Crossing Over: A Performance Adventure in Green-Wood Cemetery
Part of the BEAT Festival
Tour by Atlas Obscura, led and narrated by Allison Meier, with site-specific performances by LEIMAY: Ximena Garnica and Shige Moriya, Shirel Jones, Sophia Schrank, and Elisabet Torras Aguilera.
I’m scheduled to arrive at the press tour by 8:30 pm, which should not be too much of a problem, since I live a ten-minute bicycle ride away. Fortified with a double espresso, I set off.
Now, this is a nighttime tour of Green-Wood Cemetery. So we’re going out at night in a creepy place with a lot of dead people (over 560,000 dead people).
Whenever I think about cemeteries, ghosts, the spirit world, the other side, hauntings, and the like, I always remember the story my maternal grandfather told me. At about age 6 (we’re going back to the end of the Nineteenth Century) he and a friend snuck out one night and went to the local cemetery. This they did in a small town in Mississippi, a fairly haunted place. They saw a freshly dug grave with a white shape moving up and down in the grave. Petrified, the two boys hid until dawn, when they saw that it was a sheep that had wandered into the cemetery and fallen into the hole.
I arrive early. Entering the cemetery, we hear, coming from woods on a hill and out of the darkness, some ominous sounds, then a string instrument, and then opera singing.
The tour starts promptly; the tour leader, Allison Meier, from the estimable Atlas Obscura (be sure to check out their website), gives us a brief history. Green-Wood Cemetery was established in 1838 with the intention of being a different type of cemetery, a break from the crowded cemeteries of colonial America, with their grey headstones ornamented with deaths heads. Green-Wood was to be a destination where people would want to go while they were still alive. Laid out like a park, it stretches across 468 acres of some of Brooklyn’s hilliest and most varied terrain, part of the great glacial moraine that is Long Island. A lot of prominent people from the Nineteenth Century — Boss Tweed, for one — are buried here, and a few from the Twentieth, too, not least of all Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Albert Anastasia, who may have contributed a few corpses himself. Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times that it was often remarked “it is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon the Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in the Park, and to sleep with his fathers in Green-Wood.”
The emphasis of the tour is the performance history of Brooklyn and New York as reflected in the persons buried here. We set out; our first stop is a monument marking the mass grave of 103 unidentified bodies from the Brooklyn Theater Fire of December 5, 1876. One of the worst theatre fires ever, there were at least 278 fatalities, possibly over 300; the performance initially continued while the fire continued, until a piece of the set fell onto the stage in flames, setting off a panic. Most of the dead, needless to say, came from the cheaper upper level seats, the so-called “Family Circle.” The unknowns are buried here in individual caskets, set vertically in the ground. It’s the sort of disaster one associates with the Third World nowadays, which reminds us that in the Nineteenth Century, the whole world was the Third World.
Continuing, we soon encounter a ghostly body hanging from a tree in a net. Further along, we see a line of white clad figures standing above a row of crypts set in the hillside. Looking up, we observe them standing upright, facing us, then falling back, then standing up, then falling back, over and over, to beautiful and disturbing electronic music backing opera singing. It’s a subtle reminder that we’re all going the way of the people buried here.
Next, we arrive at the Steinway family crypt, where apparently a fair number of the Steinways don’t want to be buried, and then we move on to the fascinating and garish William Niblo Mausoleum. Set in a landscaped sylvan setting that looks like a set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where one wonders if ambush by satyrs and wood nymphs is imminent, Niblo liked the place so much that he used to take his buddies here and throw parties. William Niblo made a lot of money in the theatre; in fact, his production, The Black Crook (book by Charles M. Barras; music by various composers), is considered the first American “book” musical, so he gave us a lot, or has a lot to answer for, depending on your taste. The Black Crook opened at Niblo’s Garden on Broadway on September 12, 1866, and, with a running time of five and a half hours (you heard right), the show continued for 474 performances. Set in the Harz Mountains in the year 1600, it featured, among other songs, March of the Amazons by Giuseppe Operti, and You Naughty, Naughty Men, with music by George Bickwell and lyrics by Theodore Kennick. There were subsequent British and other productions, but — so far — no revival.
The accompanying performance, called the “Somnambulance Trance,” is enchanting. We see a male and female dance a dance of attraction, then distance and disillusion, alternately tender and remote. Their movements evoke the setting and perhaps even the Niblo production.
Our penultimate stop before returning is the grave of Eliza Gilbert, better known to the world as Lola Montez, who lived a remarkable life, fast and short. Dying of pneumonia after a stroke at age 40, she was originally buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave; a fan, one of many, no doubt, had her exhumed and buried here with a headstone. Her career as a performer included the tarantula dance, where she pretended that a tarantula was crawling on her and ripped her clothes off to save herself; her career as a courtesan included an affair with Ludwig I of Bavaria, where she advocated for liberal reforms when not otherwise occupied.
The last stop is a walk-in crypt. Family names — Groesbeck, Wissman, Schlesinger, Martinez, and more, each no doubt with many stories behind it — line the hall, set above the doors to each family’s vault. The performance is a spirited flamenco dance. The sound of the dance reverberates in the stone chamber; and, I must say, it takes a lot of discipline to dance a flamenco.
Before leaving the cemetery, I have a chance to chat briefly with the Artistic Director and founder of the BEAT Festival, Stephen Shelley. I ask Shelley if it was difficult to arrange permissions with the cemetery; it was not. “They were game.” Recalling the extensive walking on stone pathways up and down hills in the dark, I ask if insurance was a problem. Shelley laughed and said their agent mainly wanted to know how long the tour was and how many people would be joining in.
A brief word about the BEAT (Brooklyn Emerging Artists in Theatre) Festival is in order. This is its third year. Check it out.