JULIA ROBERTS GOAD
WELCH — A chapter in history that is regarded as a turning point in American labor relations will be dramatized for the 13th year when “Terror of the Tug” is presented at the Globe Theater in Welch.
The play, written by Jean Battlo, tells the story of the unionization of the Appalachian coal mines, which culminated with the deaths of Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield and his deputy Ed Chambers on the steps of the McDowell County courthouse.
Battlo is a native West Virginian, raised in McDowell County, and currently lives in Kimball. She graduated from Welch High School and holds Masters Degrees from Marshall University.
Although she began her writing career as a poet, Battlo has found success as a playwright. Her plays have been performed by professional, community, and college theatrical groups in several states.
Much of her work is based on her perspective as the daughter of a coal miner. Her parents, Tom and Maria Battlo (Battaglia) immigrated Reggio, Calabria, Italy.
When asked how she began writing plays she relates the reality of her community.
“I had published two books of poetry, so everyone knew me as a writer,” she said. “Some people in the area wanted to form a theatre group, but couldn’t afford to pay royalties to big publishers, so they asked me to write them some plays. I’d never written plays or even thought about writing plays until then.”
A similar request was the starting point for “Terror of the Tug.”
“I was requested to write it and then got a McArts commission to do so,” Battlo said.
Many of Battlo’s plays are set in small West Virginia towns, where her roots allow her insight into Appalachian culture.
“These people are not caricatures, not ‘mammy Yokums’, not hillbilly stereotypes,” she
emphasizes. “These are people I live with. They’re real. They watch CNN. They know what’s going on the world. They just haven’t lost touch with their roots.”
Calling herself a “bonafide historian,” Battlo said that background helps keep her historical fiction authentic.
“I have (history) degrees, and have written books on county history and write for “GOLDENSEAL” magazine, etc, so I research diligently (my favorite part actually),” she said. “I kept as close to historical fiction guidelines as possible; research with approximately 150 pages of notes, personal interviews and as much actual dialogue and action I could use without endangering the theatricality of the work. I look for the dramatic action and dialogue in the personality to create an engaging character.”
While her background made it somewhat easier to write “Terror of the Tug,” Battlo said she was conscious of avoiding projecting her own experiences into the play. While much has been written about the shootout at Matewan, it is usually the story of some heroic unionizers, with nothing from the standpoint of the coal company, or the Baldwin-Felts agents used by the companies. One device Battlo uses in the play is a “resurrection” scene, which enables the men who were killed in the Matewan Massacre get to tell their side of the story.
“The “resurrection” scene is one that gave me most pause,” Battlo said. “As a historian, I was especially guarded about the natural bias of being a daughter of a dearly beloved coal miner. The story has two sides: company and miner. From studying history I’ve learned to look at events with the Bob Dylan lyric, ‘You’re right from your side, and I’m right from mine.’ Concerned about how it would play, I decided that have the Matewan shootings told by the miners, we would “resurrect” the bodies lying on stage, have a company storyteller say, ‘That’s all lies; this is how it really happened.’ The bodies rise and the exact scene is repeated as Baldwin Felts told it.”
Another aspect of the play that provides authenticity to the people of the area is the music, written and performed by Alan “Cathead” Johnson, another McDowell County native. He plays the singing trubador who relates to the audiences the tale of the Sid Hatfield murder.
“I personally feel, and this is a little hard for a writer to admit, Alan Johnston’s music and character have doubled the quality of my play,” Battlo said. “Alan comes from the bone and marrow of the McDowellian mountains and his awesome entrance on stage instantly delineates the intent of the power of the people and the meaning of the mystique of coal mining.”
This year’s production of the Terror of the Tug will be September 7, 8, 14 and 15 at the McArts Amphitheatre in Welch by McArts Fine Arts Organization, Inc., a nonprofit organization established to foster arts, culture, education, and history in and for McDowell County.
For more information on the play, visit mcartswv.org.