Rebel with a One-World Cause
Where were Howard Fast, Joe Adler, and Bob Rogerson when Mr. Nelson, my high-school history teacher and the wrestling team's coach, sidled up to the lectern to teach the American Revolution? That war, as I remember it, was a series of lively anecdotes about converting Boston Harbor into a giant cup of Earl Grey and Paul Revere burning the midnight oil. No one ever explained the knickers, powdered wigs, or the Continental Congress. In fact Mr. Nelson whipped through the Declaration of Independence, glossed over the Civil War, and hurried toward the really important stuff: Pearl Harbor and Vietnam. Watching GableStage's production of Howard Fast's Citizen Tom Paine reminded me how much better I might have understood those later lessons had I really comprehended the war that transformed a British colony into the United States of America.
Things your history teacher/wrestling coach may not have taught you: Slaves were openly bought and sold as early as 1774 and as far north as Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. At first many of our early political leaders did not consider themselves "American" but rather loyal subjects of England. Paine's pamphlet Common Sense supplied Thomas Jefferson with a basis for our Declaration of Independence, thus the firebrand pamphleteer was instrumental in America's defeat of the British. He used propaganda to garner the support of King Louis XVI of France and other leaders for the American cause yet later helped the French citizens fight their own revolution.
Fast's play, derived from his 1943 novel of the same title, depicts Paine's arrival in America from England, his involvement in the American and French revolutions, and his last, lonely days in New York. The first act follows him through his prerevolutionary activities (including the publishing of truly traitorous papers) in Philadelphia. The second half of the play deals with his time in France, including his imprisonment during the Reign of Terror and his meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte. Paine's return to England, where he was accused of sedition and had to flee to escape the gallows, is only alluded to at the beginning of the second act -- a smart decision on the playwright's part, as we have our hands full following him as things stand.
Upon arriving in America, Paine quickly developed a reputation as a rabble-rouser and political visionary. His pamphlet Common Sense ardently opposed slavery as well as any form of monarchy. And indeed the common people saw him as a freedom fighter, while the men in power viewed him as a threat. Throughout the play Paine matches wits with the likes of Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Napoleon. Walking out of the theater, more than one person sighed, "Well, we got our history lesson." In a sense every play is a history lesson because it takes place at a certain moment in time and consequently reflects a particular set of socioeconomic, political, and cultural circumstances. But Citizen Tom Paine feels especially historical. It's not every day you see Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson in knickers stomping across the same stage. The challenge of this production is to keep from turning the theater into a lectern or something reminiscent of an ABC Afterschool Special. The ultimate goal of a historical drama is to recapture the characters from a particular era and reveal them in a new light, not merely to approximate history. It is through not clever costuming and stage design but rather characterization that history is re-created. Although GableStage's production lacks subtlety and innovation in the former, it greatly succeeds in the latter.
Artistic director Joe Adler chose his Paine (Bob Rogerson) well, and that makes all the difference in this play's overall success. Rogerson's skill as an actor and Fast's thorough and compelling script together prevent Citizen Tom Paine from becoming a staged history lesson. The playwright incorporates the use of the aside throughout the play, and Rogerson has a talent for making good use of it. His Paine confides, explains, complains, and jokes with his audience. This prevents Paine from appearing as a detached, calcified historical figure.
Paine is neither gentleman nor intellectual. He is an outcast, a slovenly, flask-toting hothead. Fast has written the man as more than just a bit human, and Adler ably follows the script's lead, giving Rogerson a lot of latitude to have fun with this role. At one point a door on-stage didn't close properly; instead of ignoring it and moving on with his lines, the actor made a point of going back and slamming the door just as Paine would have done. This physicality keeps the audience from realizing and lamenting the fact that 90 percent of Rogerson's stage time is spent pontificating. With the same degree of professionalism and finesse, Rogerson played a tortured idealist from a different era in GableStage's Popcorn.
The asides also make economic use of time: They provide historical background without weaving details into the dialogue or making long digressions into monologues. Through his asides Rogerson makes the audience both accomplice and confidant. Early in the play, Paine stops beside a table of men talking, turns to the audience, and confides: "From the look of it, five men sitting around the table of one of the best coffeehouses in Philadelphia...." He then goes on to introduce the members of the Continental Congress, revealing their hypocritical ways and corrupt political ideals.
One warning about accents: Either do them almost perfectly or don't do them at all. The decision not to give Paine a British accent was a good one but would have been better made for all characters across the board. In his portrayal of Paine's first publisher, George Schiavone employs an accent that careens from Welsh- to Slavic-sounding. The play's second half, a fascinating portrayal of the French Revolution and Paine's reaction to it, is muddled by the clamor of French accents à la Pepe Le Pew. Paine's exchange with Napoleon (Greg Schroeder portrays a petulant and convincing little general) is an insightful one -- we can see the roots of Marxism, socialism, and totalitarianism in a single conversation -- but the second act doesn't carry as much weight as it could because of these faux accents. Ken Clement is engaging and compelling as Ben Franklin (it's no small task to play the man on the hundred-dollar bill without looking like a cartoon character) and German-born orator Anacharsis Clootz.
Unfortunately something seems unnatural about the rest of the supporting players, who appear to be playing out their parts in history instead of inhabiting their characters. Besides using unconvincing accents, the secondary characters don't receive much stage time. The music and costuming are so strictly adherent to the time period that these brief appearances feel almost like cameos and distract the audience from what's really happening. Knickers, powdered wigs, white stockings, and buckled shoes accompanied by the sounds of snare drums and cannons being fired overshadow the dramatic presence of these actors, turning them into stereotypes. Paine's character is so big that, despite the play's cast of ten, this sometimes seems like a one-man show. It would have been interesting to see the characters dressed in subtler garb (and accompanied by music that would create an intriguing contrast) so their personas might emerge and carry a little more of the dramatic energy.
Ultimately Citizen Tom Paine succeeds in making the juxtaposition of Philadelphia in 1774 and South Florida in 2001 a real and necessary one. At the beginning of the performance I attended, Adler took special care to emphasize the importance of putting on this production. Having now seen the play and done a little research on Fast, I understand why. Like Paine, novelist and playwright Howard Fast has been condemned for his outspoken opinions. In the '40s officials tried to ban Citizen Tom Paine from New York City public school libraries. Fast was barred from speaking engagements and denied a passport to travel outside the United States -- all as a result of his membership in an antifascist committee and the subsequent communist witch-hunt that landed him in prison for three months.
History not only repeats itself; it relocates itself. We do not have to wait 300 years to see three different renegades cross paths on one stage: Paine, Fast, and Adler, who was one of the first and most vehement voices to stand up against Miami-Dade County's Cuba ordinance, which prohibited the use of county funds or facilities to present Cuban artists and their affiliates.
Ironically the radical Paine, who has all but been erased from American history, seems to be making a comeback. Jon Katz of Wired magazine claims: "Thomas Paine was one of the first journalists to use media as a weapon against the entrenched power structure. He should be resurrected as the moral father of the Internet." He goes on to point out that the Internet offers what Paine fought for: "a vast, diverse, passionate, global means of transmitting ideas and opening minds." I would add that this "rebel-rouser" from the 1700s, a corset-maker's son, was the first to conceive of what today is called globalization. When Paine proclaimed, "I am a citizen of the world; the world is my village," it was not just a Walt Whitman-esque poetic emotion; the statement revealed the core of his democratic beliefs, which almost cost him his life on more than one occasion.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the South Florida art and theater scene.