Based on a 150-year-old true incident, “Letters at Sea: The Tale of the Ship Hornet” is an original production with 35 students in the cast.
When asked if he might write a play for the 150th anniversary of the burning and sinking of the clipper ship Hornet, captained by Josiah Mitchell of Freeport, Simon Skold, drama director at Freeport High School, thought about it for a bit. Then he embraced the idea enthusiastically.
The result: Beginning on Friday, Nov. 11, and running for six days through Nov. 20, Freeport High drama students will present what Skold turned into a musical, titled “Letters at Sea: The Tale of the Ship Hornet.” The story of the Hornet has also inspired a new book, “Last Voyage of the Hornet,” by Kristin Krause of Durham.
None other than Mark Twain, who was not a celebrated author at the time, wrote the breaking news story for the Sacramento Daily Union when one of the Hornet’s three longboats made it thousands of miles from the west coast of South America to Hawaii in June 1866. The Hornet had set sail around Cape Horn to San Francisco when the fire struck on May 3.
Mitchell made it back to Freeport, and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery alongside his wife, Susan.
Skold responded to a request from Holly Hurd, collections manager at the Freeport Historical Society, to turn the epic story of the Hornet into a play.
Skold said he gradually warmed up to the idea of writing his first full-length play – the 2006 Freeport High graduate wrote a one-act in his high school days – then really took to it, following a little research of his own.
“Then I got really excited about it,” he said. “We always do a musical in the fall. It seemed like the story would benefit from music. Music is such a powerful way of telling a story. It opens up personal monologue and allows a break from realism if you want.”
Vocalist Jesse Wakeman, high school music director and choral director at Colby College, wrote the score for the play. Wakeman and local musicians will provide the music, Skold said. The play will run approximately two hours, including an intermission.
Skold said it took him six to eight months to write “Letters at Sea: The Tale of the Ship Hornet.” He is still doing “little edits,” he said.
“I’m excited about the process with my students,” he said. “They are originating roles, and a set, and costumes. It’s a really interesting process for us. And the characters are real.”
Jordan Grotz, a senior, plays the lead role of Capt. Mitchell. Junior Julia Haldeman is the captain’s wife, Susan, and senior Simon Handelman plays a reporter named Samuel. There are 35 students in the cast, and 70 in the program.
Hurd recalled that, three summers ago, Krause came to Harrington House, home of the Freeport Historical Society, to find whatever information it had regarding Mitchell and his ship. Krause was working on her book for school-age children because she believed the story was captivating enough to hold young peoples’ attention, Hurd said.
Krause said in an email to the Tri-Town Weekly that her book, “Last Voyage of the Hornet,” is based on diaries kept by Mitchell.
“One-hundred fifty years ago, the clipper ship Hornet burned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” Krause said. “The Hornet was commanded by Freeport native Captain Josiah Mitchell. The crew abandoned ship, embarking on a lifeboat voyage that rivals the more famous stories of Captain.Bligh or the whale ship Essex. When they finally reach safety after 43 days, they meet a frustrated and despairing young reporter named Samuel Clemens. Clemens realizes that this is the big break he needs. His story is a sensation and he finds the fame he seeks as Mark Twain.”
Krause and Hurd were’t alone in her facsination with the Hornet and its crew.
“After helping her dig into the archives here, I became fascinated by the details of Mitchell’s life and story,” Hurd said. “Another lover of seafaring tales, Jack Whitacre, happened into Freeport Historical Society that summer and the three of us shared enthusiastic discussions of the epic story, which features a burning ship, starving men on a longboat, Mark Twain and survival against all odds. As an avowed fan of the stage, I thought the story would make a fantastic historical play that could be performed by a local theater group, a new venture for the historical society into the world of the bard.”
The three discussed the possibility of a play and “penned a few lines,” Hurd said. But soon Whitacre departed for graduate school in Boston and the project was shelved while Krause went on to pursue publishers for her book.
“Months later, Jack renewed our enthusiasm by sending a digital recording of a song he had written about Captain Josiah for our play,” Hurd said. “Kristin found a publisher for her book, and last summer we discussed how the following year, 2016, was the 150th anniversary of the Hornet’s demise. We must get our play going by the very next year.”
In Twain’s news account for the Sacramento Daily Union, he wrote that at 7 a.m. on May 3, 1866, the chief mate and two men started down into the hold to draw some “bright varnish” from a cask.
The Hornet was in a bit of a lull during calm winds, and Mitchell wanted his men to varnish the deck. He told one of the men to bring the cask on deck – “that it was dangerous to have it where it was, in the hold,” Twain wrote. “The mate, instead of obeying the order, proceeded to draw a can full of the varnish first. He had an ‘opening light’ in his hand, and the liquid took fire; the can was dropped, the officer in his consternation neglected to close the bung, and in a few seconds the fiery torrent had run in every direction, under bales of rope, cases of candles, barrels of kerosene, all sorts of freight, and tongues of flames were shooting upward through every aperture and crevice in the deck.”
As the ship was engulfed in flames, Mitchell ordered the three boats to be launched.
“Forty minutes after the fire alarm the provisions and passengers were on board the three boats, and they rowed away from the ship – and to some distance, too, for the heat was very great,” Twain continued. “Twenty minutes afterward, the two masts with their rigging and their broad sheets of canvas wreathed in flames, crashed into the sea.”
At first, the three boats were rigged together, but they became detached. Only the boat carrying Mitchell made it to land.
Mitchell returned to Freeport and a week later, his wife died. Mitchell died in 1876 – 10 years following the Hornet’s demise.
Simon Skold, drama director at Freeport High School, has written a play the play for the 150th anniversary of the burning and sinking of the clipper ship Hornet, skippered by Josiah Mitchell of Freeport. “Letters at Sea: The Tale of the Ship Hornet,” will be performed by the Freeport High School drama club at Freeport Performing Arts Center. Performances begin on Friday, Nov. 11, at 7 p.m.
Capt. Josiah Mitchell survived and was able to return to his home town of Freeport after his ship sank in 1866.
The Hornet burned and sank on May 3, 1866, in remote waters off the west coast of South America. Josiah Mitchell of Freeport, the captain, survived as his longboat made it to Hawaii a month later.
Cast members of the upcoming Freeport High School original musical, “Letters at Sea: The Tale of the Ship Hornet,” rehearse last week at the Freeport Performing Arts Center. From left are Henry Jaques and Jordan Grotz and in the background, Sierra Zahares and Julia Haldeman.
A CLOSER LOOK:
The musical “Letters at Sea: The Tale of the Ship Hornet,” will be performed by the Freeport High School drama club at Freeport Performing Arts Center. Performances are Friday, Nov. 11, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 13, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 5 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 19, at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 20, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 and $5 for students and seniors, and are available at the door or at http://our.show/lettersatsea.
“Music is such a powerful way of telling a story,” says Simon Skold.