Peter Linebaugh, radical historian and introducer of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and Common Sense for the Revolutions! series writes about London, Thomas Paine and his experience of seeing Trevor Griffith’s play recently performed at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre A New World – A Life of Thomas Paine:
… A couple Fridays ago… A New World: A Life of Thomas Paine… was performed at the Globe, Trevor Griffith’s magnificent play. We walked across the Thames afterwards, across the Millennium Bridge, the footbridge that sways, to Mansion House and the Circle Line. St Paul’s Cathedral was lit up, the Globe behind us was still illuminated, the clouds parted to reveal a full moon, and light glittered on the river. No, the scene was not that to evoke the nation. Between the banks of the Thames we could point out, amid the bank buildings of the City, where the demos of 1999, 2001 took place (‘Take Over the City’) against privatization of England and the planet. Again, the buildings were the background to the demo last spring against the G-20. Already, the commons was a call.
I sit on an oak seat in the upper gallery, peering down at the yard and the groundlings, nursing their pints, sipping their coffee. Looking into the sky, an occasional star shines through the moving clouds, or a jet moves across the night sky, and a cold wind comes up. Has the theatrical illusion been broken?
How to challenge American theatre to produce Trevor Griffiths’ Tom Paine? Against the pious stuffiness of the John Adams mini-series let us have the lively, raucous debates that set him off to begin with – Tom Paine. I’d like a mainly Black cast for a production in Detroit, perhaps for next years World Social Forum. Why not a mixture of Arab and Hispanic, Afro Am, Korean, and Anglo in Pittsburgh? Wouldn’t it be great in New Orleans or Berkeley?
The production I saw was London theatre at its best. Here was the engineering of first-rate stage-craft. The stage was used, the trap door, the scaffolding, the balcony, the portable speakers-platform on wheels, the hanging yard arm with sails furled. A cast of twenty or more playing multiple parts. Music, too, songs and ballads. It was not didactic or preachey. Great wit, fast talk, superb acting. Common people rushing all over the yard shouting out slogans and thoughts from Common Sense. Fighting for American independence in England!
“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow.”
A theatre of ideas but the ideas are in the people, they don’t float apart. The ideas emerge with conflict. Now here is A New World and as usual America is stuck in the old, the old world of empire, the old world of tyranny, the old world of banks and commodities, money as the network of exploitation and oppression, the old world of diffidence and despair. A New World belongs to our times for the students in California protesting the cuts, for the students of Pittsburgh viciously attacked by the G-20 robocops, for the prisoners, the foreclosed, the homeless. It belongs in the U.S.A. I compare it to The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, the Peter Weiss play of 1968, as theatre for our times. Griffiths takes us to America, to the sea, to France, to England, and back to America. The little O has begun to embrace the planet.
Paine believed passionately, to quote Trevor Griffiths, “in the rights of men and women as equal citizens under the law based on constitutions they drew up for themselves rather than inherited from the class-ridden past….”
Read the full piece here.
Peter Linebaugh is a Professor of History at the University of Toledo, author of the acclaimed social history of crime and the death penalty in 18th-century England, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century, and co-author with Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic.