The Palmer Raids: A Theatrical Construction


at National Pastime Theater

The only way to stop them was to preempt them. Had we let them make the bombs, it would have been too late. –A. Mitchell Palmer, U.S. attorney general (1919-’21), quoted in The Palmer Raids

For all of the 20th century and a good part of the 19th it was assumed that radical theater served subversive ends. Think of Bertolt Brecht, breaching the fourth wall in order to get his hands on the capitalist state. Or Julian Beck and Judith Malina, putting their bodies on the line for free love. Or little Alfred Jarry, inventing absurdism basically just to piss off his schoolmaster.

Maybe it’s an indication, then, of how very screwed up things have become at the beginning of the 21st century that the Plasticene physical theater company is deploying radical performance techniques for the sober, conservative purpose of defending the U.S. Constitution.

The Palmer Raids: A Theatrical Construction is a 90-minute mix of text and movement that tells the true story of our country’s first great Red scare. In 1919–not coincidentally, two years after the Russian Revolution, a year after the end of World War I, and square in the middle of the struggle for workers’ rights in America–somebody sent 36 package bombs to some of the nation’s biggest Brahmins and fattest cats. Included on the mailing list were J.P. Morgan, J.D. Rockefeller, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the attorney general at the time, A. Mitchell Palmer. Most of the bombs were intercepted (some, interestingly enough, for lack of proper postage), and there were only two casualties, but this act of terrorism lit a fire under Attorney General Palmer–aka the “Fighting Quaker”–who initiated a crusade against the Bolsheviks, anarchists, and labor agitators he believed were conspiring to overthrow American democracy. With the help of his young special assistant, J. Edgar Hoover, Palmer carried out a series of raids that netted thousands of real and suspected dissidents, many of whom were aliens and thus vulnerable to deportation. Indeed, he shipped them back by the boatload. Convinced that the situation demanded extreme measures, Palmer never hesitated to trash his captives’ civil rights. His namesake raids were often carried out with illegal warrants, or none at all, based on trumped-up charges–or none at all. Many of his victims were held for long periods without recourse or trial.

The parallels to our current war on terror are achingly obvious. Even spooky, in an always-crashing-in-the-same-car sort of way. John Ashcroft is Palmer redux: a religious zealot with an apocalyptic streak a thousand cubits wide, deeply in love with the punitive aspects of the law but utterly blind to its potential for liberation. Arabs and Muslims fill in, of course, for the European-born radicals and proletarians Palmer found so threatening. And the Bill of Rights? Still a problem.

Much to their credit, the Plasticene people never explicitly make these connections. Their one and only attempt at offering a message for our times shows up in an uncharacteristically weak passage late in the piece, when each of the four ensemble members tells an apparently autobiographical story about a brush with American power, ethnic stereotyping, radicalism, or the law. But that’s just a hiccup arising from the collaborative improvisational process that produced The Palmer Raids–the semiobligatory result of a certain kind of theater game. The rest of the show wisely sticks to the raids and the events immediately surrounding them, laying out a narrative that (very like John Dos Passos’s classic novel 1919) finds resonance in a steady accretion of facts, figures, press stories, character portraits, and eyewitness accounts.

We hear from an array of interested parties, ranging from an anarchist who blew himself up trying to kill Palmer to Palmer’s Washington neighbor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But the show’s coherence depends on the testimony of four major figures: Emma Goldman, the great fire-breathing anarchist whom Palmer succeeded in deporting to the Soviet Union; Louis F. Post, an assistant secretary of labor who distinguished himself by refusing to cave in to Palmer’s demands to rubber-stamp deportations; Horace Peters, an incredible shlimazel (could he have been real?) who became one of Palmer’s victims because he had an amateur interest in America’s interurban highway system; and of course Palmer himself.

Of the bunch, only assistant secretary Post comes off unambiguously, a true warrior for the rule of law. The others are a mixed bag. The horror of Palmer’s tactics has to be weighed against the fact that he was essentially right about the Bolsheviks and anarchists: they really were trying to bring down the U.S. government; and as we know from the trajectory of the eastern bloc, their success would have been catastrophic. (Then again, their chances of success were minuscule–all Palmer had to do was wait for them to dissolve into sectarian bickering as usual.) As for Goldman, she proves to be a much better sloganeer than thinker. When she expresses herself at length on the subject of anarchy, her views turn out to be breathtakingly naive. Only when she’s on a ship headed out of New York harbor and into exile does she seem to get an inkling of how the laws she found so contemptible were all that stood between her and this fate.

The passage in which Goldman has this realization is powerful in its delicacy. But the real power of The Palmer Raids is far from delicate. Under Dexter Bullard’s direction, the show is positively athletic–and often wonderfully apt, as when poor Peters’s troubles with Palmer are visualized as a table slowly flattening him while he attempts to apologize for anything and everything he might or might not have done wrong. Or when that same table spins across the performance area like a fan blade, forcing people to slide under or leap over it to avoid getting sliced. Or when cast members depict censorship by simply taking audience members’ programs and putting them through a shredder.

And on and on, throughout the piece. Even when I’m not sure what’s being communicated, the company’s visual and aural images can be compelling. I have no idea, for instance, what a certain dance involving folding chairs is meant to convey, but I found it by turns sweet and scary. And I’ll defend to the death Plasticene’s right to perform it.