Going back to Ancient Greece, theater has functioned as a forum for informed public debate—about war, religion, politics, all the issues relevant to the citizenry of the day. The Greeks had a word for it: agon, a consequential debate, a contest of opposed wills with far-reaching fallout. That’s not much what live theater is about anymore. Theater that’s deemed too messagey gets snubbed. Action movies distract the populace with gosh-wow conflict in CGI. Meanwhile, MSNBC, Fox News, and the interwebs are where actual agon has gone.
Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation, based in Flint Hill, Virginia, has been on a mission to reclaim what’s gone missing onstage.
The brainchild of Playwright and Founding Producer John B. Henry, Stone Hill “supports theatrical productions addressing today’s most pressing issues.” Having now attended a trilogy of Henry’s plays written for that purpose, the most recent being Republic Undone, I can report that not only have I learned important stuff about America that other media pay no mind to; I have also enormously enjoyed the stimulating wit in the writing.
The central figure in Republic Undone is Woodrow Wilson, whose star in the firmament of best U.S. presidents has been fading. Not long ago, students at Princeton, where Wilson was president from 1902 to 1910, tried unsuccessfully to expunge his name from its school of public and international affairs because of his staunch support of racial segregation. During his years in the White House (1913 to 1921), Wilson also opposed women’s suffrage until the end of his second term and only then supported it as a war measure.
Dude was a piece of work.
There’s a speech about Wilson in Republic Undone by Colonel House (Bill Nitze), his top foreign policy advisor, that sounds eerily familiar:
COLONEL HOUSE: I’ve mastered the mysteries of Woodrow’s personality. Everything’s personal. He insists on his own facts. He trusts only the worshipful. So I constantly put him on a pedestal and never contradict him. He has an insatiable craving for reassurance. He‘s an inveterate hater who exalts in making enemies. I’m a captive audience for his temper tantrums. Self-reflection unimaginable.
The passage got a big laugh when I saw the show at The Metropolitan Club but not because it was ha-ha funny; it was more like uh-oh, since by then the play had firmly established its theme of presidential power run amok.
“The President now exercises more unchecked power over American citizens than King George III did over American colonists, which provoked the American Revolution,” Henry said in an interview. “Indeed, we’ve concentrated more power in the hands of one individual than any government in history.”
On this Memorial Day 2018, it’s worth remembering that the Founding Fathers never intended for U.S. presidents to have the power to declare war. The Constitution says explicitly that war shall be declared only by an act of Congress, but for more than a century, presidents have been unconstitutionally initiating war on their own. This fact ought to incense us the citizenry but it never seems to, and media left and right keep mum about it. Meanwhile, Henry writes plays to dramatize how the country got into this mess.
In Henry’s previous play, Republic For Which We Stand, he dramatized the dispute among the Founding Fathers that led to the Constitution’s Declare War Clause. In Republic Undone, Henry traces the psychopathology and politics of our 28th president, who for two and a half years unconstitutionally made the U.S. into a co-belligerent with the Allied Powers against Germany without a congressional declaration.
If that sounds like a heavy slog of a play, I assure you it’s not. The script is briskly comedic and epigrammatic, and it is performed in signature Stone Hill style by so-called citizen actors—people who have other professional lives but are doing Henry’s play because it matters. What crackles in the show is not just the script’s wit; there’s something captivating and refreshing about watching real people from a real polis acting out real people who shaped our nation’s history. As a theatrical technique, it casts all of us as “We the people.”
Among the script’s pleasures is its depiction of the women in Wilson’s life, including his mother, his wives, his mistress. The exchanges between Wilson and his feisty first wife Ellen Axson Wilson are especially choice (and Hugh Hill and Faith Lewis ripped into their roles and arguments with relish):
WOODROW: The United States must take the Monroe Doctrine global. We can only do that by replacing our separation of powers with British executive supremacy. Checks and balances are anachronistic. To be a world power, the President must dominate Congress and the judiciary.
ELLEN: The center of our universe is liberty and peace – not domination and war…. God gave you eloquence. God gave you brilliance. God gave you industry. But God sent me to give you judgment and wisdom.
Later, in an aside, Ellen says
Without me, he’d be a Captain Ahab.
As Ellen is strategizing Woodrow’s ascent to the White House, he has an affair with Mary Peck (Molly McCartney), a socialite he met in Bermuda. In a speech that Hillary could likely relate to (and maybe Melania too), Ellen says,
Now the White House is within our reach. And what do you do? You risk everything! I’m sick and tired of being the only adult in this marriage.
Founding Father James Madison was a firm proponent of keeping war power out of the hands of U.S. presidents, and in Henry’s clever conceit, the Ghost of Madison (Bruce Fein) perches amusingly in a tiny tomb and narrates Wilson’s wayward ways. Thus it is the Ghost of Madison who sets up the scenes in which we learn other cracks in Wilson’s character.
MADISON: Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, the drum majors among the suffragists, infuriate Woodrow. They plant the National Women’s Party headquarters on the edge of Lafayette Park within shouting distance of the White House. The day before Woodrow’s inauguration, Alice and Lucy lead thousands of women in a protest march.
An ensemble of suffragists holds up signs as in a photograph documenting the historical event (which foreshadowed the January 2017 Women’s March). Then with stirring lead vocals by Pat Nicklin as Alice Paul, they sing an authentic song of the women’s suffrage movement, the chorus of which goes
Brothers we must share your freedom
Help us and we will
We learn from Republic Undone that Wilson’s administration was the first to jail suffragists, and in prison when they went on a hunger strike they were made guinea pigs for forced feeding, sensory deprivation, and other torture techniques still new in the U.S. arsenal of human rights abuses.
We also learn that Wilson hosted the premiere of D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist film Birth of a Nation at the White House.
MADISON: Woodrow endorsed the white supremacy of his era. He excluded coloreds at Princeton. He campaigned as a second Lincoln to attract colored support, but he governed with the racism of South Carolina Senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman to placate southern bigots. He re-segregated the federal workforce, fired colored officials in the South, and turned a deaf ear to lynchings.
In a barbed exchange in the White House, William Monroe Trotter (Hermond Palmer), “Harvard’s first colored Phi Beta Kappa,” confronts the president:
WOODROW: Segregation is good for everybody. The Supreme Court blesses separate-but-equal.
TROTTER: They enforce the separate but ignore the equal. We’re the untouchables. White co-workers the Brahmans.
WOODROW: I’m all for progress. It’s just change I can’t stand. You must be patient. After all, it took us more than two centuries to abolish slavery.
TROTTER: The time is over for taking the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. The time has come to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.
Whereupon Wilson tells Trotter to leave.
As rumblings of war begin abroad, Henry now shows us how our nation was led into it by a man who has been established, despite his comic Dagwood Bumstead charms, as fundamentally white and male supremacist.
MADISON GHOST: Ellen presciently foresaw the Great War would beget European hecatombs and a spike in civilian deaths. Her spirit animates the women’s peace movement featuring parades in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. With the vote, women might have silenced the trumpets of war.
In the most moving scene of the show, Pat Nicklin and the ensemble of women return to sing a song from the period, the chorus of which is
There’d be no war today,
If mothers all would say,
“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.”
Republic Undone next takes us into some complex international diplomacy issues, which I’ll not attempt to distill. But even when the history thickens, the central debate of the play, its agon, remains crystal clear, as in this jarring argument between Wilson and his Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan (John Lesinski) after Wilson unilaterally made America a co-belligerent:
BRYAN: Your oath is to defend the Constitution. Not Britain. Not humanity.
WOODROW: You don’t define American interests. I do. What’s good for me is good for America.
BRYAN: The Constitution defines American interests. Not you. And what’s bad for the Constitution is bad for America.
Later, just before Bryan resigns in disagreement with his boss, Wilson puts this kicker on the argument:
I’m the Commander-in-Chief! International law is whatever I say it is.
In a brilliant denoument—the conscience equivalent of a Greek deus ex machina—Henry closes Republic Undone with an imagined scene in the afterlife in which Wilson apologizes to all whom he hurt. He apologizes for blessing white supremacy, for opposing women’s suffrage and endorsing torture of suffragists, for spending more on war than the nation had spent in all the years before… His mea culpa goes on and on.
If only that part of this powerhouse political play were headline news and not a fantasy.
Director: Rick Davis; Associate Director: Howard Coon; Costume Directors: Deverell Pedersen, Dorothy McGhee; Drama Poo Bah: Richard Squires; Humorists: Richard Rymland, Travis Brown; Constitutionalist: Bruce Fein; Moral Philosopher: Tuck Grinnell; Scenic and Props Artist: Howard Coon; Photography & Video: Ray Boc; Social Media: Max Mohr\
Ghost of James Madison: Bruce Fein; Alice Paul, Hattie Woodrow, Citizen: Pat Nicklin; Woodrow Wilson: Hugh Hill; “Tommy” Wilson: Maeve Cuiba; Joseph Wilson: Howard Coon; Jesse Wilson: Deverell Pedersen; Ellen Axson Wilson: Faith Lewis; Lord Grey, Messenger, Policeman: Dante DeVito; Mary Peck, Suffragist: Molly McCartney; Colonel House, Andrew Carnegie: Bill Nitze; Lucy Burns, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Suffragist: Hali Jilani; William Monroe Trotter: Hermond Palmer; Joseph Tumulty, Judge, Doctor Cary Grayson, Speaker of the House: Peter Stenner; William Jennings Bryan: John Lesinski; Edith Galt Wilson, Suffragist: Gail Kitch; Lloyd George: Travis Brown; Kaiser Wilhelm II: John Schmitz; Kaiser’s Wife Augusta Victoria, Suffragist: Sandy Read; Ludendorff: Wolfgang Schaefer; Clemenceau: Colin Davies; Senator Henry Cabot Lodge: Bob Randolph