In ancient Greek plays, the chorus would dance, sing, and interact with the actors who were on the stage. The chief character in George M. Cohan’s 1920 play The Tavern is a one-person chorus, in that ancient meaning.

Lest you think it is a reach too far to compare Cohan (whose formal education was paltry) with the origins of theatre in ancient Greece, consider what was written back in 1920. This is from a review published in Life magazine:

                There can no longer be any doubt that George M. Cohan is the greatest man in the world.

                Anyone who can write “The Tavern” and produce it as “The Tavern” is produced places

                himself automatically in the class with the gods who sit on Olympus and emit Jovian

                laughter at the tiny tots on earth.

For all of us in the audience at this Austin production by Different Stages Theatre, as well as the actors on stage, we are indeed “tiny tots on Earth” in the hands of Cohan. Actor Greg Ginther as the Vagabond (our one-person Chorus) traipses his way through Cohan’s dialogue with a deftness that is worthy of a Broadway production. His mannerisms, dancing, comedic sense of timing, and delivery of profound philosophy, is all quite masterful.

Among the philosophical education Cohan imparts is this line: “Death is but an awakening to find that life is but a dream.” Where, he asks in the play, did that come from? At least the first half of the sentence can be traced back to Confucius, 2500 years ago. In the context of The Tavern, we may wonder if what we are watching is but a dream. One line in the play has the Vagabond wish a lady “dream her dreams of vengeance sweet.”

The actors in the play try throughout to pin him down as to his identity. This he resolutely refuses to do. “I am a fugitive of my own thoughts. My starting point is my destination.” Confucian inscrutability, once again, but also more pertinently the trickster god of Greece, Hermes. He was the patron of thieves and robbers, the very crime the Vagabond was accused of in The Tavern.  

The play has a large ensemble cast, all of whom delivered a punch. Notable was the tavern keeper (played by Michael Lucas), his insipid son (played by Jack Baziuk), and Gov. Lamson (played with the appropriate gravitas by Ev Lunning). The Governor’s daughter (Annie Nicole Merritt) and her alarmingly foppish beau (Tucker Shepherd) are the main foils against which the Vagabond plays. His excessive flattery of her, and misplaced attacks upon him (largely caused by the ravings of a lunatic woman played to the hilt by Jessica Medina), become the prime plot in the second act. Both Merritt and Shepherd (currently a student at Texas State Univ.) are a sheer delight. Shepherd gets dumped out of a wheelbarrow twice, handling this indignity like a pro.

Incessant thunder (provided just to the right of the stage by Foley Sound expert Tyler Rouse and associates) provides the aural backdrop to the evening during which the play is set. If you can tune this out – and thereby achieve some semblance of a reflective state of mind – The Tavern can be seen as a rich tableaux upon which we see what Shakespeare discerned: “All the world’s a stage.”    

This heady mix of parody and burlesque is Highly recommended! Support the theatre in Austin, and see this soon!

The Tavern is on stage thru June 16, 2024. Location: Austin Scottish Rite Theatre, 207 W 18th St.

Visit the website for tickets:

Lead photo: The cast. At centre, with arm raised, is Michael Lucas. To his right is Greg Ginther, to his left Jack Baziuk.

Photo below: President Roosevelt presents Congressional Gold Medal to Cohan for the World War I song ‘Over There’ . Photo by Harris & Ewing, May 1940

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.