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LETTERS TO EDITOR
The General From America
Richard Nelson's The General From America, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and first performed in England, does not try to whitewash Arnold's treason. What the play does instead is to put it into the context of history, to show us why and how a man could be both patriot and turncoat, noble and brave yet eager for the good life -- and, just in case we don't already know, make us aware that our current politicians and business leaders don't hold an exclusive on self-serving behavior and easily shaken loyalties.
The play, which marks Nelson's return to historical subjects (as in Two Shakespearean Actors and Rip Van Winkle), after several seasons of focusing on more personal themes, catches up with Arnold in Philadelphia. His success in waging the Battle of Saratoga has been an important turning point in the Revolution and his mentor, George Washington, has rewarded him with an appointment Military Governor of that city. But the war, its outcome far from assured, has taken its toll of the economy and the psyche of the colonial citizenry, many of whom remained loyal to England throughout the war.
Arnold finds himself ensnared in the politics of a Congress that doesn't understand war and a frenzied society in which patriotic zealotry impinges on the very freedoms the Revolution is supposed to insure. Instead of being honored as a wounded hero (his leg was shattered by a bullet at Saratoga), Arnold is attacked by conservatives who find his rule too liberal and charge him on several counts of profiteering from the war. They also look with suspicion on his recent marriage to the young daughter of a Tory loyalist. But the worst is yet to come. George Washington, instead of defending him, gives in to political pressure, finds him guilty of two of the charges and transfers him to a lesser post at West Point. Fired up by the young wife with whom he is totally besotted, the general, like many a disgruntled employee, is thus primed to turn his coat inside out.
Despite an at times grating use of colloquial language Nelson and his actors do a good job in establishing the mood of the times and depicting the other players in the drama of Arnold's downfall. Like Arnold, they are all human and consequently imperfect. Washington (Jon DeVries) is seen as a man too weary to fight for principles. His young aide, Alexander Hamilton (Jesse Pennington) is well-meaning but not very helpful. Sir Henry Clinton (Nicholas Kepros), the head of the British Army, is a self-righteous aristocrat with a penchant for artistic young men -- one of whom, Major John Andre (Paul Anthony McGrane), takes advantage of the elder man's feelings for him to have himself, instead of a more experienced officer, handle the delicate business of Arnold's defection. Joseph Reed (Sean Cullen) is a Philadelphia government official who has no compunctions about curbing "an overflow of liberty" in the interests of his radicalism. But while it's easy to understand why Arnold was angry and disillusioned, his disgruntlement is insufficient cause to justify an action that, if successful, would have had such dire consequences.
Redgrave's Arnold is not as nasty a piece of work as the prison warden he so memorably portrayed in his last New York appearance in Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales. Don't, however, expect a lovable Old Jolyon, the character he so delightfully played in Public Television's latest Forsythe Saga. Most of the time he is all self delusion and swaggering pride about the battles he's fought and the young wife who makes him forget the pain in his leg. Arnold was actually only 38 and his wife about 18 (Yvonne Woods in a performance that unfortuantely matches her name). Redgrave's being considerably older puts a not always convincing new spin on the relationship, though there's an affecting moment when he clearly yearns to but dares not to embrace the wife who has been condemned to share his exile. The actor is at his best when he tones down the swagger as in the scene with Washington and, later, with the disdainful British commander.
The scenes with Washington and Clinton, well played by Jon DeVries and Nicholas Kepros, are the play's high points. The women, (Kate Kearney-Patch is Arnold's devoted sister) are the weak links in the cast and Nelson, who also directs, does little to make the domestic situation resonate.
Douglas Stein's simple, brown-hued set suits the often heard but not seen off stage action for which sound designer Scott Lehrer provides a constant babble of voices. The similarities between Nelson's General and Arthur Miller's The Crucible are most evident in the dark, candle-lit effect created by lighting designer James F. Ingalls which at times make you wish for a flashlight. This last is not to say that Benedict Arnold, even when given this fairly sympathetic interpretation, has the toweringl nobility of John Proctor or that Nelson's play has the enduring force of Miller's drama.
While the British didn't like Arnold any better than his own countrymen did, they did put a forgivingly inscribed plaque outside the London house where Benedict Arnold died in poverty and disgrace. It bears the legend "Major General Benedict Arnold, American Patriot" A more accurate description would have inserted a "misguided " before the last word.
LINKS TO OTHER RICHARD NELSON PLAY REVIEWS
Good NightChildren Everywhere
James Joyce's The Dead
Madame Melville. . .London production
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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