Place: New Hope Valley, Tennessee
is a summer night, and the people of New Hope Valley have gathered
for a square dance. Susannah Polk, who is prettier than the other
girls, is obviously the center of attention. The Church Elders
are attracted to Susannah while their wives discuss the new preacher,
Olin Blitch, whom they expect to arrive in the morning. The wives
turn their attention to Susannah, and voice their disapproval
of her pretty face, her dress, and her manner. The dancing comes
to a stop when Blitch arrives. He eventually joins the dancing
and dances with Susannah.
that evening, Susannah returns to the Polk farmhouse, followed
by simple-minded Little Bat McLean. He adores Susannah, but he
is afraid of her brother Sam. As Susannah sings of the beauty
of the night, Sam returns home. Little Bat runs off at the sight
of him, while Susannah tells Sam about the dance.
following morning, as the four Elders search for an appropriate
spot for a baptismal pool, they come upon Susannah bathing naked
in the creek. They freeze in shock and outrage, and return to
town, proclaiming her wrongdoing.
evening, there is a picnic supper at the church. The entire town
condemns Susannah's actions at the creek. Susannah enters quietly
and is stunned when no one will speak to her. The Elder McLean
informs her that she is not welcome, and Susannah retreats in
when Susannah is back at the Polk house, Little Bat enters. He
tells her that the Elders have spread the word that they saw her
bathing naked in the creek, and they intend to run her out of
the church and maybe even the valley. Susannah, who has always
bathed there, cannot understand what she did wrong, but Little
Bat also reveals that the Elders forced him to "confess"
that he had been involved with her. Incensed by his lie, she angrily
sends him away. Susannah notices that Sam has appeared and has
heard the whole story. He tries to calm her by explaining away
what has happened, but Susannah is unable to understand, and bursts
following Friday morning, Sam informs his sister what the community
wants: a public confession. She replies she has nothing to confess,
though she is beginning to wonder whether maybe the devil is tempting
her somehow, without her knowledge. The creek is now being used
for baptisms, and Blitch has asked her to come to a prayer meeting
that evening; Sam thinks she should go to show that she is not
afraid, but she feels unable to face public contempt. Sam says
he has to empty his traps on the other side of the mountain but
will be back the next day, and tells her he will feel better if
she is with the community.
evening Susannah attends the New Hope Church prayer meeting, sitting
alone on the last bench. The Reverend Blitch preaches a terrifying
sermon. The choir sings, and above the voices, Blitch urges all
sinners to come forward. After a number of people go up to him,
he stops the singing and speaks of the one sinner who has not
approached him. The congregation turns and stares at Susannah.
Blitch concentrates his attention on her and she slowly moves
forward, transfixed. As she comes to a stop before him, he smiles
triumphantly. The spell breaks, and Susannah rushes from the church,
refusing to "repent."
hour later, at the Polk farm, Susannah recalls a folk-like song
her mother taught her that reflects her loneliness and sorrow.
Blitch arrives, and tells Susannah that he has come to talk about
her soul. He tries to convince her to repent. As he is leaving,
however, he turns back to Susannah and lets her know he is interested
in more than just her soul.
next morning at the church, Blitch prays, begging for forgiveness
of his sin against God and Susannah. She enters, along with the
Elders, their wives and the other town folk. Blitch has called
them, he explains, to right a wrong. He proclaims Susannah's innocence
and asks them all to forgive her. The Elder McLean stubbornly
demands to know why Blitch has had a change of heart. Blitch responds
that the Lord spoke to him in prayer, but the Elders reject this.
Blitch pleads with Susannah that he has tried to make amends,
and asks for her forgiveness. She responds that she no longer
knows what that word means.
Sam returns home, he learns of Blitch's actions with his sister.
Enraged, he kills the preacher at the baptismal pool. Susannah
hears the shot and realizes what has happened even before Little
Bat rushes in with the news. Laughing at their attempts to make
her feel guilty, she takes a gun and orders them off the property.
Undefeated, they retreat, leaving Susannah a lonely, embittered
Florida State University; Tallahassee, Florida; February 24, 1955
a musical drama in two acts with music and text written by Floyd
in 1955, is an Americanized version of the "Susanna and the
Elders" story from the Book of Daniel in the Apocrypha. Susannah
is one of the most frequently presented American operas, ranked
second only to Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.
opera is a beautiful, melodic, American folk-type opera, yet still
frighteningly relevant today. Susannah is not about McCarthyism,
but it is certainly a metaphor for the paranoia of the mid-'50s,
as one cannot help note the parallels between the story and the
particular time in American history when it was written. It is
all about mountain valley intolerance. The opera depends greatly
on word, action, and dramatic intensity with American dances and
revival hymns. It skillfully imitates Appalachian square dances
and folk songs. Susannah combines poetry and music in a way that
brings seemingly unremarkable characters to life, showing the
depth and passions of human emotions and the tragedy of human
weaknesses, real and perceived.
to the book of Susanna in the Apocrypha, Susanna and the prophet
Daniel were among the Jewish exiles living in Babylon. Because
Susanna rebuffed two elders with dishonorable intentions, they
accused her of sinful behavior, and she was condemned to death.
Upon being led to her execution, Susanna prayed to the Lord for
help. The boy Daniel came to her defense by asking each elder
separately under which tree they had witnessed Susanna's sin.
Their contradictory evidence convinced the community of Susanna's
innocence, and the elders were sentenced to the very death they
had planned for Susanna. Everyone rejoiced for Susanna "because
nothing shameful was found in her" and from then on Daniel
had a great reputation among the people.