What would Diedrich Knickerbocker say?
It's here! Tonight's the night --- the curtain rises on the premiere of my new play ICHABOD: MISSING IN SLEEPY HOLLOW at Street Theatre Company in Nashville, TN. While The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is considered one of early America's most enduring fictions (remember, it was published before the United States turned 50), the way that it has endured has evolved over the years. Washington Irving attributed the story to the papers of (fictional) historian Diedrich Knickerbocker, and I have to wonder what he would think of all the adaptations that have befallen his work over the last 193 years. And I kind of have to think that, because I took I upon myself to create one of those adaptations. Why did I decide to do that? Well...
That's me, in the photo to the left, headless at eight years old. It's one of my favorite Halloween costumes (and yes, I could totally see where I was going). Clearly, even in the late 1980s, I was already enamored by the spooky tale.
Twenty-six years after that photo was taken, 2013 is fast becoming the year of the headless horseman. At least, it is in my experience. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has been around in print since 1820, but the the legends that inspired Irving to craft the tale of lonely school teacher Ichabod Crane are far older.
Whether in Ireland (where the fairie dullahan marked people for death), or in Germany, tales of headless riders existed in Europe long before Sleepy Hollow. In fact, it's said that it was on a trip across the globe that Mr. Irving was inspired to write one of his most long-standing stories. Since the Knickerbocker account is basically an adaptation, he's probably okay with creative liberty.
Right now, they're airing a Snickers commercial featuring both the Headless Horseman and maybe my new favorite Halloween costume ever, the Horseless Headsman. And even the Smurfs are getting in on the action this year, releasing their own take with The Legend of Smurfy Hollow.
Smurfs. Candy bars. Cartoons. It doesn't stop there. And the thing is, everyone tells it a little differently. Disney was pretty faithful to the original (you know, except for turning it into a Bing Crosby sing-a-long) and if you'd only seen Tim Burton's version and picked up the Irving tale on your e-reader, you'd be pretty surprised. And yet, even with these (and many) versions still in pop culture, there seems to be a renewal of interest in this old story.
If you follow me on twitter or Like my Facebook page, then you know that as much as I have been touting my own version of Sleepy Hollow, I have been gushing over the new FOX drama of the same name. There's something oddly affirming to be working on a project that pulls its inspiration from the same source as a big budget TV drama that, yesterday, got a pick-up for a second season. Hearing that stories set in Sleepy Hollow can pull ratings warms my heart a bit (and reassures this artist that his version could find its own life beyond this initial stage run). What is awesome to me is that while my play "Ichabod" might be cut from the same cloth as "Sleepy Hollow", we cut from wildly different sides of that cloth. Both are re-imaginings, both have an Ichabod, and both have a female lead (with a strikingly similar name by pure coincidence). Otherwise, the team at Fox and myself have written completely different stories. Mine's a lot less apocalyptic. And while I cannot speak for those writers, the fact that we came up with incredibly differing stories speaks to one of the main reasons I decided to write this play. There was a story in the story that I thought hadn't been told yet.
My tale is closer to the original, in that it's set in 1790 Sleepy Hollow, though I still like to call mine a "re-imagining" of Washington Irving's classic tale because it's not a play-by-play of the original. Sure, the traditional characters are there: Katrina, Brom, Baltus, Van Ripper, the Hessian, and of course ol' Ichabod; but there are also several NEW characters and a new adventure waiting to be had in that sleepy little hollow north of Tarry Town. Here's the run-down on my play:
When Street Theatre Company and Playhouse Nashville announced they were looking for a new adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, I knew right away that I didn't want to write a direct page to stage version. Many people have done that and they've done it well. However, I also didn't want to negate the original legend; so Ichabod would remain a school teacher. It would take place in 1790. The original characters would be left intact. And I asked myself, why do I like this story? The parts of the original tale that intrigued me the most centered around what really happened to Ichabod. Irving's tale is more about life in the Dutch communities in the countryside of 1790s New York more than scary tales. The horseman story pops up throughout, but mainly is only featured in the last few pages of the story. Ichabod's life in Sleepy Hollow is the predominant part of the tale, and yet what has endured is the mystery of his disappearance. Anyone who knows the story knows that it was never quite clear if the horseman took him, or if he simply ran away. There was also the matter of what he and Katrina spoke about at the Van Tassel party just before he took off into the night never to be seen again. Those two things tugged at me. So I thought, why start at the beginning when I'm so enamored with the end.
That's why I decided to write this story. We are intrigued by the unknown. Those things that haunt the woods and create the basis for our nightmares. We like to tell each other stories about these mysteries. We like to explore. We like to imagine. Sometimes we write books, sometimes we write plays or make films or TV shows. Sometimes we still sit around in the dark and share legends with strangers. To the left there, that's a picture a a headless rider who will be featured at the South Jersey Pumpkin Show this year. My aunt runs that show and they're doing a reading of the classic tale with the rider slated to appear at the appropriate scary moment. We were delighted when we discovered we were working on separate Sleepy Hollow projects. So if you're in Nashville, you can see my tale. If you're in New Jersey, check out hers. That's why I love storytelling; there are so many ways to go about it and so much fun to be had with it. And while we're only two of many people tackling tales of the headless horseman this Halloween, it's clear we won't be the last.
At some point long before me or my aunt or those guys from Star Trek or the Smurfs or Washington Irving (and his various pseudonyms) told this story, people talked about headless specters wandering the woods. Over campfires. Around the dinner table. In countries all over the world. Irving simply wrote down his version of the tale, adapted from the legends and stories he was told. He figured out what about that tale intrigued him and wrote a story about a man named Ichabod. I did the same thing. And I wrote about Ichabod too, and a woman named Abigail, and a girl named Hanna. And one day, two hundred years from now, if I'm very lucky, someone will build from my story and make it their own. In two hundred years... you know, far from now, after my version has been seen and enjoyed by generations. After all, that's why we tell stories... so people will hear them and share them.
I'm glad to have the opportunity to share this one with you.
Ichabod: Missing in Sleepy Hollow runs October 4-12 at Street Theatre Company in Nashville, TN. Directed by Elaina McKnight Shaver. Tickets are $7 and this show is spooky fun for the whole family. You can find more information at STC's website or by calling 615.554.7414.
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Thoughts. From my brain. Anything to do with how we tell stories and the stories we tell each other. Literally and figuratively.
Writer. Husband. Father. Effulgent dreamer. A Fightin' Irishman (@NDdotEDU '01). A playwriting Bobcat (MFA in Playwriting, @OhioU '13). I write plays. I'm a geek. I wanted to be an astronaut. I go places in my head.