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The General From America
If a high-profile Al Qaeda turncoat tipped a U.S. general in Iraq or Afghanistan about where to find Osama bin Laden, he’d be hailed in America as a hero–no matter how much money he asked for or what his reasons were. The protagonist of Richard Nelson’s The General From America, who’s in a comparable situation, is probably the most reviled figure in U.S. history: Benedict Arnold, a fighter in an insurgency movement resisting an occupying army who switches allegiance and tries to deliver the insurgency’s leader to the enemy.
Taught to hate the infamous Arnold, most Americans know little about the circumstances and motives behind his attempt to betray West Point and General George Washington, his friend and a father figure. Nelson’s suspenseful drama–premiered in 1996 by England’s Royal Shakespeare Company and now receiving its Chicago premiere in an intimate, bare-bones production from TimeLine–doesn’t whitewash Arnold and his actions. But it does illuminate them, generating some sympathy for the devil.
Set in 1779, The General From America makes clear that the Revolutionary War was as much a civil conflict as a rebellion. While American and British forces fought for territory (the play takes place in American-held Philadelphia and British-occupied New York), tensions between pro-independence and pro-British civilian factions erupted into vigilante violence, a situation exacerbated by rampant deprivation. “God have mercy upon them,” one politician says of the widows and children of loyalists hanged by their fellow Americans for treason. “And may the Lord find the food to feed them.”
In this turbulent atmosphere, Arnold nurses a growing private outrage. A military hero acclaimed for his feats of courage and cunning, he nevertheless gets passed over for advancement more than once. Three years into the conflict he’s bitter at being sidelined by a wounded leg, angry that the war is being mismanaged and underfunded by Congress, and offended at the thuggish suppression of dissent and abrogation of the civil liberties he’s supposedly defending. (“Too much vigilance is better than too little,” argues his principal political rival in the revolutionary cause.) After Arnold is accused of war profiteering, Washington demotes him from military governor of Philadelphia to commander of the fort at West Point. That humiliation catalyzes Arnold’s growing disillusionment and prompts him to take action–for the price of 20,000 pounds, though he convinces himself his act is in the best interests of the country he loves.
In Nelson’s script and in Terry Hamilton’s richly shaped performance, Arnold is a tragic figure, a good but flawed person driven by desperate circumstances as well as by pride, at once a virtue and a failing. A boisterous extrovert, he’s prone to flares of temper and galled by feelings of martyrdom. The relationship between him and Washington (commandingly portrayed by the charismatic David Parkes) is telling. Both are angry at the incompetence of their civilian superiors–Washington obviously feels affection for his fellow soldier, which intensifies his horror at Arnold’s treachery. But Washington’s ruthless “eyes on the prize” attitude is light-years distant from Arnold’s sentimental self-pity.
A similar contrast is evident in the two rivals for Arnold’s affection: his pretty, pregnant young wife, Peggy, and his unmarried sister, Hannah. Peggy (Mackenzie Kyle) is superficially a material girl, but she’s also a shrewd strategist who uses her femininity to pry information from unsuspecting men–including Washington’s dutiful young aide, Alexander Hamilton (Tom Bateman). Hannah, Arnold’s self-sacrificing protector, is devoted to him despite her resentment of Peggy. When Peggy seems to betray Arnold after his defection, Jennifer Avery as Hannah memorably conveys the character’s divided response–gleefully proprietary yet sincerely anguished for her brother. A competition between two British soldiers–drunken dandy John Andre (Stephan Mader), Arnold’s contact in the British camp, and upright Major Stephen Kemble (Paul S. Holmquist)–is shaped in part by homoerotic feelings the British commander, Sir Henry Clinton (Nigel Patterson), nurtures for Andre, blinding him to the character flaws that will cause Andre to ruin Arnold’s scheme.
TimeLine’s motto is “yesterday’s stories, today’s topics,” and the troupe couldn’t have chosen a more apt play to open its tenth-anniversary season. The 13 actors deliver their dialogue with plainspoken frankness, avoiding period affectation while respecting the historical setting. Director Louis Contey eschews any attempt at spectacle, placing the performers on a mostly bare wood stage and focusing attention on the characters’ interior action–on the choices people make and the emotions that shape those choices. When nations are at war, The General From America reminds us, notions of right and wrong, good and evil, patriotism and treason are too simplistic to convey the complexities of human nature and human history.
WHEN Through 10/8: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM
WHERE TimeLine Theatre Company, Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, Baird Hall Theatre, 615 W. Wellington
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lara Goetsch.