By Andrew Hawcroft
THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW
Adapted from the story by Washington Irving
America. November 21st. 1919. With Europe still gathering itself together after The War To End All Wars, a young North Carolina serviceman and former teacher, Ichabod Crane, traumatized by his time in the artillery-bombarded, rain-drenched trenches of Belgium, walks the earthen Main Road into the tiny, isolated country village of Sleepy Hollow.
Nestled in a valley by the Hudson River in upstate New York, this farming community has been mostly overlooked by the war, and things go on there much as they ever have done. For better or worse.
They have recently constructed their own school house (before, the children went to school in the larger neighbouring Greensburgh, aka Tarry Town.) and the wealthiest farmer of the village, and acting Mayor (if such a close community needed one), Mr Baltus Van Tassel, has begged the funds from Greensburgh to pay for a schoolteacher.
Ichabod taught in New York City before volunteering to defend Europe in 1917 when America finally entered the war, but now this personable young man suffers what would be recognized today as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Eager to put the horrors of war behind him and return to teaching, Ichabod hopes the idyllic community will provide as much rest cure as employment.
Surprisingly, a cure, or at least the impetus to become cured of his shaken system, is provided by Ichabod’s encounter with the beautiful and kindly Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of Baltus and hard-working farm-hand herself. Her compassionate and humorous nature, coupled with her ethereal beauty has every single male of appropriate age (and the odd married man of inappropriate age) vying for her attentions. Yet, despite the tough nature of her life, she has always found solace in reading and her imagination, and the brutish local lads have never suited her for this reason. Happily for Ichabod, his own passion for reading (fuelled by no small desire to forget the horrors of his recent past) allows Katrina to consider giving him her heart above all the other competition.
Unfortunately, one of that competition, and easily the most brutish of those local lads, is one Abraham ‘Brom’ Van Brunt, (ostensibly) a knuckle-headed thug whose uncommon love for Katrina is realized as unnatural rage towards the arriving Ichabod, whose intellect and knowledge of books pushes Brom hopelessly into the shade of Katrina’s affections. So begins a quite one-sided war of intimidation, as Ichabod, too shaken from his military experiences to stand up for himself in any meaningful way, is subjected to the schoolyard-level tyranny of Brom.
Still, the affection between Ichabod and Katrina grows, and his trembling heart slowly becomes stilled and healed by her compassion and affection.
Unfortunately another element of fear comes to Ichabod’s attention, and no soothing words from Katrina are forthcoming.
He slowly discovers that Sleepy Hollow, even in the 20th century, is contaminated with an unquestioned belief in the supernatural, with one superstition holding a monstrous sway over the inhabitants.
It seems that once a year, on November 22nd, (ill-timed indeed is his arrival) a bizarre and troubling local ceremony is enacted. A lottery is held amongst the villagers, and the ‘winner’ (or more correctly, the loser) must, come the following night of the 23rd, enter the large stone crypt that stands alone in the middle of Raven Rock Woods on the western crest of the valley in which village sits. It is completely accepted and understood that this villager will never be seen again.
When an incredulous Ichabod demands details, Katrina confides in him the Curse of the Headless Horseman.
A mighty Hessian soldier, battered and damaged from Revolutionary war in the service of the British Empire, arrived in the village in 1779, riding a huge but equally beleaguered and injured black war horse he called Daredevil. Though of naturally fearsome appearance, he proved to be of noble spirit, offering some days of sufficient manual labour in return for food, shelter and stabling until his beloved horse was healed to continue their journey north along the Hudson.
However, on the third night of the unnamed Hessian’s stay, a local young woman was raped and thought dead when her body was found, although she somehow remained alive, needing many weeks of convalescence to return to consciousness. The only witness, the respected Father Hans Van Ripper, local priest of Sleepy Hollow for some fourteen years, claimed he saw the Hessian commit the atrocity. No villager doubted him, and ten stout farm hands were commissioned to capture the Hessian. Though four would die in the trying, the soldier was captured and sentenced to beheading in the village square, as was the custom. As added punishment, (as if beheading were not enough) his beloved horse Daredevil was slain before his eyes.
However, even as cheering villagers watched the executioner raise his axe above the heavily -bound figure, the Hessian proclaimed vengeance upon the village that wrongfully convicted him. His raging words and hateful manner silenced the cheering and wrought gasps of horror from the pale-faced onlookers.
The date of his beheading? November 23rd. 1779. AD.
So terrifying a figure had the Hessian been at his beheading, that even in death, the villagers feared him, and could not bury his headless corpse in their own local graveyard. Instead, they built him his own heavily-constructed crypt deep in Raven Rock Woods outside of the village. A place where no man enters unless he has the most compelling of reasons, and even then, never at night.
Then some weeks later, when the closely-watched, carefully-nursed young woman regained consciousness, she revealed that she been raped by Father Van Ripper, not the Hessian.
This shocking statement might have been put down to a disturbance of the mind, but that shortly after, other women of the village suddenly came forward to reveal that the ‘kindly’ priest had also made advances in them during private Bible lessons in the village church, claiming their ‘love’ was honouring God and this should be kept a secret. It seemed the priest’s confidence and sexual desires had only grown with time and indulgence, finally using the arrival of the fearsome soldier as a cover for his first forcible attack on a woman outside of the church.
They had beheaded an innocent man.
Though the Priest was banished (they could not bring themselves to behead a Priest) the village of Sleepy Hollow was never the same after. A terrible pall of doom seemed to permanently hang over it, and frequent omens of ill-fortune for their erroneous execution were seen.
And so it is written in the bleak thereafter history of Sleepy Hollow, as recorded in Cotton Mather’s History of Witchcraft: A New England Almanac, that a violent and ghastly headless spectre, riding a red-eyed steed that breathed fire, rode down from Raven Rock Woods on every anniversary of the Hessian’s death for the nine years following, to claim a head from a terrified population.
Following that ninth year, to prevent the wanton violence and randomness of the Horseman’s annual rampage, the concept of the Lottery was dreamed up, and has been faithfully adhered to every year since.
Although the Horseman has never been seen in all the days since, it cannot be denied that the selected villager does not return from the Horseman’s crypt.
This is the history of the Headless Horseman, and the lottery to which every villager must subscribe as it is told to an incredulous Ichabod by Katrina. He is too disturbed by far less supernatural horrors of late to pit any credence in such silliness, and the relationship of the young couple sours in a moment.
But the following day, it is Katrina’s name that is selected to be the willing sacrifice, and incredulous or not, Ichabod will have the opportunity to face his own personal demons when he decides to follow his beloved inside the cold stone crypt built deep inside Raven Rock Woods…
Ichabod Crane, former soldier turned schoolteacher, will literally go into Hell for his uncommon love of Katrina Van Tassel…
The production of THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW takes a ‘stylised-minimalism’ approach to the production, using only a single set (albeit it a highly technical one) and minimal props and scenery. It employs back-projected images and masterful use of lighting, sound, atmospherics and performances for its power.