Backyard Renaissance’s fine production of Beth Henley’s Abundance must close this Sunday.
Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, Rolando
$15 - $30
The play begins in the late 1860s. Bess and Macon, mail order brides, come to the wild Wyoming Territory to wed men they’ve never seen.
None-too-bright Bess wants a husband so bad she’ll submit, as long as he isn’t too “ugly.”
Fiery Macon longs for headlong adventures. She wants to “see the elephant!”
No one’s quite sure where the expression came from. Some speculate that Alexander the Great, who knew all of the known world by 332 BCE, saw elephants for the first time in India when he fought against King Porcus’s troops mounted on pachyderms.
The Gold Rush of 1849 popularized the expression. Caravans of men, young and old, streamed west to seek their fortune and behold the unimaginable. According to the publicity/propaganda of the time, California’s rivers were “paved with gold.” Urged on by a "jackpot mentality," many a 49er swore he'd be gone a few months at best, and would return with a king’s treasure.
“See the elephant” acquired several meanings. One conjured up elephantine expectations. President James K. Polk raised them when he said there was an “abundance of gold in the territory.” Droves of Mexican males headed north for la abundancia.
In the play, Macon envisions this “elephant,” an epic thrill-ride of brand-new sights and sounds.
In the early 1850s, the elephant lost its luster. Miner James I. Maxfield wrote his wife back east: “I feel bad sometimes when I think of home and the comfort I am deprived of by being away. Then again, come to think of how dull it is at home, I do not want to be there.”
The elephant took on darker resonances. “Men grow older faster in this country than any place I ever saw,” wrote Ephriam Thompson. “I think it is exposure and hardship that they have to encounter. Boys have men’s faces, and men of thirty look like men at home of forty.”
After he crossed the sweltering stretch from Washoe Lake to the Truckee River — bleached bones all along the trail — 49-er Lucious Fairchild wrote: “the desert is truly the great Elephant of the route, and God knows I never want to see it again.”
Disillusionment hammered those who discovered that panning and mining for gold was grueling labor, most often for little reward. Reports of gilded miracles became “humbug.”
“Now methinks I see the elephant with unclouded eyes,” wrote Joseph Wood in his journal.
Later in the 19th Century, the expression added another layer: stern pride in having endured a harrowing experience.
Among many other things, Abundance traces the changes the expression undergoes, in order, from wide-eyed dreams to unthinkable terrors to seeing more than “it all.”
Bess wants to range no farther than her dirt-clodded farm. Macon imagines vistas beyond the horizon. Typical Beth Henley: guess who sees the elephant?
6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N, Rolando
Playing through April 2 Backyard Renaissance Theatre at Moxie Theatre.