THEATRE: A New World

‘A New World: A Life of Thomas Paine’ by Trevor Griffiths, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London. September 2009

Reviewed by Thomas Gartrell | 25 September 2009

In 1791, Tom Paine began the Rights of Man – his defence of the ongoing French Revolution – with an address to George Washington, the first President of the newly founded United States of America. Paine presents him with “a defence of those Principles of Freedom which [Washington’s] exemplary Virtue [had] so eminently contributed to establish” in the American Revolution, praying “That the Rights of Man may become… universal… and that… the New World may regenerate the Old”.

Five years later, Paine wrote to the still incumbent Washington that: “the world will be puzzled as to whether you abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any”. This was no mere falling out; it reflected the great hopes Paine had held for the American Revolution and his disappointment when the universal principles it represented failed to become a reality.

A constant revolutionary, Thomas Paine – British-born corset maker, excise officer and short-time privateer – pamphleteered and served in both the American and French Revolutions, though he was nearly guillotined in France, outlawed in the UK, and ended his life reviled as an atheist in the US. Despite this, 200 years on from Paine’s death, Barack Obama chose to invoke Paine in his inaugural speech:

“Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

Yet in the UK today, Tom Paine is barely known. Now though, a play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is telling the story of his life. Written by Trevor Griffiths, the play comes to the stage 20 years after he was first commissioned by Richard Attenborough to write a film on the subject. Cut down to a 2 hour 45 minute play from a 4 hour 30 minute film script (the movie was never made), A New World takes us on a comprehensive romp through Paine’s life, starting with his emigration from England to Philadelphia in 1774.

The action is humorously narrated throughout by that other American Revolutionary Benjamin Franklin, an appropriate choice (notwithstanding his death half way through the proceedings – a fact amusingly acknowledged by the narrator), since it was Franklin’s letter of recommendation that effectively launched Paine’s political career in the New World.

However, although we follow Paine through the upheaval of two revolutions, seeing him succeed and fail in his struggle to influence their direction, and meet some great historical actors along the way (Jefferson, Danton, Burke), we leave the play surprisingly ignorant of the content of his arguments. True, the conditions that drove him to write Common Sense are effectively and dramatically conveyed through the announcement in Philadelphia that British troops have fired on a crowd in Lexington. Likewise, the consequences of Common Sense and the defiant mood depicted in Philadelphia, are stirringly communicated with a recitation from the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, which still have the power to send a shiver up the spine.

Nevertheless, Paine’s arguments are reduced to the “best bits” – famous quotations shouted out by ordinary citizens (members of the chorus positioned throughout the Globe’s standing audience). This is not to deride the technique – the quotes are inspiring (his arguments for a “welfare state” from Part 2 of the Rights of Man drew excited applause from an audience member) and that they are often spoken by ordinary people befits Paine’s widely read and eminently readable works. Indeed, this worked movingly when passages from the American Crisis were read by weary American soldiers, drawing strength from its words during a miserable winter of war.

The problem is that the quotes were not drawn into a more coherent and comprehensive statement of principle, but appeared as a series of (the phrase grates) “sound bites”. We are clear that Paine stands for freedom and equality, but what precisely these meant to him is not clearly expressed. This failing can, in part, be put down to the limitations of the Globe; open to the elements, the performance was disrupted by helicopters, music from the Mayor’s Thames Festival and, annoyingly, hand dryers from the theatre’s own toilets. Together these shattered some emotional moments and proved a problem when straining to hear quotes delivered from the theatre’s far side (and I was in the good seats!).

Paine’s arrival in France, in particular, suffered from external noise. An animated public speech from Danton was performed in French, with a translator to help both Paine (who refused to learn the language) and the audience. The scene was visually exciting, and the confusion of French spoken over English may have neatly reflected Paine’s confusion as an onlooker in a foreign revolution; frustratingly the translation was not audible, so a lot of context setting for the French Revolution could have been missed – a blow, since this dominated the second half. Beautiful though the Globe is, the play would have benefited from a closed modern theatre with good acoustics and sound insulation.

However, while the play fails to synthesise Paine’s ideas into a system that stands on its own terms, it certainly succeeds in communicating the historic magnitude of the events portrayed and showing where Paine stood in relation to them. This is most effectively demonstrated in its depiction of the relationship between Tom Paine and George Washington. As comrades and friends in the War of Independence, Paine produces theAmerican Crisis at Washington’s request, while Washington gives Paine his own coat for warmth. Later, when Paine expresses to Washington his fears that the real “crisis” may no longer be Britain, but the course of the revolution itself (as universal principles of liberty succumb to the freedom of a new elite) Washington falls asleep. Later, Paine – locked up in a French prison and threatened with the guillotine – feels Washington has abandoned him, so gives away his coat, saying that it has “outlived the friendship”.

This points to an important contradiction that emerged among supporters of the American Revolution, between the owners and traders (who stood to gain commercially from the removal of British restrictions on their activity) and radicals who sought to realise the full extent of Enlightenment principles. The emergence of this dichotomy is concisely illustrated when a Congressman accuses Paine of being unable to tell the difference between unprincipled greed and legitimately making a profit. As for Washington and Paine, their divergence could not be clearer. Washington was a slave owner in a country that claims “all men are created equal”. Paine’s funeral, in contrast, is accurately represented with only six attendees, two of whom are black – testament to Paine’s support for complete equality, and to just how unpopular such a principle made him in an economy dependent upon slavery.

New World is an excellent attempt at summarising an important life in a complex period. The result is inspiring, creating a clear sense of the historical events occurring and a general idea of where Paine’s political views stood in relation to his contemporaries. However, while the audience are treated to some inspiring quotations from Paine’s writings (these are some of the best parts of this production) the play could have benefited from further such content, as the existing quotations fail to gel into a comprehensive picture of the system Paine proposed. In part, the blame for this lies with the Globe as an inappropriate setting that prevented some content from being heard. Nevertheless, the audience must have emerged with a clearer and more nuanced view of what Tom Paine stood for, as it is his writings and the ideas expressed in them that made him the political actor he was.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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