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Review: A New World - A Life of Thomas Paine (Trevor Griffiths)

JM Thorn

12 September 2009

“A share in two revolutions is living to some purpose!”

Despite having its world premiere only last month, the new play by Trevor Griffiths - A New World – A Life Thomas Paine - has been a long time in development.  Twenty years ago, Griffiths (who is perhaps best known for the screenplay of Reds) was commissioned by director Richard Attenborough to write a film screenplay about the life of visionary English radical Thomas Paine.   It took Griffiths ten years to complete.  Though it never made into a film the screenplay These Are The Times was published in 2005. A New World is an adaption of this screenplay for the stage, and was written especially for its performance at Shakespeare’s Globe. 

The original script was to demand nearly six hours from its audience.  Though cut back the stage play still runs to three.  There is certainly a lot to pack in.  Thomas Paine was an active participant in two revolutions, a writer and political thinker whose influence spread across the Old and New Worlds.   His seminal works Commonsense and the Rights of Man, did much to popularise the most progressive ideas of his age.  He has been described as a “missioneay of world revolution”. 

A New World  adopts a chronological narrative, following Paine from his arrival in America in 1774 to his lonely funeral in New York City thirty five years later.  The play starts in the American colonies where resistance to British rule is on the rise.  Paine throws his lot in with the colonists against the British.  He takes a job with a radical a radical publisher, editing a journal and writing pamphlets supportive of the American cause though not yet advocating independence. We see how the revolt becomes more radical as pleas for rights are crushed by British troops sent in by the English king.  In these early stages the American Revolution is at its lowest ebb with Washington’s army suffering defeat after defeat and the population drifting away form the cause. This is brought home in a scene in which Paine meets Washington on the eve of a battle of Trenton and is asked to compose a rousing address to be read to the troops.  The speech, which is included in his American Crisis collection, opens with the famous though rarely attributed lines "these are the times that try men's souls".   In the same year, 1776, Paine published the pamphlet Commonsense which did so much to popularise the case for American independence. 

The character list bristles with American revolutionary heroes such Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.  But the play also exposes the existence of conservative forces within the pro-independence movement who sought to limit the potential of the revolution.  This is highlighted by an episode in the play in which Paine is censured for exposing profiteering by American merchants.  It is these conservative forces that came to dominate in the immediate post independence period. 

Restless and dissatisfied with the outcome of the American Revolution Paine returns to England, but is soon expelled for his political agitation.  He then goes to France where he ends up in the midst of another revolution.  It is Paine’s period in France that takes up the second half of A New World.   Here he comes across characters such Marat, Danton and Lafayette as he throws himself into revolutionary upheaval.  Despite being an American he is elected as a delegate to the National Convention and is seen participating in debates on how the revolution should proceed.   His greatest contribution to this is the publication of his Rights of Man – a response to Edmund Burke’s anti-revolutionary Reflections.  In one scene Paine and Burke argue over the rights and wrongs of the French revolution. 

Paine’s faith in revolution and humanity is undimmed as the French revolution degenerates towards dictatorship and he is imprisoned.  The play suggests that the US Government were happy enough to allow him to rot in prison.  It is only the intervention of Thomas Jefferson that brings about his release and return to the US.

Back in the US Paine is seen as a marginalised figure whose hopes for the revolution remain unrealised.  Despite his important role in the struggle for independence he has been written out of history.  This is brought home in a scene in which Paine and Jefferson survey a portrait of the revolutionary leaders only to discover that Paine is not among them.  His equalitarian ideals, opposition to slavery and attacks on religion have put him completely at odds with the new Republic.  The final indignity comes when he is turned away from a polling station because he is not considered to be an American.  However, Paine is defiant to the end, telling a minister who calls to see him when he is on his deathbed to “bugger off”. 

A New World employs the device of a narrator, in the form convivial Benjamin Franklin, to give context and explanation to the drama.  The dramatic flow is also aided by new songs by Stephen Warbeck in an attractive folk song style.  The venue of the Globe compliments the period setting of the play, its stage and yard accommodating well the many populated scenes.  The set design is a kind of work in progress with half-completed elements such as the balcony, and a wooden tower that hints at something being built.  A printing press emphasises the power of Paine’s words and a globe above the stage the reach and ambition of his ideas. 

The strength of director Dominic Dromgoole’s production is that it never loses sight of the individuals beneath historical events. John Light is outstanding as a dogged uncompromising Paine who never loses his faith in reason and the potential for revolution. And there is first-rate support from Keith Bartlett as the jovial narrator Benjamin Franklin, Jamie Parker as a laconic Jefferson and Alix Riemer as Paine's French translator, helpmate and lover, who stuck with him to the last.

In A New Wrold Griffiths shows the potential of ideas when they they are aligned to and put at the service of a relutionary movemnet.   There is a real sense of the  power of  words whenever Paine’s works are directly quoted in the play.  These instances really stand out.  If there is a critism of A New World it is that it tries to pack too much into a play.  At times this can a stultifying affect on the drama.  Also the second half of the play is noticeably weaker than the first, with many of the French characters coming over more as caricatures than real people. 

A New World is a timely production as Paine’s is a voice that speaks to our time as much as to his own.  His attacks on inequality and his championing of political rights in a society dominated by a wealthy elite that has monopolised political power in its own interests has an enduring relevance.  The play being performed at the Globe, just across the river from London’s financial district, really gives a visual emphasis to this.

A New World - A Life of Thomas Paine is on at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre until 9 October.



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