I drove through Lancaster, Pennsylvania, once, but I didn’t stop at the theater named for that city’s most famous son, Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat, the submarine, and the naval torpedo. Nonetheless, thanks to Ann Arborite Leslie Stainton’s wonderfully unique new book, Staging Ground: An American Theater and Its Ghosts, I find that I care about this building that I’ve never seen.
Stainton writes well about the history of her hometown, and the role this place played in our national tragedies. The last members of the Conestoga tribe were massacred in a jail on this spot in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth a few slaves fleeing from the south were smuggled from the building to the Underground Railroad—but more were returned across the Mason-Dixon line just a few miles south. These are some of the ghosts that haunt the building.
The current theater was constructed before the Civil War, and it became, for a while, the center of popular entertainment in Lancaster. It housed town meetings and political debates (including the speeches of the other great son of the town, Thaddeus Stevens, one of the country’s strongest advocates for the abolition of slavery). The most famous actors of the time walked its stage—Edwin Booth, Sarah Bernhardt, George M. Cohan. Mark Twain lectured there. Minstrel shows played the Fulton, as did Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. These ghosts, too, haunt the building. When moving pictures corralled the national imagination, it became just another movie house, only to be resurrected as a true theater in the late twentieth century.
Somewhere in that late period, a local girl, Leslie Stainton, found her intellectual and imaginative passions centered in this building, and it is this story, a kind of memoir, that makes this book unique. Early on she tells us about “the notion of the theater as a memory machine,” and the Fulton clearly marks the changes in her young life, leading her away from town, and then back again, inspiring, educating, and employing her.
But it is not just this mix of the personal with the historical and the architectural that gives this book its appeal. Stainton is willing to think about the role these spaces play in our lives, both on the national scale and on the personal. She writes:
In Western culture we recognize three basic forms of divine space: wilderness, tomb, and those instances of human architecture that connect their occupants to the mysteries of the cosmos. Churches, tabernacles, temples, theaters. If the Fulton Theater has survived into the twenty-first century, it is because it puts us in touch with what we know to be holy.
The wonder of Staging Ground is that Stainton not only convinces us of this but makes the idea surprisingly moving. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Stainton reads at Nicola’s Books on November 3.