It’s fashionable for ultra-left types to condemn all of America’s founding fathers as slave owners. While it’s certainly sad and all too true that Jefferson and Washington owned slaves who worked the land at their Monticello and Mt. Vernon plantations, not all of the American Revolution’s founders were slavers. Today’s revisionists shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as Ian Ruskin reminds us in his one-man show about one revolutionary who definitely never ever had slaves.
Ruskin is the producer/writer/actor of To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine, a superb intro to and history lesson about the 1776 radical who not only did not own other human beings, but rarely ever had a cent to his name. Although Paine penned runaway bestsellers, he gave up the literary rights to his books like Common Sense and The Rights of Man to make them accessible to the wide masses of readers, in order to spread the gospel of world revolution in the 18th century.
This 90-minute or so one acter is preceded by projections of images relating to Paine, including a succession of political cartoons which mercilessly mock and demean the man who stood up for the common man — and woman — be he/she white/Black/red/brown. These vicious visual lampoons of Paine reminded me of something Chairman Mao said in 1939: “It is good if we are attacked by the enemy, since it proves that we have drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves. It is still better if the enemy attacks us wildly and paints us as utterly black and without a single virtue; it demonstrates that we have not only drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves but achieved a great deal in our work.” Judging by these caricatures Paine earned the eternal enmity of the ruling classes by being the endless, tireless champion of ordinary people and of our rights.
After the projections Ruskin takes to the stage with its sparse set in period costume and wig and proceeds to tell us, largely in Paine’s own words, the life story and philosophy of one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment, who dared say: “My mind is my own church.” Paine’s historical trajectory was improbable, as he went from being a British-born corset maker to a professional revolutionary in the then American colonies and France, where — as George-Jacques Danton put it before he was guillotined — Saturn was devouring its own children, and Paine, the man of the people, faced losing his own head. After his misadventures in France Paine returned to a post-colonial America which had tilted rightwards and had little use for the individual who — more than almost any other single person — was responsible for rallying the rabble to defeat King George and his hefty hordes of Hessians and Brits.
The bioplay, expertly acted by Ruskin, reveals that Paine was a sort of Trotsky of the American Revolution — the world revolutionary who wound up as a prophet outcast. I remember as a teenager that my friend Carlos lived in New Rochelle across from Paine’s final home, which is now a sort of shrine to the author of our liberty. Spurned by the America he helped create — Washington turned his back on his old comrade-in-arms — much of Paine’s later writings went up in flames, and we are all impoverished by the loss of the wit and wisdom those parchments must have contained (too bad he didn’t have backup discs or a flash drive).
But theatergoers are enriched by Ruskin’s reminder and portrayal of the man who put pen to paper and wrote The Age of Reason, and strove mightily to put theory into practice, across two continents. A thoroughgoing internationalist and deist, Paine said: “The world is my country, All mankind are my brethren and to good is my religion.” This bioplay serves to remind us that the ultra-left dismissal of and disdain for the American Revolution is unfounded. With all its flaws, 1776 was to an era dominated by monarchy what the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was to the 20th century. When the British troops surrendered at Yorkstown in 1781 the Redcoats’ band presciently played a tune quite appropriately called: “The World Turned Upside Down.” The 18th century knew how really revolutionary the American Revolution really was, and the Left should not allow bogus “Tea Party” types to co-opt one of the world’s most successful — if incomplete — revolutions ever.
Ruskin attended London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and his depiction of Paine — the man, the dissident, the dreamer — is just the latest in the ongoing theatrical trend of socially conscious plays. As July 4 approaches The Life of Thomas Paine is the perfect play to see. It’s just common sense that one of my next visits to the theater will be to see Ruskin’s portrayal of the great ILWU labor leader Harry Bridges, From Wharf Rats to Lord of the Docks, a one-man show he is also presenting. Ruskin’s bioplays remind us that revolution is, after all, as American as apple pie.
To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine is being performed Friday May 31 and Saturday June 1 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 2 at 3 p.m. at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood (one block west of Vine and just south of Santa Monica Blvd.)
The bioplay moves to the Electric Lodge on Friday, June 21 at 8 p.m. ($50. includes reception); Saturday, June 22 at 8 p.m.; Sunday June 23 at 7 p.m. “Pay-What-You- Can”; Friday, June 28 and Saturday, June 29 at 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday, June 30 at 3:00 p.m. at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice 90291. For info, go here.
Photo: Thomas Paine Productions
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