Sandra Seaton's 'A Bed Made in Heaven'; Family, Race, and Law in Nineteenth-Century America
Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. XLI, 2014
19 Pages Posted: 5 Jun 2014
Date Written: June 3, 2014
This essay seeks to enter into the imaginative understanding created by playwright Sandra Seaton in 'A Bed Made in Heaven', her play about Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the familial setting they shared with his children from his marriage with the deceased Martha Jefferson and Hemings’s blood relatives, especially her mother Elizabeth Hemings. Because Seaton creates a portrait of family connection, with foibles, outside pressures, and resentments, she allows a generous reading of Jefferson as a person. In her rendering, he is a man divided between deep loyalty to a family yet unwilling to defy the political force of public opinion. She presents his family debates, in which he asks family members to accept outside forces and insult as a given in their lives and to accept his split between his intimate racial ties and his public support for racist ideas and laws. The result is a generous reading of one family bond. The play does not offer a morally fraught, political and historical assessment of Jefferson as a bad or a good man. Rather, it traces the complex familial history of Americans living today in the legacy of unreadable connections across the pre-Civil War racial divide, many (most) made only of brutality, some of family compromise in a setting that implicates a member in injustice, and all clouded by the enslavement of women family members. Seaton strives to capture the family complexity in the close quarters of Monticello, a home crowded with memories, resentments, and clashing needs and pretensions.
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