of members of the Nishinam Indian tribe of California. The core of the allegorical ensemble consists of Red Cloud (the philosopher chief of the tribe), Shaman (who symbolizes religion), War Chief (self-explanatory), and Dew-Woman (representing womankind in general). Eventually the Nishinam encounter the Sun Men, a group of white explorers. Hundreds or thousands of years may pass between acts, but the characters remain the same, that is to say, the archetypal roles are seamlessly filled by the descendants of the characters in the preceding act. The play’s dialogue is almost exclusively written in poetic verse, either in the form of songs or of call-and-response chanting between the aforementioned characters and the chorus of tribespeople.

In The Acorn Planter, London essentially takes an idea that could be summed up in three or four sentences and stretches it out to about a 45 minute play, while adding little emotional resonance to justify such protraction. One can imagine a stage populated with scores of white people dressed in loin cloths, uttering London’s verse in their best stoic Indian voices, to the delight of an equally white audience at some turn-of-the-last-century chautauqua. The main thrust of the play’s message is to once again assert that it was the destiny of the white man to conquer the Native American. The Acorn Planter appends to this argument the added hypothesis that if the Natives had only greeted their white conquerors with love instead of violence, they would not have been massacred. The play’s only redeeming quality is an underlying affirmation that regardless of death and destruction the cycle of life goes on. Sprouting acorns replace fallen oaks, and newborn babies replace their fallen elders.

Unless you are a true completist attempting to read London’s entire body of work, avoid The Acorn Planter at all costs. Even the most diehard London fan won’t find much enjoyment in it. It is probably the least read-worthy piece of literature he ever wrote. Thankfully, The Acorn Planter was never produced for the stage, and after reading it one can see why.

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