Prologue - Dancing Delilahs

Pauline Cushman

April 16, 1863

It is so unpleasantly humid behind the garish stage footlights. Louisville is under Union control, and the Civil War is in full and deadly swing. Yet inside the theater the loyal Feds and Rebel sympathizers sit shoulder to shoulder, seemingly tolerating each other’s company. They have gathered to enjoy our popular musical about seven female demons who rise from hell to go sightseeing in New York City. We actors already know it is a runaway hit.

      From the wings, I can see the theater is packed. Word has spread that something unexpected will happen on stage tonight. I am petrified. I sit down and force myself to breathe slowly, even though my heart is clattering. After my shoulders untense and my jaw unclenches and my hands unfist, I force myself to stand up leisurely.

      Dressed as a gay young blade, I feel a thin worm of perspiration dribbling down my spine, covered by my shirt and coat. My fingers twitch nervously as they travel over my tight-fitting gentleman’s outfit, pulling down my wristbands, flattening the shirt collar and straightening the bow of my polka dot cravat. I breathe in deeply as I was taught to do in my theatrical training.

      On my left I see Phillips, the stage manager, signaling me to step forward. I feel clammy dread sliding through my body.

      All eyes are riveted on me as I mount the stage at the Wood’s Theater, my nerves struggling to hide behind a warm smile. I allow my sense of stage presence to direct me, and I make it effortlessly through the first half of The Seven Sisters

      Now the supper scene begins. I step forward and survey the huge audience. Lifting my wine glass, I look into the face of a gentleman up front and make the astounding toast I have been paid to propose. My throat has closed down and I must clear it in order to speak, causing a dramatic pause.      

      Lifting the glass to my lips for a single gulp, the hall is so still I can hear myself swallow. Everyone in the front row must hear it as well.

      A shocked silence greets my words, followed closely by a melee of both praise and condemnation. The sentiment falls upon the audience like the explosion of a shell. I knew the theater was packed with paroled Confederate officers and patriotic Unionists. A cacophony of Rebel cheers, mixed with Union yells, boos, and catcalls, depending on their loyalties, fill the air. The Union persons are mortified and indignant, yet the Confederate sympathizers seem delighted. I eventually hear the applause, mingled with the jeers, and become aware that hats are flying through the air.

      The stage manager orders the curtain lowered, then rushes to remove me from the stage as fist fights break in the audience. Fellow actors stare at me in disbelief. I ache to tell them the truth, but I cannot. This burden must be borne for my country’s sake.

      Having made my decision, I will not go back on it, even when the Union guards arrive to arrest me. This is also part of my agreement. I will be held for one night to fool the Confederates, then report to the Provost Marshal tomorrow morning at ten o’clock. I sincerely hope I will never regret my decision.

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