Birth of a nation
Corinna Lotz reviews We The People at the Globe
What a challenge Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, has undertaken! We The People is unashamedly political and cerebral at a time when fast-food theatre and musicals dominate the West End. Specially commissioned by The Globe, the play is set at a crucial time in May 1787 when 55 men came together in Philadelphia to draft a constitution.
Up until then, the fledging American republic had been governed by the Articles of Confederation, drawn up in the midst of the war against Great Britain, which ended in victory in 1783. The aftermath of the Revolution posed new problems, which the Articles could not resolve. The Philadelphia Convention became part of the birth pangs of the new United States of America.
Schlosser, who based his play almost entirely on primary sources, does not idealise the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution. Nor does he depict them as merely as a slave-owning elite. He strives to show them warts and all - real people slogging away in a hot, airless room, struggling with an almost impossible task.
Staunch republican James Madison has persuaded George Washington to join an equally reluctant elite of property owners and merchants to make the journey from their estates to meet in Philadelphia. Their task? To replace the Articles of Confederation with a more developed and more powerful central state. The delegates closeted together between May and November of 1787 were under the compelling pressure of a crisis faced by the young republic. War hero-turned rebel Daniel Shays and his fellow Massachusetts farmers had taken up arms against the courts who were foreclosing on them and jailing debtors, opening up class divisions which had been put aside during the war of independence.
Shays’ rebellion, which was put down by a private militia, revealed the vulnerability of the republic, only four years after it defeated the British armies. As one revolutionary journalist, Felix Morrow, was to write much later, this was indeed a defining moment with the possibility of a new tyranny in the making, this time against the people who had helped make the revolution:
“… when event after event showed merchant and planter that only a decisive transformation of the situation would insure their domination, there was talk among them of a military dictatorship, if necessary”. *
Aware that the convening of the Convention is designed to overthrow the democracy enshrined in the Articles, one character says ironically: “George Washington makes the illegal [coup d’etat] sound like a noble act.”
Some of the constitutionalists fear and despise the rule of the people even more than they fear the return of autocracy. The people “should have as little to do with government as possible and they are a danger to democracy”, is the predominant view. “Evil arises from turbulence and the danger of democracy,” says one of the two Virginian delegates, Edmund Randolph. “How thoroughly,” Morrow was to note, “did the Convention extirpate the democratic conquests won by the masses in the Revolution!”
A dozen or so men in a closed room waiting for enough delegates to arrive so they can have a quorum or discussing the intricacies of political representation, could be a formula for boredom. And as one founding father grumbles: “There is nothing joyous about reading the draft report of a committee!” And yet Charlotte Westenra’s direction manages to keep tensions flowing. It’s not always gripping, but nearly always intriguing.
Debate and differences frequently end up in stalemate, with the voting equally balanced. There are sharp differences between those who are opposed to slavery and those in favour. In the argument over slavery one delegate asks: “Can slaves be included? Are they men or property? Are they an unusual form of property?” A freed man, Absalom Jones, pleads in vain with Benjamin Franklin for an end to slavery. The conflict between the slave-owners of the south and the states of the north presages the Civil War to come in the following century.
In the end, the real drama is about how history is truly made – not by individual heroes but by flawed people acting under circumstances which have their own inexorable logic and power.
Whilst providing the framework for the nascent capitalist state of America, with no rights for blacks, Native American Indians or women, the Constitutionalists created the first republic, which was based on the principle of democratic representation, substituting popular authority for that of God or monarch. In the words of English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke:
“There are no instances to be found in [hi]story of a company of men independent and equal amongst another, that met together and in this way began and set up a government.”
The pleasure of this production lies in the detail of its words and its large cast ensemble acting. At times the pace falters and the cut and thrust of argument could be more sharply articulated. But when it finally comes to the candle-lit signing of the Constitution, with the slaves silently looking on, there is a moment of true drama. The low-key slave songs performed by Griot musicians lend a subtle poignancy throughout.
Schlosser wrote We The People especially for Shakespeare’s Globe, which this year celebrates the 10th year of its reincarnation. If for no other reason, it is worth going to the Globe to see a play that takes us straight to the original function of this jewel of a theatre in its spectacular location.
10 September 2007