Frank Nail stepped into his costume and makeup 6,400 times on stages all across the northern US during the decades from 1872 to 1911.
His play was one of the most widely produced and highly familiar pieces of theater in the 19th century. Literally millions of people saw it, and many thousands took part in it.
It is a feat that is utterly remarkable in the history of American theater, and totally groundbreaking in the development of community therapy. Yet it is hardly ever mentioned today.
There is a reason you never hear about it in our time: AF Nail performed his role 6,400 times in blackface. It seems to place him rather out of bounds as far as serious historical consideration is concerned in our era of evolved political humanism; but within the context of the time in which he lived it does not lessen the magnitude of service he rendered the wounded nation in its time of great need.
In the decades following the Civil War, when emotions were still extremely raw and wounds barely scarred over, one of the most effective means of healing shell-shocked communities in the Northern states was the theater.
It was in their hometown auditorium that traumatized families, in every little town across the map, could collectively and safely witness the horror of what they had just lived through; make sense of the story, feel the deep conflicting emotions of war, and in the process, experience therapeutic healing as a group.
The most powerful, effective and popular play of that generation, a drama called The Drummer Boy, had its origin in Mansfield, Ohio.
It was a man from Mansfield who produced the play, in communities of all sizes from Connecticut to California. He most often played a particular role in each production across the country.
His name was Frank Nail, and the role he played in black face for 40 years in The Drummer Boy was that of “Uncle Joe,” the lovable old emancipated slave.
The reason the play was so particularly popular for so long was because the cast was always made up of local folks from each town where the show was staged. The most important character actors were provided by the touring company, and everyone else on stage was hometown talent and authentic veterans in uniform as ‘extras.”
Local military bands provided the music, and each town’s local heroes and celebrities appeared on stage.
The play was written so that between the acts there were a series of ‘tableaux,’ a peculiar 19th Century motif where the curtain would open on a staged ‘freeze frame’ of history — like a living photograph. Everyone on stage struck a pose in the tableau, and no one moved until the audience quit applauding and the curtain fell.
These dramatic poses ranged in scope from small, humble scenes of mourning showing a few characters gathered around in grief, to epic battle scenes when they crammed as many soldiers on stage as the town could provide — all locked in a single still moment of flags, swords, combat, life and death.
The author of the play was Samuel Muscroft, a man who grew up in Cincinnati but enlisted into the Union Army at Mansfield in 1862.
His experience of the war was as a member of the 102nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, but for purposes of his drama he had the soldiers of Drummer Boy enlisted as members of the 15th Regiment — another Richland County-based unit — a group who saw action in the Battle of Shiloh.
His play was actually titled, The Drummer Boy, or The Spy of Shiloh.
The plot follows some local farm boys through the war.
Act 1 takes place in their mother’s dining room; Act 2 has comic military drills as well as danger and suspense; Act 3 shows death on the battlefield, with noble soliloquies; Act 4 takes place in a Southern prisoner-of-war camp with the moving death of the little Drummer Boy, followed by stirring rescue with patriotic singing; and Act 5 is back at the farm with a sad song about The Vacant Chair and then a Grand March and lots of flag waving.
Along with heavy emotions are interspersed small bits of comedy designed to lighten the load by inserting little jokes using local names of people and landmarks the audience would recognize into the script. That made the experience very personal whether it was staged in San Francisco California, Peoria Illinois, or Mt Vernon Ohio.
Naturally all of the American audiences (from Northern states) who watched the play were quite moved by it. So perhaps the most honest and objective review of it can be found in the reports of an Englishman who happened to catch a performance in Easthampton, Massachusetts in 1887. From Bits About America by John Strathesk:
“The entertainment was largely dramatic, and the principal actors were men that had been soldiers in the Federal army — residents of the town, of which there were over two dozen on the stage. The roles of the ladies were filled by amateurs — indeed, all were townsfolks, excepting A. F. Nail, of Mansfield, Ohio, who “runs” the piece, trains the amateurs, and plays the leading part of “Uncle Joe,” a negro slave, to perfection.
“There was a very fair representation of actual fighting, of the apprehension and execution of spies, while “Uncle Joe,” played by Mr. Nail, admirably brought out the faithful negro — his tricks, vagaries, hits, and acting altogether made the piece brilliant, and he was ably supported by the soldiers and amateurs.
“The audience was enraptured.”
The history of The Drummer Boy in Mansfield was recorded by Hal McCuen in his 1978 book, Entrances and Exits:
“The Drummer Boy was first presented in Mansfield at Miller’s Opera House in 1872. By 1928 the play had been presented here, augmented by local talent, 369 times. Old Joe in the person of A.F. Nail was perfect. Mrs. Nail as Mother Howard was flawless.
When Nail’s health failed in 1911, his son Frank U. Nail took over the important slave role of Uncle Joe and remained in the cast for more than 20 years.
“When the Sons of Veterans sponsored the play in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1912, Calvin Coolidge played Frank Howard. He became President 11 years later.
“In a letter sent to me in 1965, Attorney Efflo Platzer, of Cleveland, recalled a memorable performance here when the late Dr. Stoodt played the Drummer Boy. In the prison scene, when the Drummer Boy pathetically shouted for bread, the Mansfield High School Principal George Davis, Coach Harry Patton and the entire football team, occupying the first two rows, stood up and showered the stage with buns and loaves of bread.”
By the 1930s, when most of the Civil War generation had passed away, the Drummer Boy wasn’t really needed any more, so he quietly stepped off stage into the wings of history. The last known performance of its long life was in 1932 at Mansfield High School.