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    Imagine a musical in which the hero lies trapped underground, howling and whimpering toward his imminent, macabre death. Writer and director Tina Landau did. The result is Floyd Collins, based on the real-life 1925 tragedy of a Kentucky spelunker who died 16 days after a boulder pinioned him 50 feet below ground. Landau’s Floyd Collins uses Collins’s ghoulish story to explore how a small community, and then a nation, callously recycled human misfortune into a hysterical commercial fable.

    Landau is quick to distinguish her version of the Collins episode from Billy Wilder’s 1951 film, The Big Carnival (originally titled Ace in the Hole). Where Wilder focused on how a mean-spirited alcoholic journalist (played by Kirk Douglas) exploited the man trapped underground to jump-start his own sputtering career, Floyd Collins begins with a psychological question: What drew the misanthropic 37-year-old into the labyrinthine passages where he would eventually be buried alive? That question, slippery as Carlsbads’ dank limestone walls, separates Floyd Collins, which premieres at Philadelphia’s American Music Theater Festival April 9-24, from Wilder’s sly, biting film.

    On the simplest level, Landau and composer Adam Rodgers Guettel agree that Collins slipped all alone into the earth’s cold belly one night in late January to search for a cavern that would make his family rich. “He was a mercenary,” says Guettel, explaining that, like many eastern Kentuckians who had deserted their farms, Collins scraped together a meager income guiding tourists through the crystal and gypsum flowers of the Mammoth Cave region. But Landau believes that if Collins lusted for lucre, he also craved the excitement of searching for the dazzlingly eerie chambers he knew were hidden just beyond every bend. “He was out to escape the dreary circumstances of his life, to see himself as something bigger,” she argues, suggesting that the restless bravado that pushed Collins under the earth’s crust night after night is a uniquely American force.

     

    Trapped between grief and hope 

    If Floyd Collins begins as a bold quest for subterranean beauty or a would-be rags-to-riches story, it soon derails. When a boulder falls on Collins’s leg, he lies trapped alive, not knowing whether he will live or die. As he flails between grief and hope, the press turns him into a tragic national symbol, a kind of Appalachian Saint; his gruesome plight becomes one of the most-read about items of its time, equal to the Lindburgh kidnapping and the Leopold and Loeb murder.

    Yet, as Landau points out, fame could not save the real Collins, and Floyd Collins follows the darkening arc of his final days. While intrepid, wiry, future Pulitzer Prize – winner Skeets Miller managed to writhe down the narrow tunnel to feed Collins (and get several interviews), he could not dislodge the man’s leg from beneath the boulder. When the tunnel caved in, the state troops were called. Unfamiliar with speleological (caving) techniques, the troops abandoned the tunnel and dug a shaft to Collins. By the time they reached him, he was dead.

    The sordid-but-true tale first piqued Landau’s interest when she stumbled across the phrase “Deathwatch Carnival,” a newspaper’s description of the small-time fair whose tents arose on top of the tunnel in which Collins lay. She was gripped by images of rural mountebanks selling overpriced, dime-sized hamburgers and cure-all sassafras elixirs while, in the earth below, a man shriveled hopelessly away. “Like all modern American tragedies, Floyd’s personal tragedy diminished in proportion to the number of people drawn to it,” she comments wryly, adding that this “feeding frenzy” is the flip side of the American Dream.

    Landau even detects an implicit connection between Collins’s mishap and AIDS. She compares Floyd’s bodily deterioration and his feverish, hallucinatory terror at his own encroaching death to the seesawing physical and emotional states of people with the disease. To her, the crowd’s craven indifference to Floyd’s suffering recalls the ways in which politicians have used AIDS as a political football.

    Trying to balance an individual’s spiritual pilgrimage toward death and society’s ultimate callousness toward human casualties, Floyd Collins whirls from the most intimate stories to the grandest ones, as if the proscenium arch were a camera alternating between fisheye and wide-angle lenses. An aria in which Collins sings about his love for caves gives way to an unsentimental portrait of the Collins family, whose incessant squabbling and drinking at the rescue site some locals blame for Floyd’s death. Fierce antipathy between the residents and the “outlanders,” big-city opportunists hoping to make a buck off Collins, cedes to a cynical, if hackneyed, picture of a newspaper industry that seduces ambitious journalists into disregarding the difference between myth and fact.

     

    Preferred caves to people 

    All of these close-ups and long-shots present a swirling tableau of American life, a postmodern Our Town. Yet if Landau has altered many aspects of Collins’s story to suit her vaguely Brechtian intentions, she has resisted adding female characters to Floyd’s shadowy world. “This is basically a man’s play,” she says, explaining that the women who populate Floyd Collins are the peripheral ones who peopled his life: his distant, deeply religious stepmother Miss Jane and his addled sister, Nellie, just released from an asylum.

    As Landau points out, Floyd ultimately preferred caves to either men or women. And because American mores have loosened in the 40-odd years that have passed since Wilder released The Big Carnival, Collins’s “ignominious” quirks are more acceptable. But where Floyd matched Landau’s dark view of the story, other characters needed to be simplified so that their self-interest would pop up like a punching bag. In real life, Floyd’s cherubic brother Homer, who probably logged in more hours on the rescue team than anybody, went on the vaudeville circuit shortly after Floyd’s death. Having spent everything on the excavation, Homer wanted to earn enough money to get Floyd’s body out of the cave and bury it. But in Landau’s telling, Homer uses Floyd’s story to boost his own nascent song-and-dance career. “With the pathos-laden ballad of Floyd Collins, which became the first million-selling hit, Homer brought Floyd to audiences hungry for titillation and violence,” Landau says. So long as it wasn’t on their front porches.

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