The visit to Europe of the Cafe la Mama troupe should not be underestimated. In Britain, for example, it seemed to be taken as the most interesting example of the American theater since jack Gelber's "The Connection" and it was a small revelation in London and Edinburgh that the United States still does have a living theater apart from musicals and frothy sex comedies. Both the La Mama troupe and "America hurrah!" also much admired in London, suggested to some English critics that the American theater is at last really on the move. They may be right at that.
Paul Fosters "Tom Paine", which opened last night at Stage 73, was originally conceived for the La Mama troupe and taken by it to Europe. However, this is, I understand, the first time the full play has been seen in new York, and it is also representative of a trend, probably predictable enough, that is leading Off Off Broadway to Off Broadway. (Any moment now someone may invent Off Off Off Broadway but it will probably turn out to be television.)
"Tom Paine" has a lot going against it, but I think it should be seen. (It is, in fact, the diametric opposite of Gore Vidal's "Weekend", which has, on the contrary, a great deal going for it, but apart from a guilty reluctance at seeing people lose money, I could not care less whether people went to "Weekend" or not.) "Tom Paine" is a clumsy play, a course play, a pretentious play, but it is a play that is alive and vital. It is a play that dares a lot and expands a little. It is a play that, unlike mr. Vidal's elegant potboiler, intends to be around after the next Presidential election. Both "Tom Paine" and "Weekend" are about politics, but only "Tom Paine" has the gnash of teeth about it.
Paine was an English pamphleteer who came to America in 1774 at the age of 37. two years later he published his great pamphlet "Common Sense", which advocated independence and first used the phrase "the United States of America." After serving in the Continental army in the Revolutionary War, Paine returned to England in 1787. there he published his greatest work, "Rights of Man", which in a few years sold over a million and a half copies in England alone.
It was an inflammatory piece. Although Paine's ideas were fundamentally merely popularizations of Rousseau and Locke, he had a journalistic, demagogic eloquence; the kind of eloquence that could cause mutinies in the British navies at the Spithead and Nore, an eloquence that caused that very phrase - stolen from Rousseau - "the rights of man" to become a clarion call for the new democracy.
Paine, to avoid arrest on a treason charge, fled to France, where he was elected to the National convention. He tried to save the life of Louis XVI, for Paine was a human being in advance of his time, and was imprisoned by Robespierre, whose fall saved Paine from the guillotine. Returning to the United States, he was denied the rights of citizenship, and at his death -he was an alcoholic - in 1809 his body was buried in unconsecrated ground ground. Ten years later his bones were dug up - according to legend - and sent to England as a side show.
Mr. Foster's play is an embroidery of these facts, but his purpose is to show the liberal non-conformist spirit in agony. He does not white-wash Paine. His unbearable arrogance and conceit - in the play he even dreams of being king - are not denied any more than his drunkenness, but the author does defend his ideals, ideals that lie, or should lie, at America's heart.
The method of the play owes a lot to Brecht. A group of actors, all clad in black anonymous garb arrive at a theater, play a few 18th-century instruments, introduce themselves and elect to enact the story of Tom Paine. The actors themselves are always wavering between the things they are and the things they enact - embracing the past with one gesture and seducing the audience with the next.
The author insists on the divergence between what Paine was, and what Paine stood for, to the extent that two actors play what must become a dual role. And the actors, all the actors, have the right of humanity. They can, or so it seems, opt out of the play at any time to make a semipersonal comment. There are also sections left blank for improvisation.
It is the improvisational passages - and these must vary at each performance - that, at the final preview I attended, were the most disappointing. The audience, I think, should be more involved in discovering the story's contemporary relevance. These special passages strangely lack the free informality of the rest - for the play itself does demonstrate first the total involvement of its actors, and also a mildly aleatoric element of theatrical ad lib. The actors skip so easily from role to person that the play gains immeasurably from its atmosphere midway between a game room and a rehearsal.
This is not the kind of play a director is given whole, like a cake. Tom O'Horgan's direction has a mind and spirit of its own. mr. O'Horgan excels in extravagance, and the best moments of the play are its most outrageously theatrical, such as in a sea crossing, a vision of Blake-like innocence, or the menacing prospect of a guillotine. Apart from that, Mr. O'Horgan stands aside and seems content to present his actors as might a proud (or, for here is the rub of this style of directing, over proud) father. It works.
The actors, outrageously aware of the audience and not nearly as secure in their technique as they should be for such a venture, lean inside and outside to be convincing. They vary a little, but they are all involved. Their techniques are rarely up to their aspirations, but they are naively honest, and this I liked.
Kevin O'Connor's Tom Paine seems a perfectly times stop
watch of calculation, yet also has the unexpected spontaneity of a sometimes
clouded sundial. Both mannered and free, it is a performance to remember.
Of the rest I should mention John Bakos, Rob Thirkfield and Jerry Cunliffe,
but the whole performance, with its ramshackle grace and coffeehouse simplicity,
was never less than engaging.
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