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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #186: The Courier

Is that you I'm hearin' in the tall grass nearby?

1776 has always been my favorite stage production. Stone and Edwards did a masterful job in adapting the epic story of how the rare confluence of political courage and popular will resulted in a nation that has never stopped being great. There is so much historical accuracy in the show that I even used it while teaching US history to 8th graders. Events are condensed, simplified, and at times shuffled in sequence, but the bones of the tale are there, presented with memorable songs and stirring acting. My favorite is of course the discontent and visionary John Adams, but like almost all of the characters in 1776, he's not fictional (even if he is an amalgam of John and his cousin Sam). So I turn instead to a fictional participant in this true story: the courier.

The courier is not on screen much, but his involvement leads to two of the most affecting moments of the play. A dusty young soldier in the Continental Army, his role is to bring dispatches from General Washington back to Congress. These dispatches are, almost without fail, gloomy reports of a fighting force about to dissolve, outgunned, outclassed, overmatched. And yet in his longest sustained scene, the courier (who is never named) performs the harrowing song "Hey Momma, Look Sharp". The courier's youthful enthusiasm melts into a tremulous narrative of the Battle of Lexington and the aftermath, during which a mother seeks for her mortally wounded son. It is a sharp and lasting reminder of the human cost of the freedom we cherish.

The second scene involving the courier is my favorite. He enters a nearly deserted Congress as the drive for independence looks as ragged and destined for defeat as Washington's army. He encounters a despairing John Adams, who seizes the dispatch from the young soldier (his constituent, by the way, from "Massachuset") and brings it to Charles Thomson, the Congressional secretary. Thomson sings the dispatch, in which Washington practically begs for help from a timid Congress. Thomson leaves Adams alone in the chamber, where he sings the great song "Is Anybody There". It is a fierce, defiant anthem that pledges allegiance to the cause of liberty, predicting that future generations would celebrate their independence with fireworks, with pageant and pomp and parade.

John Adams saw Americans, all Americans, free forevermore. He and his fellow Congressmen fought for that in suits, with pens, while the courier and his comrades fought for it in uniforms, with muskets. America requires the patriotic fervor and shared devotion of both soldiers and statesmen. I've met many of the finest examples of both in my travels. The greatness is still in us, if we know where to look.

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