“It makes it easier to live in the present if we understand the full humanity of the past.”
As the playwright behind both Blood on the Snow and Cato & Dolly, Patrick Gabridge has spent a lot of time in the Old State House, trying to put himself in 250-year-old shoes. In order for the audience to form an emotional connection with historical figures, he must first try to find their voice and understand their perspective. When the play focuses on people whose stories have been lost or ignored, that just increases the challenge.
In preparation for the return of Cato & Dolly, we spoke to Mr. Gabridge about finding the humanity in history, how people react to theatre in a museum, and the Hancock Vice Presidency that might have been.
Can you tell me a little bit about Plays in Place and what kind of work you do there?
We specialize in creating site-specific work in partnership with museums and historic sites. So we want to make a play specifically for those sites. The institution will come to us and say, “Here’s some people or an event that we would like dramatized,” and then we try to find the play that would be best suited for that, and then write it and produce it.
How were you first commissioned to write the play Cato & Dolly?
So I had already worked with the Old State House on the production of Blood on the Snow, which is a site-specific play there in the restored Council Chamber, and that was very successful, so the Old State House was interested in doing more drama, and they had this new exhibit coming in around the John Hancock mansion door. And they wanted to do some sort of drama event, a play around this. They came to me and they said “We want to do this, let’s write a one-act play that we can do as part of the regular museum admission, with kind of a small cast, but the caveat is that you can’t touch, open, or go through the door.” So write a play about a door, that you can’t do all those things with.
Had you known about these historical figures before you began to write the play?
No, that was something I had to figure out once we kind of knew the theme of the play. I say it’s about a door, but really the theme of the play is about unheard voices in American history and especially as related to the revolution. So we’re looking at people of color and women’s voices and their stories and how are they not heard, and how can we tie that into this door that we’re making an exhibit around. So it was a lot about looking at the Hancock family and legacy and exploring that history, and trying to figure out who stood out as voices we should have heard, or have interesting stories that we should hear.
So as you researched the door, the stories of Cato Hancock and Dolly Hancock sort of popped out to you.
Exactly. Dolly Hancock was John Hancock’s wife, and was much lesser-known than say—
Yes, Abigail Adams or Dolly Madison—people like that. She was not a big letter-writer, and if you’re in the 18th Century and you don’t write a lot of letters, it’s hard for your legacy to be preserved. There was a little bit written about her, but not a lot. So then, Cato is an enslaved man and then later a servant who showed up in a lot of stories around John Hancock, which was super interesting. And then, we were able to find some additional information around him. We knew we wanted to write about him, or at least an enslaved person or person of color, hopefully involved with that household. There’s actually a person named Frank buried next to the Hancocks in the Granary Burial Ground, but he’s actually not mentioned a lot in the stories or lore that circulates around the Hancocks. But Cato shows up in quite a few places.
What kind of research was required to provide as accurate a portrayal as possible?
We got some materials from Mass Historical Society, then there were some okay books about John Hancock, by one or two biographers. The biographies are a little older, and even the good ones tend to downplay the role of Dolly, sadly. And Cato is mentioned in stories, but we don’t really know a lot about him. But we were able to look in records, so even now, you can access a lot of these things online. Once we knew what church they went to, we could look up marriage and baptismal records, and that was really handy, and then wills are really helpful when you’re dealing with enslaved people, because they show up in a will—sadly, because they were treated as property. But they do show up, whereas it would be harder to find the names of servants. Cato also shows up in some watch repair records that the staff at the Old State House was able to find for us. Like, there was an invoice for watch repair for “your man, Cato.” And over the course of two years, he had to get this watch repaired five times.
What was something that surprised you when doing your research?
I was excited to learn a lot about John Hancock, for one thing. I hadn’t realized how popular a politician he was. I don’t think he ever lost a statewide race. He was super popular and was also even a major figure during the Constitutional Congress. He was the first President of the Convention, and so he played an important role in that. And Dolly did, too. In terms of Cato, we are just learning about how hard it is to find out about people, but that we can find out some things. And just some cool, fun stories that I tried to cram into this little play, but a lot of them had to go away. Also, how hard it is to wrap our minds around slavery in New England in the late 1700s—to understand how it works, what choices people of color had. There was a pretty large population of both enslaved and free African Americans in Boston at that time. Not as large as Philadelphia or Baltimore, but still, quite a few. We lose track of slavery at that time, that there is no free place in North America. Whereas, we think of antebellum slavery, where slaves are thinking about, “I’m gonna go north,” or “I’m gonna go to Canada,” there is no free place. Canada is not free. New England is not free. There’s nowhere to go. So that means that you have to make different choices if you want to have freedom.
How have audiences reacted to the play?
We didn’t know what people were going to think about this play. It’s kind of like, well, it covers a lot of ground , a lot happens in 25 minutes, and people are not coming here to see this play. They’re out on the Freedom Trail. This is part of your regular museum admission so are they just gonna stay for five minutes or walk out? We were pleasantly surprised. People were really taken in by it, and nobody ever left. And people were super interested and engaged with the characters. It helps that we have a terrific director and a really great cast. So that was a big help. But yeah, people wanted to talk to us about it afterwards—we got some great comments and letters, and it really spoke to people.
What are some things you would like the audience to take away from the play? Why do you think this work is important?
I always think it’s important to reexamine history and try to understand that the people who lived in historic periods were real people, and had real lives, and dealt with the same things that we do today. And you could say we don’t deal with slavery, but we deal with discrimination, and oppression, and prejudice, and sexism, and just a struggle to make it through the world. And those are real people. And it’s easy for us to flatten out history and think of it as just these few painted boxes that we see, and we don’t think of them as real people that have real struggles. And when we do that, it makes us have a poorer understanding of our present-day circumstances. It makes it easier to live in the present if we understand the full humanity of the past.
How did you deal with the challenges of writing a character whose story as an enslaved man is essentially lost to history?
I think the challenges were multiple. In that, it’s hard to dig up the facts, so we have limited facts. He does not have a written record. He doesn’t have a record of correspondence. So that makes it really hard. And it forces the writer to put his or her spin on that character. But that’s the challenge of writing about people whose voices were not recorded. And that’s true of women and enslaved people. For Cato, it was trying to make him fully human in my mind, and try to understand his circumstances and try to understand where my weaknesses and blind spots are going to be, and work through those as best I can. And we worked and worked on it. Slavery was really complicated back then. The important thing was not to slow pedal it, but to also show his relationship to freedom and slavery, which was really complex. And the choices he made. We think he stayed in the Hancock household for at least some time. And why would he make that choice? Here’s a man who as a child was most likely torn away from his family wherever —possibly in Africa, but more likely in the Caribbean—and most likely sold. And that’s a terrible thing. But how can someone live past that? But he does. And how does he succeed in this complicated household? And trying to make him fully human is really important for me.
The Through the Keyhole exhibit surrounding the play is, in large part, about what stories Americans have failed to preserve, either by choice or by omission, by narrowing the focus on the Founding Fathers. What do you feel is gained when a spotlight is put on the lives of women and people of color and other groups that are traditionally overlooked?
I think it’s important to show and remember that everyone was involved in this struggle, and in daily life, and not just the people who had the most power, and the most money, and the most ability to record their observations and their victories and losses. And that these were families. And so I think that showing Dolly Hancock as a full family member with John. Showing the things that she’s going through. It stuns me when I read the biographers who say that Dolly didn’t do much. No, she helped him manage all the paperwork during the Continental Congress, while she’s pregnant, and then loses her first child, and has to deal with that while also trying to manage a household, and manage some complex hosting duties—in terms of foreign dignitaries and the French Navy ends up staying there for a while. So she’s really involved, and she doesn’t get credit. It’s a shame. So I think, showing all those people’s voices is really important, and it reaches back to the present and says all these voices count today, and they should have counted back then. It makes us work harder to make sure those voices which are still often unheard and uncaptured, that we do hear them, and that we do record them.
It’s interesting that the play obviously humanizes Cato and Dolly, but in many ways, it also humanizes John Hancock. Because of course, he’s been lionized in history, and we think of these Founding Fathers as icons and immovable objects. But this does humanize him—in good ways and bad.
Yeah, he’s actually one of the more interesting “Founding Fathers” to me in that he’s one of the lesser-known. He was not a philosopher. He was a businessman. So he’s not a Thomas Jefferson, or even a John Adams—who is generating a written record. But he’s an important dealmaker. He’s an important facilitator. He was perfect to be President of the Continental Congress because he could relate as a semi-self-made aristocrat to the planters to the south, yet he’s also very thoroughly a New Englander and a man of Massachusetts. So what’s interesting to me about him is that I think if his health had not been so poor, I think he easily could have been the first Vice President in place of John Adams. Because John Adams was not well-liked, but he was a concession to the north. But the planters would much rather have had John Hancock. I mean, who knows, Washington and Hancock may have had a little bit of a rivalry—maybe their mutual vanities would not have allowed them to sit in the same room together, but I think they would have managed. He would have been an interesting choice. Hancock very well could have been President. But his health was poor enough that he was able to be Governor of Massachusetts, but he could not have managed to be President.
What do you think is the impact of this kind of work to a museum audience?
I’m just excited that the Old State House is continuing its commitment to theatre. I think what we learned both from Blood on the Snow and Cato and Dolly, is how much live theatre in a museum space can really enrich an audience’s experience and really engage them in the place, or in an exhibit. We see a whole new level of engagement. Where, if a visitor had just walked in that room and maybe half-read a label they would not have a relationship to that door. But now, when they walk out of that room—after they’ve seen the play—they won’t see that again in the same way. And when they return to that room, even if it’s for another exhibit, they’ll have a different relationship and a different feeling about this place. And I think that’s really powerful.