UTOPIA, OHIO Show Synopsis
1. PROLOGUE – Present Day Utopia
2. SARAH - December, 1843, Cincinnati – “The Edge of a Knife” - Sarah’s husband, John, has died. Together they ran a small cobbling business in Cincinnati, a town which is growing by leaps and bounds along the American frontier. Leases and property values are increasing along with it. Sarah and John have no children, no real family to speak of, outside of Sarah’s wayward brother, Eddie Cubberly. She has no support network. Without her partner, Sarah is unable to do enough work to afford the rent on their shop. No shop will take a woman worker on, and now in middle age, there aren’t many other options available to her beyond factory work, the horrible conditions of which would lead to an early death. After the funeral, Eddie tells Sarah about a group of people he’s fallen in with, who meet regularly at Melodeon Hall. Sarah is skeptical; Eddie has struggled with alcohol abuse in the past, and has joined other suspect moments, including nascent Mormonism. Sarah considers her options, which seem to be nil, and agrees to attend the meeting.
3. SAMUEL - February, 1847, Western Kentucky – “The Ballad of Samuel Lee” – Samuel Lee lays absolutely silent in a hollow log in a southern Kentucky forest, clutching his six-year-old son. Samuel has escaped enslavement in Alabama, along with his wife, Hannah, and son, Charles. They’ve been utilizing the Underground Railroad to travel north to the “free” states. Their next conductor was supposed to meet them here, but has not appeared. A bounty hunter is approaching their concealment. A “dead or alive” bounty has been placed on them. Though not a violent man, Samuel considers his family’s future and their newfound freedom, and feels he has no other choice. He leaps out of his concealment and attacks the bounty hunter. As the two are falling to the ground, the bounty hunter gets off a shot from his rifle and wounds Samuel in the abdomen. The rifle is knocked away, but the damage is done. The hunter rolls atop Samuel, strangling him and mocking his effort to escape and the idea that he could be free. As Samuel nears death, he hears a shot ring out. The hunter’s weight falls off of Samuel’s body. As Samuel’s vision returns, he sees his son holding the rifle, catatonic. The hunter is dead. Samuel, losing blood, crawls over to the boy. He praises him for his intelligence, and vows that he will never wear chains like Samuel had. A song comes to him, “I Can’t Stay Behind,” which uses biblical imagery to remind the singer and the listener that they can’t stay behind in enslavement, but that they must follow the call to “heaven,” or freedom. As Samuel finishes the song, he believes that his time on this earth has ended.
4. MOISHE - October, 1843, Western Russia – “The Wandering Jew” - Moishe is an 11-year-old boy living in a schtetl (Jewish village) in the western territories of Russia. In these times, Jewish families were expected to contribute their eldest sons to the Russian Army. This conscription was aided by Jewish “khappers,” who, not unlike the “kapos” of Nazi concentration camps, aided the Russians in an effort to prevent violence against the village. These conscriptions traditionally happened when the boy turned 12. Her husband long dead, Moishe’s mother vows that Moishe will not be taken away to the army, which is tantamount to a death sentence. Their cousin, Zindl, had years before escaped to Paris, where he purported to be a successful clerk. Moishe’s mother corresponds with Zindl, hatching a plan whereby she would send him a little bit of money every month as installments on steamboat passage to America. Shortly before Moishe’s 12th birthday, he and his mother flee into the night, beginning a long journey to Paris by foot. They have no means, so they have to work odd jobs along the way in order to feed and clothe themselves. They experience rampant antisemitism on their journey, realizing it’s not just cultural Russians who are bigoted toward Jewish people. But they also experience kindness along the way, finding employers and kind people who would give them food, shelter and humanity. It’s a long journey; by the time they reach Paris, Moishe is 14 and is more a man than a boy. They arrive at Zindl’s address, to find him not at home. Moishe spots a familiar-looking man out of the corner of his eye, who turns and runs. Moishe chases him down. His mother, knowing the answer already, asks Zindl if he has their money. He says the money is gone. Zindl goes into his flat and comes back out with an urn, which he turns over. It’s the only savings he has left, a smattering of coins and bills. Moishe’s mother asks how many sailing fares that amount will get them, and he replies “maybe one.” Some weeks later, Moishe is alone at sea, thinking about his mother and wondering if she knew all along she would not be joining him in the new world. She has said she’ll stay behind in Paris and teach Zindl some manners. Moishe lands in New York, but struggles to find work and continues to experience antisemitism. As he eats a discarded pastrami sandwich, he reads a blurb in the newsprint in which the sandwich was wrapped. It’s an article from The Harbinger, a Fourierist publication, describing the newest (third) community being established in Utopia, Ohio. It describes a beautiful landscape, no judgment on one’s origins, and the ability to use one’s labor instead of currency. It sounds like a paradise to the teenaged Moishe. Moishe steals a stagecoach map, then begins his journey to Ohio on foot.
5. SARAH - February, 1844, Cincinnati – “Three Cheers for Charles Fourier” - Wade Loughborough, a judge and prominent citizen, leads a meeting of the Cincinnati Fourierists on George Washington’s birthday in February 1844. Sarah and her brother, Eddie, are in attendance. In seeing that there are numerous new faces present, he introduces the concepts of philosopher Charles Fourier, upon whose ideas their society is built. An elite who lost everything in the French Revolution, Fourier was a scientist, botanist, musician and philosopher who came to the conclusion that the true design of humanity was to organize into “phalanxes” of 1,620 individuals. The community members would live together in a large common house (the “phalanstery”), and would perform work that suits them, including working communal farms that surrounded the phalanstery. In re-organizing society in this way, mankind would enter a 10,000-year golden age, which would include the elimination of disease, the entire planet warming to tropical climates, the sea turning into a fruit drink, humans living more than 100 years and growing long and useful tails. With their agrarian and craft-based way of life vanishing due to the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, Americans found hope and meaning in this vision. Phalanxes had been formed across the country already, including in Ohio and as far west as Iowa. Loughborough tells the assembly that the society has already identified and purchased a parcel of land 30 miles east of Cincinnati, which they’ve named the Clermont Phalanx. Although they didn’t yet have all the funding they needed, Loughborough assures them that everything will be fine, and that their phalanx will provide leadership to bring everyone in the region to the Fourieristic way of life. The meeting ends with resounding enthusiasm for the plan.
6. SAMUEL - February, 1847, Western Kentucky – “Samuel Wasn’t Dead Yet” - Samuel perceives himself floating in a void, and moves towards a bright light. He sees an angel, who takes the form of his wife, Hannah. He realizes she shouldn’t be in heaven with him, and questions her. Hannah explains that he isn’t dead and that their son, Charles ,is fine, but hasn’t said much of anything and is deeply affected by what occurred. A gruff voice sounds from outside of Samuel’s vision, and he sees a white woman, who reveals herself to be the conductor whom they were meant to meet. The conductor apologizes for being late and explains that moving a killer along the Underground Railroad would put the other conductors at unnecessary risk, but offers that there might be another way. She tells the family about a rumor she’s heard about a new community called Excelsior, being founded east of Cincinnati. Its leader is a man called John Wattles, a spiritualist who communes with the dead, and who is rumored to be an abolitionist. Though it’s impossible to confirm, the location is close enough that the conductor could help them along the way himself without compromising anyone else. Considering the situation, Samuel realizes he has no choice, and agrees to the plan.
7. MOISHE - December, 1848, Utopia – “It’s Anarchy” - Moishe arrives in the village of Utopia in a snowstorm, and knocks on the door of Josiah Warren. He explains that he read the Harbinger article and traveled all the way from New York to be join the village. Josiah brings him in from the cold and tells him about the principles behind their village: no government or religion, cost limit of price (whereby no profit should ever be added to cost) and labor capital (whereby people trade their labor for goods and services instead of currency). Josiah invites Moishe to stay with him through the winter, working at the print shop until the spring comes and Moishe can begin building his home.
8. SARAH - May, 1844, Ohio River – “Aboard The Steamboat Yucatan” - Sarah and Eddie are on board a steamship called the Yucatan, traveling with a large group of Fourierists to their future home, the Clermont Phalanx. The purpose was to inaugurate the settlement, currently under construction. The mood was festive and the day was beautiful. A meal was set out and a line was formed, but by the time they reached the table, Eddie and Sarah found no food left to be had. Sarah wonders if these aspiring communists appreciated irony. Later, Sarah and Eddie are approached by Wade Loughborough, who asks to be introduced to Eddie’s wife. Sarah speaks up to correct the misunderstanding, but Eddie interrupts to confirm that Sarah is indeed is wife. Wade kisses her hand, smearing mustard on it, then walks away. Eddie explains to Sarah that only married women are permitted to live in the phalanx, and that he was just about to tell her. He registered them as husband and wife in order to secure her inclusion. Sarah is confused and furious and walks off, contemplating being stuck in Eddie’s scheme again, and wondering if the subterfuge is worth being able to do what she loves, making shoes. She hears the sounds of a familiar melody, and finds a handsome man, about her age, playing a fiddle. It’s a popular song of the day, “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” which her late husband used to sing to her. Soon a crowd gathers, and they all sing the song together and dance on the deck of the ship. They arrive at Clermont Phalanx and some words are said, and a brass band plays. The land is indeed rich and beautiful, filling Sarah with hope for the first time since her husband passed. As they board the ship again to sail back to Cincinnati, Sarah sees the fiddle player on the shore, staying behind as part of the group of men who would finish the construction. He catches her eye and gives her a nod, the final installment in a day full of ominous signs.
9. SAMUEL – March, 1847, Excelsior – “The Séance” - In the community of Excelsior, John Wattles is leading a séance for new members of the community. He begins by introducing his wife, Esther, and explaining the ground rules of how to participate, as well as the nature of séance and the spirit world, which he calls “the Summerland.” Shortly into the séance, it is revealed that Wattles’ wife, Esther, is also in the room, and is manufacturing the supposedly spiritual interventions. Wattles first communes with a Native American woman, who espouses to have been slaughtered on the land a century ago by white settlers. The interaction ends with Wattles offering an apology for the sins of his “race.” Sapped of his energy, Wattles offers, so bravely, to continue the spiritual journey. The next spirit with which they commune is a Black person who traveled in chains across these lands. Wattles uses this interaction to whip the participants into an abolitionist frenzy, committing that Excelsior will be a destination on the Underground Railroad, and a place where Black and white people can live together in harmony. He declares that the common house (the former phalanstery) will be moved to the riverbank to be more visible to Black people crossing the river from slave state Kentucky. Wattles calls into the void to give him a sign that this is the correct course of action, when Samuel Lee busts through the door. The participants leave the room, leaving only a confused Esther. As she prepares to leave, one of the bells in the room rings… on its own.
10. “Work Song”
MOISHE - August, 1848, Utopia
SARAH - August, 1844, Clermont Phalanx
SAMUEL - August, 1847, Excelsior
In the dog days of summer, Moishe, Sarah and Samuel describe everyday life surviving in the settlement, both their satisfactions and their worries. Moishe is building himself a home with materials he earned with labor capital. However, he describes a strange German man who likes to walk around the village nude and causes a stir among his neighbors. Sarah takes great pleasure in being the cobbler for the phalanx, and feels contentment for the first time since before her husband’s death. But she keeps running into Ashley, the handsome fiddle player, and eventually forces an awkward moment with her “husband,” Eddie, to make Ashley shy away. Samuel works hard as part of the team moving the phalanstery to the banks of the Ohio. His wife, Hannah, meets a farmer who tells him that the Ohio floods every winter, and that it’s madness to move the common house there. Samuel shares this information with other workers, who share that they already knew this, but that they trusted in Wattle’s wisdom and spiritual knowledge. Ultimately, they all agree to ignore the signs of strain and to keep believing in the vision of the settlement.
11. MOISHE – September, 1848, Utopia – “Hypo-crisy” - The community is having a meeting about the German, Herr Schmitt, who has now been accused of stealing a coat off of the fence of a neighbor to the community. Between this and the public nudity, the community are fed up, according to community member Mrs. Prescott. Warren pushes back that the community is founded on the principle of sovereignty, and that the community has no authority to forcibly punish or remove Schmitt from the settlement. Mrs. Prescott retorts that the reputation of the community is being tarnished, and threaten to leave if something isn’t done. Moishe stands up to address the group. He apologizes that he doesn’t have the words to speak as eloquently as he likes, and then begins to share what drew him to the settlement, and what he loves about it: labor capital, freedom of religion, sovereignty. He accuses the group of hypocrisy.
12. SARAH – October, 1844, Clermont Phalanx – “The Council Meeting” - It’s revealed that the fiddle player, Ashley, has a wife, who joins him at the phalanx. Ashley’s wife, Elizabeth, detects the attraction between the two and accuses Sarah of being an adulterer and a harlot, bringing these accusations before the ruling council. Sarah reveals that she and Eddie are not married, that she’s still grieving her late husband, and that Ashley had been the one pursuing her, not the other way around. The council and community are scandalized, and ponder removing Sarah from the community. But pragmatic Wade Loughborough explains that Sarah is the only cobbler in the settlement, and that there’s no precedent for such an act. They will make an exception to the rule, but reprimand Sarah, who agrees to remain in her workshop “like a cell.” Elizabeth is furious and makes ominous threats.
13. SAMUEL – December, 1847, Excelsior – “The Friendly Beasts / The Flood” - The community of Excelsior are gathered together for a Christmas dance and celebration in the common house, now nearly complete and located on the bank of the Ohio. Hannah and her son, Charles, are among the participants. Samuel offers to gather more wood for the fire, and when he steps outside, he sees that the Ohio River has risen significantly and is moving toward to the house. A drunken Wattles rebuffs his concerns, saying that the spirits of slaves guided them here, and an abashed Samuel goes to gather the wood. When he returns, the water has climbed up to the doorstep. Samuel rushes inside and raises the alarm. With the front door now unable to open, the inhabitants line up to jump out of the window, until one villager is swept away by the river. Wattles tells Samuel to run up to Utopia (Josiah Warren’s community, now extant on the eastern part of the original Clermont Phalanx) and bring boats down to aid them. Samuel runs as fast as he can to Utopia and returns with several boats to a chilling sight. The water has now engulfed the house nearly up to the roof. Samuel sees Hannah holding Charles over her head to the roof, where John Wattles reaches down to grab him. Wattles strains with all his might, but cannot reach the child. The water swallows the second floor of the structure, and Hannah and Charles are tragically lost. The boats get to the house and rescue the survivors from the roof. Hannah and Charles are two of 13 who lose their lives in the tragic flood. Wattles tries unsuccessfully to convince Samuel of god’s will.
14. MOISHE – October, 1848, Utopia – “Auf Wiedersehn” - Warren and Prescott are gleefully celebrating the exit of The German. Moishe appears, asking what all the commotion is about. They explain their joy in The German’s departure, and Moishe inquires why and how he left. After deflecting for a moment, Warren relents and tells Moishe the truth: he wrote a letter to the county sheriff asking for his assistance. The sheriff had written back that he’d be happy to assist, giving Warren the muscle he needed to convince the German to leave. Moishe is disgusted, and runs after The German. Tracking him down, Moishe tells him that Warren and Prescott were wrong. The German responds by pulling a gun.
15. SARAH – November, 1844, Clermont Phalanx – “Ashley Visits The Workshop” - A storm is coming, and Sarah is up late in her workshop, trying to forget about the venomous words of Elizabeth Seaver. Ashley appears, confessing his love for her, and that he wants to leave his wife. Sarah rejects his advances, telling him to leave. Ashley’s charms vanish and he becomes more forceful. Sarah attempts unsuccessfully to evade the much larger Ashley. He corners her against her worktable, forcing himself on her, when Sarah’s fingers find her shoeing hammer. She strikes Ashley on the head, stunning him. In a rageful daze, he escapes into the night. Sarah’s clothes and workshop are ruined. She realizes that Clermont Phalanx has been nothing but a cage, and that her time in the community has come to an end.
16. SAMUEL – December, 1847, Excelsior – “Bring Them Back / You Must Stay Behind” - Samuel begs Esther Wattles to allow him to see her husband, who has sequestered himself. He wants Wattles to conduct a séance to allow him to see his beloved Hannah and Charles again, and accuses Wattles of cowardice when she refuses. Esther confesses to Samuel that Wattles never had the power to commune with the dead, that it was she who created the illusion for the séance participants without his knowledge. However, Esther herself does have that power, having practiced it among her Quaker people. At her request, Samuel hums the melody of “I Can’t Stay Behind,” and the spirit of Hannah appears. She tells Samuel that he has the strength to go on living, and that he must stay behind, both for himself and for a man who needs his help. She shows him a vision of Moishe at gunpoint. Samuel reluctantly agrees to honor her request and carry on, despite his pain.
17. “In The Context of a Man / Epilogue”
SARAH – November, 1844
MOISHE & SAMUEL – October, 1848
While packing her things, Sarah finds a note from Eddie instructing her to meet him at Ehrenfeld’s wine cavern as she begins her journey away from the phalanx. She arrives to find Elizabeth Seaver lying in wait. Seaver relates a false story that Ashley was attacked by Sarah after he rebuffed her advances, and that he had to leave the phalanx for the shame of it. Sarah finds the whole situation humorous, and observes that she and Elizabeth are both striving to find their place in the word outside of the context of men.
Along another timeline years later, Moishe is brought down into the cavern at gunpoint by the German. Just as the end seems nigh, Samuel appears with a gun of his own, and drives the German off. Moishe thanks Samuel for saving his life. Samuel, having completed the task that Hannah asked of him, shares that he is going to move to Cincinnati to get a fresh start. He reluctantly allows Moishe to join him, and the two travel to the city.