When David Cromwell appeared in "Custer" at the Kennedy Center in 1976, he, like others, was dissatisfied with the "ghostly survey" but intrigued by its possibilities. The play needed a cohesion, he felt: it needed to be fixed in a time and place, and the characters should be either alive or dead but not both. He was attracted by one fact -- that Custer's wife, Elizabeth, was a star of the Chautauqua circuit, spending the years until her death in 1933 (at age 94) in an effective propaganda effort aimed at making Gen. George Custer into a wronged hero. She wrote three books about him as well. "This husband was worth more dead than alive," Cromwell noted wryly.

He set about doing research in the National Archives, going through all the adjutant general's reports for two years after the battle of Little Big Horn. In the New York Public Library he found a map depicting the battle in chronological terms, and at the Library of Congress he found many of the books on the subject. After all that, he concluded that nobody will ever know what really happened -- whether Custer was betrayed by his lieutenants, who failed to rescue him at a crucial moment, or whether he was himself responsible for the deaths that day.

With considerable poetic license, Cromwell and playwright Robert Ingham, who teaches at the University of Virginia, came up with a new adaptation of "Custer," now playing at the Round House Theatre, incorporating the Chautauqua concept and set in 1896 with appropriate contemporary references. The critics have not been wholly enthusiastic, but Cromwell believes the new version is stageworthy. As for Ingham, he's hard at work in an entirely different era. His new play is called simply "The Civil War."