(To view a song list from the production see Related Resources to the right)
As prisoners of war languish behind bars, they sing “The St. James Infirmary Blues” to steel themselves for death. Guards periodically come in and drag prisoners away. With only two left, reality slips away as they get sucked into the story of the song:
Big Joe was the boxman for craps games with giant fists who oversaw King Jesse’s barroom/brothel/gambling-house until Jesse died of the plague. Jesse had been a powerful, immoral racketeer who used his own daughter—the beautiful, armless Rae—as collateral on bets. There was no risk of Jesse losing because Joe (who was and is in love with Rae) would pound his huge fists to ensure a favorable roll of the dice.
Once, Joe forgot to pound and lost, and Rae had to give herself to the gambler Stack-O-Lee. It was the beginning of her life as a prostitute. After Jesse’s death, Joe takes over the bar and gets rid of the gambling and prostitution—freeing Rae.
But Joe cannot protect Rae from contracting a plague that has reached pandemic proportions. The Doctor at St. James (followed by his cronies, the ever-hungry scavenger Rooks) purportedly has a cure, but it is expensive.
Joe resorts to playing craps to win the Doctor’s fee, but before he can pay, Rae offers her body to the Doctor in exchange for the medicine. Joe finds Rae dead on the operating table. He hunts down the fleeing Doctor, who admits that there is no cure and it was all a scam.
As Big Joe buries his love, the world of the song fades out and the jail cell reappears. Having gained courage from the story of “St. James Infirmary,” the remaining prisoner defiantly faces the guards who have come to execute him.
e-Luminations: The Unfortunates
This edited version is reprinted from OSF’s 2013 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.
“I heard my Baby Groan”
The 1918 Influenza Pandemic infected approximately 500 million people (a third of the world’s population) and killed 50 million, making it the worst epidemic in recorded history.
The first cases appeared on a military base in the American Midwest in March. World War I helped the virus travel the globe rapidly. Ordinarily, the flu is most dangerous for the very young and the very old, but, for unknown reasons, this strand was particularly deadly for people between 20 and 40 years old. During World War I, the U.S. military lost more soldiers to illness than to fighting.
Like other flu strains, the Spanish flu (as it was called due to early appearances in Spain) was extremely communicable and spread when a person coughed, sneezed or even talked. Initial symptoms were typical: aches and pains, sore throat, unproductive cough and, most common, a high fever. But the onset of these symptoms was swift and severe. People left home feeling fine only to be incapacitated in the street. It progressed quickly into advanced pneumonia, and patients suffocated as their lungs filled, sometimes within mere hours of infection.
Panic spread and daily life radically changed. Schools and businesses emptied. Telephone and mail services were interrupted and trash went uncollected. Undertakers ran out of coffins. As hospitals filled up, emergency clinics were set up in municipal buildings. Doctors and nurses often contracted the virus themselves. Their replacements were, at best, underqualified medical students.
To reduce transmission, communities restricted contact. Public institutions were closed and public gatherings were banned. In many places, the sick were quarantined either at home or in influenza wards of hospitals until their symptoms subsided. Many were never seen alive again.
There was no cure, and vaccines that were developed were ineffective. Treatments ranged from bed-rest and fresh air to aspirin and whiskey (causing a run on alcohol). Advertisements promoted wonder cures and folk healers offered magical protections. Ultimately, however, either the immune system was strong enough to fight, or it wasn’t. By summer 1919, everyone who had been infected had either died or developed immunity.