LOOKING AHEAD: ‘GUNPOWDER JOE’ GIVES GLIMPSE OF PRIESTLEY’S LIFE

By John L. Moore L. Moore For The Daily Item For The Daily Item

1/5/17

Playwright Anthony Clarvoe steeped himself in the colorful and controversial aspects of Joseph Priestley’s life when writing “Gunpowder Joe,” a full-length play now in production at Bloomsburg’s Alvina Krause Theatre.

The themes of Priestley’s life deal with politics, science, religion and immigration — “all the things that I’ve written about, that I’m passionately interested in,” the playwright said.

The name of the play — “Gunpowder Joe” — comes from a nickname Priestley acquired after writing an incendiary publication in 1785. The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, which commissioned the drama, will present its world premier on Jan. 19.

Priestley was both widely respected and highly notorious when his ship The Sansom landed in North America. “This is a story about an immigrant who was perceived as both potentially dangerous and as a tremendous asset to America,” Clarvoe said in an interview last week.

“Gunpowder Joe” reflects this. In Great Britain, Priestley’s outspoken views on politics and religion had made him so unpopular that he emigrated to America in 1794 at age 61. In the United States, even though the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 made it a crime to criticize the president, Priestley published strident criticisms of President John Adams. His commentary prompted Secretary of State Timothy Pickering to urge Adams to deport him. Much of the play deals with this.

Based in California, Clarvoe is a nationally known playwright who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. In his late 50s, the writer has curly gray hair and a beard. “This is my fourth project with Bloomsburg,” he said.

As part of his research, Clarvoe went to Penn State University, where he read Priestley’s manuscript of his memoirs, which in part discussed his friendship with Benjamin Franklin. Priestley’s penmanship was relatively uniform “until he gets to Benjamin Franklin’s name,” Clarvoe said. “Every time he mentions Benjamin Franklin, the writing gets bigger.”

He said that the script for “Gunpowder Joe” has gone through seven drafts. While working on it, he has made several trips to Central Pennsylvania. Among other places, the playwright has visited the Priestley House in Northumberland, where Priestley lived from 1798 until his death in 1804. Clarvoe learned that although Priestley didn’t believe in slavery, he rented a slave to perform household chores in Northumberland. A character named Madison represents this slave in the play.

The author also found that Priestley regularly played chess with his wife, Mary. “She managed the household, she designed the house, and she was a match for him in analytical thought,” Clarvoe said. “That was very revealing.”

BTE member Laurie Mc-Cants is directing the play. To learn about Priestley’s life in Great Britain, she and Tom Bresenhan of the Friends of the Joseph Priestley House spent a week in England in October, visiting places where Priestley had lived, worked and experimented.

In West Yorkshire, “we went to Batley (Grammar School) where Priestley went to school,” Bresenhan said. In Heckmondwike, “his boyhood home is now a pub,” Bresenhan said. “We had lunch there.”

At one point, McCants and Bresenhan visited James S. Birch, one of two editors of the 2007 book, “Joseph Priestley: A Celebration of His Life and Legacy.”

Scholars say that Priestley spoke with a Yorkshire accent, as Birch does. Impressed, McCants “had Jim Birch read

to her, and she recorded it,” Bresenhan said.

James Goode, the ensemble member who will portray Priestley, has been developing a Yorkshire accent for the part.

At Warrington Museum, the curators “brought out the original letters he (Priestley) had written to his brother-inlaw, John Wilkinson. These are letters he wrote from Pennsylvania, from Northumberland,” Bresenhan said. “There were 30 of them.”

A low point in Priestley’s life took place in Birmingham, England, where in 1791, a mob rioted and burned his residence, which contained his laboratory. The incident prompted him to move to London and eventually to the U.S.

McCants said that reading some of Priestley’s letters was insightful. “I got to hold in my hands the letter that he wrote to his brother-in-law John Wilkinson after the (1791) riot in Birmingham,” McCants said.

McCants said that Priestley’s penmanship in the letters written prior to the riot was beautiful, “but the letters written after the riot were written in urgent haste. You could see it in the handwriting.”

Sponsors of “Gunpowder Joe” include The Friends of Joseph Priestley House, the Degenstein Foundation, Bucknell University, Penn State University, and the Pennsylvania to her, and she recorded it,” Bresenhan said.

James Goode, the ensemble member who will portray Priestley, has been developing a Yorkshire accent for the part.

At Warrington Museum, the curators “brought out the original letters he (Priestley) had written to his brother-inlaw, John Wilkinson. These are letters he wrote from Pennsylvania, from Northumberland,” Bresenhan said. “There were 30 of them.”

A low point in Priestley’s life took place in Birmingham, England, where in 1791, a mob rioted and burned his residence, which contained his laboratory. The incident prompted him to move to London and eventually to the U.S.

McCants said that reading some of Priestley’s letters was insightful. “I got to hold in my hands the letter that he wrote to his brother-in-law John Wilkinson after the (1791) riot in Birmingham,” McCants said.

McCants said that Priestley’s penmanship in the letters written prior to the riot was beautiful, “but the letters written after the riot were written in urgent haste. You could see it in the handwriting.”

Sponsors of “Gunpowder Joe” include The Friends of Joseph Priestley House, the Degenstein Foundation, Bucknell University, Penn State University, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Council on the Arts.