Patricio Montojo y Pasarón
December 9 was a magical day to be in New York City. Winter’s first snow fell on thousands of revelers clad in Santa suits for “SantaCon” – an annual pub crawl whose organizers aptly describe it as “charitable, non-commercial, non-political, nonsensical.” Unfortunately, the day’s magic didn’t extend to the theater. A reading of “The Court Martial of Admiral Montojo” at the Manhattan Repertory Theatre revealed the script to be cliché laden and unhistorical.
At 5:40 on Sunday morning, May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey turned to the captain of USS Olympia and said, “You may fire when you are ready, [Charles Vernon] Gridley.” The forward turret of the Olympia boomed, launching an eight-inch shell toward the Spanish fleet 5,000 yards away. The Battle of Manila Bay had begun. By 12:30 that afternoon, “the Spanish colors were down, white flags were flying in many places, the batteries were silenced and the Spanish ships were sunk, burnt and abandoned.” Commander Nathan Sargent, USN, Admiral Dewey and the Manila Campaign 41 (1947). The United States had won an overwhelming victory in the first major engagement of the Spanish-American War. While the calendar hadn’t quite reached the 20th Century, the American Century had begun.
But every battle won is also a battle lost. The glory that fleetingly attached to Commodore Dewey was mirrored in ignominy for his defeated opponent, Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo, who commanded Spain’s Pacific Squadron. As Dewey noted in his autobiography, “Naturally, the Spanish government attempted to make a scape-goat of poor Admiral Montojo, the victim of their own shortcomings and maladministration, and he was soon afterward ordered home and brought before a court-martial.” George Dewey, Autobiography of George Dewey, Admiral of the Navy 233 (1913).
In September 1898, before leaving Manila to be court-martialed in Madrid, Montojo sent a letter asking for Dewey’s assistance. “I have to defend myself from the calumny which may be raised against me,” the Spanish admiral wrote. Id. at 308 (reprinting in full Montojo’s letter to Dewey). “[F]or this purpose it would be of the greatest utility and much force if I were able to offer the highly valuable testimony of the authorized opinion of yourself, the distinguished Commander-in-Chief of the squadron which I had the honor of engaging.” Id. After offering a defense of his conduct during the battle, Montojo noted, “I know that my temerity in making this request of you is very great; but invoking the fact that we belong to the same profession and remembering that you have more than once had the kindness to praise my conduct, I force myself to believe this will be well received.” Id. at 309. After asking Dewey to arrange for the transfer of Spanish prisoners of war from Philippine forces to American custody, Montojo concluded, “For my part, after begging your pardon a thousand times for the liberty which I am taking, I hope that you will kindly grant my request, for which your faithful servant will be eternally grateful.” Id.
Admiral Dewey provided a gracious reply that began: “It gives me pleasure, replying to your letter of the 26th instant, to record my testimony in favor of a gallant foe.” Id. (setting out in full Dewey’s reply to Montojo). After noting some specific facts, Dewey wrote, “I have no hesitation in saying to you what I have already had the honor to report to my government, that your defense at Cavite was gallant in the extreme. The fighting of your flagship, which was singled out for attack, was especially worthy of a place in the traditions of valor of your nation.” Id. at 309-10. Dewey concluded, “I beg to assure you that I very much regret that calumnies have been cast at you, and am confident that your honor cannot be dimmed by them.” Id. at 310.
The playwright Dennis Posadas was so struck by this respectful exchange between two recent foes that he made it the centerpiece of his play, “The Court Martial of Admiral Montojo.” Unfortunately, he was not sufficiently impressed to place the exchange in its actual historical context, instead inventing a fictitious account of the letters’ origins in the service of drama but that produced, instead, merely melodrama.
The audience members at the Manhattan Repertory Theatre’s reading barely outnumbered the cast of 10, including the director, Ken Wolf, who served as the narrator. The actors did an admirable job; they had rehearsed the piece only once, and that just before the actual presentation. Bottles of water or, in one case, Snapple were at their feet as they sat in folding chairs on the small stage. Most often, the actors would stand as they delivered their lines, reading them from red binders. The director read not only the narrator’s pieces, but also the stage directions.
Despite the lack of sets, costumes, and props, Peter Quinones delivered a powerful performance in the role of Admiral Montojo. When his character’s anger flashed, Quinones’ booming voice filling the room. Jamil Zraikat was also a standout in the smaller role of Coronel Castenada – one of the court-martial judges. The hasty production did, however, highlight a common theme of recent times: the civilian/military divide. Cast members struggled with the pronunciation of some terms and geographical locations that would be common knowledge for servicemembers, such as “littoral” and “Corregidor.”
Unfortunately, the script wasn’t worthy of the cast’s talents; it was clichéd in both its words and its themes. The play starts with an encounter between the prosecutor and the defense counsel. When the prosecutor fails to browbeat the defense counsel into a plea bargain, he sneers, “The kid gloves are off.” Much more similarly insipid dialog followed. The script also had the actors speaking in a weird mix of English and Spanish. While most of the dialog was in English, actors would discordantly shift into Spanish for common words such as “señor,” “si,” “gracias,” and “adios” and for military ranks. In addition to its cardinal sin of historical revisionism, the script also makes smaller mistakes regarding dates, places, and people, resulting in a narrative dog’s breakfast.
The playwright did a particularly poor job developing the only significant female role, Evita Mallorca, the fiancée of Admiral Montojo’s defense counsel. She is shallow and feckless but, as the script’s triteness demands, ultimately reunites with the Navy lawyer after his moral courage has reversed an injustice.
I’m often perplexed by script writers’ insistence on changing the facts of real events for dramatic effect rather than just using the actual events as inspiration for a wholly fictitious story in which the author is free to insert dramatic moments that didn’t occur in real life. Here, however, the mystery is why the playwright didn’t stick closer to the actual facts, which are far more interesting and complex than the author’s concoctions.
If I can flag down one of those SantaCon St. Nicks, I’ll tell him that all I want for Christmas is a revised script based on the actual court-martial of Rear Admiral Montojo.* Views expressed are Dwight's alone, and should not be imputed to any government agency.
For anyone who, after (or despite) reading Dwight's review, wants to know more, here is the casting call -- happily now overtaken by events. According to this briefest of items below the fold on page 1 of the July 1, 1898 New York Times (newsstand price 3¢), the decision to court-martial Admiral Montojo was made by the Spanish cabinet. There is a link to the two admirals' exchange of correspondence on this web page.
Adm. Dewey's willingness to speak up for his sometime adversary is reminiscent of the case of Capt. Charles Butler McVay III, the posthumously exonerated captain of the ill-fated cruiser USS Indianapolis. Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, captain of the Japanese submarine I-58 that sank her, testified, according to The Times, that "the torpedoes would have found their mark even if the Indianapolis had been zigzagging."
BZ to our hardy reviewer for braving the elements, sitting through the play, and preparing this lively account.
Admiral Dewey's willingness to endorse his adversary's characterization of the Spanish effort at Manila Bay ought to be viewed in light of Dewey's own legal efforts to claim, on the grounds that the opposing force was superior to his own, twice the monetary bounty originally awarded to the U.S. fleet commander, his officers and men. See Dewey v. United States, 178 U.S. 510 (1900) (affirming Court of Claims strict construction to the contrary of Rev. Stat. § 4635).ReplyDelete
Those were the days!Delete
Thanks. The play is still technically in development (it was a reading) so I may incorporate some of your suggestions...ReplyDelete
Mr. Posadas, I would welcome the opportunity to share some thoughts with you. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.ReplyDelete
Thanks Mr. Sullivan. I have tried to address some of your invaluable criticisms and observations in the next revision.ReplyDelete
All the best sir...
Hello Mr. Posadas,ReplyDelete
My name is Charles B. Harris and I am PhD history student at the University of South Florida in Tampa. My dissertation topic focuses on public perceptions of the US Navy from the 1883-1909, including a chapter on Dewey and the way he was marketed as the model American hero in a time of consumerism and yellow journalism.
I am a cultural historian seeking to discover why Dewey was so beloved by the nation and the discovery of your play intrigues me to no end.
It is an amazing coincidence that my wife and I are visiting Manhattan Dec 5-11 to celebrate our anniversary which of course allows me to come see the play on Dec. 8.
I would love the opportunity to speak with you to discuss the play, your thoughts about its relevance and about the great man himself.
Feel free to reach out to me via email at email@example.com ... Hopefully we can continue this conversation privately.
Congratulations on your upcoming presentation as well as for the accolades the play has already received.
Charles B. Harris