Thursday, May 9, 2019

San Francisco and the Great War

Five years ago, I published Flower of Iowa, my World War I novel about two soldiers who fall in love on the Western Front in 1918. Since then, the success of the book has taken my husband, Chuck Muckle, and me on a journey far and wide. We have presented our dramatized reading from the novel — with Chuck performing songs made popular during the war — to appreciative audiences from Paris to London to Dublin, from Fort Lauderdale to Provincetown to Madison.

GLBT Historical Society Logo Square
This month, finally, the Flower of Iowa road show comes to America’s West Coast. On the date originally celebrated as Memorial Day, May 30, we bring our presentation to San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society Museum.

Tommy Flowers, the hero of my book, is a Midwesterner through and through, a native of central Iowa serving in the 33rd Division (originally an Illinois National Guard unit).  There can be a temptation to assume the American Expeditionary Force that went to France in 1918 was comprised overwhelmingly of young men from east of the Mississippi, or at least the Rockies. But by 1917, the year the U.S. declared war, California boasted the ninth largest population of any state in the union — more than three million — and sent more than 100,000 soldiers to the U.S. Army and Marines. The state’s WW1 Centennial Commission has an arresting logo that combines the California golden poppy with the blood-red poppy of the trenches featured on the cover of my novel.

Two American divisions in the Great War drew most of their men from the Golden State. One of them, the 91st, saw action in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which plays a pivotal part in Flower of Iowa. American forces attacked along a front of about 18 miles; appropriately enough, the “Wild West Division” advanced on the western edge of that front even as the 33rd, Tommy’s division, was gaining ground on the eastern end.

Clarkson Crane
Among the archives of the GLBT Historical Society Museum are the papers of one Clarkson Crane, a Chicago native who relocated with his family to the Sacramento area. He served as a driver in the U.S. Army Ambulance Corps, receiving the French Army’s Croix de Guerre. Upon discharge, Crane came home. (For gay military personnel and the Bay Area, this contrasts a great deal with the next war. As Allan Bérubé so ably depicted in Coming Out Under Fire, San Francisco became a gay epicenter after World War II, partly because it was the first place in the U.S. to which enormous numbers of servicemen and -women, their lives changed by the Pacific War, returned and, looking around to see like-minded souls, decided not to go home.)

In 1924, Clarkson Crane returned to France, becoming yet another expatriate in the Paris of the era made legendary by Gertrude Stein and her circle. There he wrote his first novel, The Western Shore, which daringly featured a main character who clearly was homosexual. Published in 1925, it failed to gain a wide audience.

The following year, Crane returned to San Francisco and met Clyde Evans, with whom he would spend the next 47 years. I was struck by the personal parallels in Crane’s story: An Illinois native, I, too, have published a novel with a gay character. And I, too, have spent more than 40 years with the love of my life. I can’t wait to pay my respects to this kindred spirit when we visit the Museum.

The Flower of Iowa dramatized reading with Great War music will take place at the GLBT Historical Society Museum, 4127 18th Street in San Francisco, on Thursday, May 30. Event begins at 7 p.m. Admission $5; free for Society members. For more info, visit

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

From Page to Stage: One Flower’s Transplant

“This feels like a play. You should make it a play.”

Ben Salus and Bradley Johnson Kiss by Joseph Arbo
Photo by Joseph Arbo.
That’s been the most oft-repeated comment from audience members over the past four-and-a-half years as the love of my life, Chuck Muckle, and I presented our dramatized reading of my WWI novel Flower of Iowa across America and in Europe. 

And now, incredibly, it’s happened.

It all started when I got an email in May from Gene Fisch, Jr., the director of the New York New Works Theatre Festival, where Chuck and I presented three productions in 2016 and 2017, making the semifinals both years. One of those works, my play In Love with the Arrow Collar Man, enjoyed a run at Theatre 80 in New York’s East Village in late 2017.

Lance Ringel and Gene Gene Frisch, Jr
Gene wanted to know if we had a 25-minute segment to submit to the 2018 Festival. Frankly, I was distracted by all that we were trying to do with Flower of Iowa in this final year of the Great War Centennial, notably securing a reading in Paris during the Gay Games. But then that persistent comment from appreciative audiences came back to me: This feels like a play. 

What if I adapted the saga of Tommy Flowers and David Pearson to the stage?

What transpired then, like the novel itself, is history. 

Gene loved the idea, and the festival panel accepted the play into competition. I adapted my own words, surprising myself with how easily I could take dialogue verbatim and compress the action of the novel’s first several chapters into a short play. Chuck, who knows the book almost as well as I do, stepped up to be the show’s director.

Ben Salus and Bradley Johnson by Joseph Arbo
Ben Salus (left) & Bradley Johnson (right).
Photo by Joseph Arbo.
But nothing could have prepared us for the two remarkable young actors we cast. These performers of consummate sensitivity and skill — Ben Salus as Tommy and Bradley Johnson as David — created what no production budget can buy: the ineffable chemistry that made audiences believe they were witnessing the sweetest of loves blossoming in the most nightmarish of circumstances. Their extraordinary acting was complemented by Chuck’s superb direction; he has an uncanny sense of creating spatial relationships on a bare stage.  

Reviewers noticed, too; Jeffery Lyle Segal wrote in Times Square Chronicles, “The dialogue was honest and real.  The two young actors, Ben Salus and Bradley Johnson, are both very touching under the subtle and tasteful direction of Chuck Muckle.”

Flower Of Iowa Program
Of course, this success didn’t happen overnight. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes work. This included a journey to the wonderful TDF Costume Collection at the Kaufman Astoria Studios — a piece of Old Hollywood in Queens — to find exactly the right field caps and puttees to establish WWI authenticity.  And there were inevitable disruptions. An opening night kerfuffle with projections led us to dispense with that element entirely at subsequent performances. But our team efforts ultimately paid off: Flower of Iowa (the play) made the finals of the 2018 New York New Works Theatre Festival, earning accolades through three rounds of performances.  

Now I find myself under pressure to write a full-length stage version of the novel! That would be an intriguing challenge — but it’s just one of several options going forward. 

One thing is for certain, though: now that Bradley and Ben have brought Davey and Tommy so exquisitely to life in a whole new medium, the Flower of Iowa story is far from over.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Bringing Flower of Iowa home

There’s a moment in my World War I novel Flower of Iowa when the title character, American soldier Tommy Flowers, returns to the front after a brief time in England. As familiar places and faces come into view, he reflects that being back in France feels oddly like coming home.  
Centre LGBT Paris-Île-de-France logo
On August 8, Flower of Iowa itself finally will be coming home. That’s the evening that Chuck Muckle and I bring our dramatized reading with period music to France for the first time. We will be performing at the Centre LGBT Paris-Île-de-France, a mere two hours’ drive from Rainneville, where Tommy and British soldier David Pearson first meet in the book’s opening chapter.

The timing of our event is remarkable: August 8, 1918, was dubbed "the black day of the German Army" by that nation’s Chief of Staff, Erich Ludendorff. 

Battle of Amiens

That’s because it marked the beginning of the Battle of Amiens, the offensive which broke through their long-held line – and in which both Tommy and David participate. How appropriate that we will be giving our presentation on the 100th anniversary of that fateful day.

Gay Games 10 square logo

The reading is also one of many cultural events scheduled to accompany Gay Games 10, which is bringing more than 10,000 participants from more than 70 countries to the French capital for nine days of competition in dozens of athletic events. 

Chuck and Lance Bronze Medalists
Chuck and I have our own history with the Gay Games; in 2006, we won bronze medals in Chicago, and in 2010, he won a silver medal in Cologne – medals in bowling, of all sports… but that’s another story! 

The celebration of the Gay Games, the centenary of the events of 1918, and the mere fact of being in France, creates a confluence for our reading that is simply extraordinary. There is something especially fitting about coming full circle to give our presentation in the nation that serves as the primary backdrop of the novel. And it is equally fitting that we are doing so in this, the final year of the Great War Centennial.

The reading at the Centre LGBT Paris-Île-de-France marks a culmination of a more than four-year journey. Our path has taken us from such far-flung points as Chicago, home of Tommy’s captain, Billy Sand, to London in David’s native England, and to Ireland in April of 2017, where we opened the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. What an amazing journey it continues to be!

Centre LGBT Paris-Île-de-France event logo
The Centre LGBT Paris-Île-de-France is located at 63, rue Beaubourg, close to the Centre Pompidou (Metro: Rambuteau or Arts et Métiers). The reading of  Flower of Iowa, with period music, will take place at 8:00 p.m. (20h00) on Wednesday, 8 August. Admission is free and the presentation is in English, although Lance is likely to interject a bit of French as well.

To download the novel Flower of Iowa, Iowa, click here.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Lingering echoes of a long-ago November

Greenfield Public Library Logo Square
Greenfield Public Library. Click to Visit.
As the observance of the Great War Centennial wheels around to another Veterans Day, I will be offering, with Chuck Muckle, a dramatized reading from my historical novel Flower of Iowa that also features WWI-era music at the Greenfield Public Library in Greenfield, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, November 1. Details are here; the event is free and open to all.

It is, as always, striking to look back at what happened 100 years ago, and discern how very much the First World War is still with us today. In this case, I would like to home in on three events that took place over the course of eight days a century ago.

On the 31st of October, 1917, the British began a surprise attack against Turkish defensive lines stretching between Gaza and Beersheba in southern Palestine, aided by a group of fighters led by one T. E. Lawrence — better known to us now as Lawrence of Arabia — who played a key role in the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Turks.

T. E. Lawrence
T. E. Lawrence — aka Lawrence of Arabia

Seven days later, the village of Passchendaele in Belgium was captured by Canadian troops, bringing to an end a months-long battle that had caused 500,000 casualties on both sides, with no significant gains for either.

On the other side of Europe, that same evening, the Bolsheviks overthrew the democratic Provisional Government that had been established in Russia after the fall of the Czar earlier in the year, and established a decidedly non-democratic Soviet government based on Marxism.

For the characters in Flower of Iowa, these three seemingly disparate events have profound effects. The British/Arab victories in the Middle East, and the decision of Soviet Russia to leave the war, mean that by the time the novel’s lead character, Tommy Flowers, arrives in France in 1918, Germany has been able to throw its full weight into a final offensive in an attempt to rout the Allies on the Western Front.  

Passchendaele 2
Tommy’s comrade, British soldier David Pearson, who has lost a brother at Passchendaele, is part of the stiff British resistance that has stalled that offensive, and Tommy is part of the American Army that helps to turn the tide in the Allies’ favor — exactly what the German High Command feared, and caused them to throw the dice on the aforementioned offensive in the first place.

By the same token, all three events continue to echo in our world today, where the unresolved aftershocks of the Arab drive for self-determination are still felt in Gaza and Palestine, and well beyond; where the horrific memory of Passchendaele continues to feed antiwar movements, especially in Europe; and where Vladimir Putin bases his every geopolitical move with the memory of both the Czar and the Bolsheviks ever fresh in his mind.


“Living history” may seem like a cliché, but we are indeed still living with the reverberations of the events of those fateful eight days a century ago.