Noteworthy

History as Theater

Joyce Antler and Elinor Fuchs, February 2009

Thirty-five years after its publication by Houghton Mifflin and nearly thirty after its theatrical debut, Year One of the Empire, a documentary drama about the “splendid” little war with Spain in 1898 and the horrific Philippine-American War that followed, was summoned back to performance by the war in Iraq. In March 2008 it had its New York City premiere at the Metropolitan Playhouse in Manhattan’s East Village. It was also given an “all-star” reading at the New York Theatre Workshop in September 2008. The play chronicles the moment when America literally became an empire and the “American Century” began. After the war with Spain, the United States annexed the Philippine Islands. The military conflict that followed cost the lives of more than four thousand American soldiers and 50,000 Filipino combatants. Upwards of 250,000 Filipino civilians died from war-related disease and famine, according to official estimates. The anti-imperialists who opposed annexation pointed to another kind of loss: America had “thrown away its ancient principles,” as William James put it, “and joined the common pack of wolves.”

Year One of the Empire was first performed at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles in 1980, where it won the Drama-Logue Critics’ award for Outstanding Achievement in Theatre for Playwriting. The 2008 Metropolitan Playhouse production also garnered accolades: The New York Times described it as “enlightening, entertaining … engrossing.” NewYorkTheater.com called it “the best kind of documentary theatre, keeping us compelled and engaged throughout and providing lots of food for thought for afterwards.” In this essay, the authors describe their reasons for writing Year One of the Empire and explain why they chose to create a documentary drama rather than a historical narrative. The essay includes comments from Metropolitan actors and director Alex Roe, who offer reflections about the roles they performed, historical drama, and the politics of history.

Year One of the Empire came out of our discovery of a little-known chapter in American history, the three-year war fought by the United States in the Philippine Islands from 1899 to 1902. We were not yet the theater scholar and historian we later became, but were young Americans living through the anguish of Vietnam. We hoped that history would help us understand the national dilemmas of that time, and we saw theater, with its immediacy, colliding perspectives, and communality, as the medium that could best express that understanding. The more we read about the Philippine “insurrection,” the more we realized that Vietnam was not unique in American history, and the startling similarities between the conflicts in the Philippines and in Vietnam (and appallingly, in Iraq as well) became apparent: the difficulty of fighting a war in a terrain alien to our own; the confusion of confronting an enemy that could melt into the general populace; the frustration of capturing a town only to see it return to hostile forces as soon as we withdrew; the official assurances of speedy victory followed by additional troop deployments; a revolving door of military leaders and tactics with little improvement on the ground; the devastation wreaked on the civilian population; and, perhaps most shamefully, the resort to a policy of torture, and in eerie parallel, to water torture, by our own military as the bewildering resistance dragged on.

We decided to make this first American war of the 20th century the subject of our play.

It was a turning point in modern American history that has to this day not significantly impressed itself on the wider American consciousness. Theater seemed to us an ideal medium in which to cultivate a public witnessing about such a shaping event. American theater tends on the whole to be a theater of private enterprise: its economic base and its prevailing subjects have a common identity. But with this play we imagined a theater that could use the simple commonality of attending a play, of being an audience, as a platform from which to take account of our shared history and present concerns as Americans.

In 1967, when we began our research, there was little published material about the Philippine-American war. Our research for Year One took the better part of the next four years, and took us to scores of archives and libraries. From the array of materials that we unearthed—most of them primary sources—the story of a national crisis of conscience emerged, not unlike our own in the midst of the Vietnam War. The February 1900 editorial in The Nation from which we took our title attested to the distress felt by many Americans at the dawn of the new century. After a year of war in the Philippines, with no end in sight, the editors said, America could show only a “terrible array of disasters.”

Our theatrical text is culled directly from press reports, U.S. Senate debates and hearings, war department dispatches, court-martial transcripts, personal correspondence, autobiographies, popular humor, army marching songs, political pamphlets, and much more. Our writing consisted of a kind of “film editing,” in which we sought attractions, collisions, and counterpoint among our many hundreds of pages of historical notes. The language of the play consists of documentary fragments taken from their immediate contexts and woven together to make a dramatic narrative. In some cases we created dramatic settings for these quotations—for instance, an exchange of letters between the police commissioner (and later Rough Rider, governor, and vice presidential nominee) Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge might become a face-to-face dialogue. The published version of the play included 30 pages of “Notes and Sources” elucidating the construction of scenes as well as another 25 pages of character biographies and a chronology of events.

The theatrical form invited a complexity of perspectives, as it permitted us to include without comment the equivalent of historical footnotes—explanations, excursions, and competing points of view—and the myriad choices that comprise “history.”1 Spectators could witness in the present tense, as it were, the intentions, appetites, bargains, arguments, blunders, and fantasies of our many historical actors: imperialists and anti-imperialists, senators and representatives, party bosses, third-party activists, military commanders, soldiers in the field, war department officials, reporters and editors, a native Filipina, and many others. We named 50 such figures, not counting a kind of chorus of anonymous aides, clerks, and correspondents. Our narrative emerged through a panorama of documentary speakers, rather than through the unitary historian’s voice, though our own point of view was necessarily conveyed through the choice, editing, and juxtaposition of those documents.

The 11 actors in the Metropolitan Playhouse production played several, often opposed, roles each—e.g., the actor who played Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a leading member of the imperialist cabal, also played the aged former Massachusetts governor, George Boutwell, an eloquent voice of anti-imperialist protest, and finally a foot soldier in the Philippines, confessing to the brutality of the American troops. Also notable was the director’s decision to portray the turn-of-the-century white males who dominate the period and our text with a mixed cast that included three female and two African American performers. An additional layer of reflection and commentary was introduced by having a black actor play, for instance, Admiral George Dewey, the pro-war Republican Senator John Spooner of Wisconsin, and Secretary of War Elihu Root. The tension—the Brechtian distancing—between actor and role evoked by this bold choice induced the audience to see all the more clearly the social biases that were woven into the pro-war rhetoric that appealed to both “manliness” and the duty to “civilize” our “little brown brothers.”

Viewers told us that the moral authority of the aged Senator George Frisbie Hoar, the “conscience” of the Republican Party and the leader of the Senate opposition to the Philippine War, was, if anything, enhanced because that role was played by the female actor Mikel Sarah Lambert. “The most important quality of Sen. Hoar was a fervor,” Mikel wrote to us in explanation to us of her sense of the character. “As I got more and more familiar with the words I found a simple and controlled anger growing inside me. This man cared deeply about what was right. He had to voice his concerns, and voice them eloquently. He was the fellow who said: “Wait! this is not right!

Like Mikel, several of the actors came to appreciate the heroic efforts of those who fought against taking the Philippines and the ensuing war. Olivia Negron, who played the sharp-tongued, anti-imperialist Senator Richard Pettigrew of South Dakota also played Edward Atkinson, a Massachusetts printer who got involved with the anti-imperialists. Atkinson computed the cost of the Philippine War to convince Andrew Carnegie, the main source of funding for the Anti-Imperialist League, how much more cost-effective it would be to stop the war than to prosecute it. “He has become a great hero of mine,” Olivia commented, “right up there with Lincoln, Washington, and Juarez.

The third female actor, Jeanmarie Esposito, played Juliana Lopez, the only Filipino (and only female) character in the play. Writes Esposito: “I played a soldier whose motivation to fight and kill was to ‘civilize’ the Filipinos. What thrilled me about the inclusion of Juliana Lopez’s perspective was that we saw that she was an educated, refined Filipina who played the piano. Nothing about her needed to be ‘civilized’.’”

One of the greatest challenges for the actors was to present their characters sympathetically, even when they disagreed with them. Gregory Jones, who played Henry Cabot Lodge—the “mastermind,” along with Roosevelt, of the “large imperial policy we both desire”—explains that he approached Lodge “as I would Iago or Javert, with the intent of humanizing a character who often seems, on the page, like a black-hearted monster. I tried to remember, first of all, that the bellicosity of Lodge’s Senate speeches likely sprang from his political agenda, not necessarily from the heart of the man. In fact, his letters to TR, while containing the same viewpoints, were much softer and more pragmatic. So two characters emerged, Lodge the witty realist in the private TR scenes, and Lodge the imperialistic demagogue in the Senate scenes. We all play roles in life depending on the context. Lodge played at least two. I played them both in Year One.”

For Greg, a further challenge came in the soldier testimony scene late in the play. With director Alex Roe’s guidance, he realized that imparting information about torture and war crimes could carry greatest power if delivered almost inexpressively, with deliberate lack of “drama.” “So where my Lodge was a weapon of tension with ramrod posture and clipped consonants,” he recalls, “my soldier was a puddle, slouching with his mouth open, almost losing the words in his throat. It was thrilling to play that contrast every night, and to listen to the audience react to descriptions of these atrocities. After two hours of flitting about the stage, the actors became quite still. We drew the audience into that stillness. Then, as we spoke about the water cure, we heard gasping, groaning, weeping ... the things we felt the first time we read the script.

Beyond their own roles, the actors responded to the urgency of the historical moment as it was revealed in Year One—the stern truths of economic and political desire, military malfeasance, racism and machismo. In an interesting coincidence, John Tobias, who played Henry Adams and General Elwell S. Otis, had himself edited a 1962 documentary collection, The Adventure of America, about America’s westward expansion, with an introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, that included a few pages on the acquisition of the Philippines. “However,” John wrote, “your play gave me important new insights into the extent of the betrayal and racist dismissal of the insurgents’ attempt at independent nation-building. Without editorializing, using only words actually spoken or written and actions done by the real people portrayed, the play recreates uncomfortably true, and little-known events."

Whatever the lessons a history play offers, for it to work well, it must ultimately be theatrical. So writes J.M. McDonough, our Andrew Carnegie, for whom Year One was a “rare anomaly,” a play that speaks three times, to “the turn into the 20th century, the 1960s, and the present day. In that respect, it is a history play, not unlike the history plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

For director Alex Roe, the dramatization of history expressed in our play gave contemporary theatergoers a window into “the events of the past as products of sympathetic, fallible people, a record of the course taken by lives in all their dynamic possibilities.” Such a vision of history is deeply empowering, Alex believes. As spectators experience history “in living, breathing, and competing bodies before our eyes,” they can understand that our “present is shaped by each of us as we act within our own means.” The living, contingent nature of “history” he points to was startlingly brought to the fore by the nuances of humor, ignorance, cynicism, and conspiratorial maneuvering that colored the historical language under his direction—a coloring uniquely particular to this theater and this cast at this moment.

For us, the historian and theater scholar, the performance of this drama of American history has in its small way accomplished the public witnessing we had imagined when we began our work on Year One some 40 years ago. Nightly we watched as audiences rediscovered this unfamiliar yet all too familiar history. In their hushed, sometimes emotional responses, and in their observations and questions in the regular “Talkback” sessions after performances, we sensed a total involvement that is difficult for the authoritative historical text to achieve. “History as theater” seemed to justify itself both as history and as theater.

—Joyce Antler is the Samuel B. Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture and Women’s and Gender Studies at Brandeis University. Her most recent book is You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother (2007). Elinor Fuchs is professor of dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at the Yale School of Drama. Her books include The Death of Character (1996) and Making An Exit (2005).

Note

1. Carol Martin observes that even more than “enacting history,” documentary theatre has the capacity to “stage historiography.” See Carol Martin, “Bodies of Evidence,” TDR: The Drama Review 50:3 (Fall 2006), 9.