More than signifying a historical personage, the name Benedict Arnold has become an insulting epithet. The definition of traitor is accepted uncritically. Sure, we know that General Arnold switched allegiances to the English during the Revolutionary War and therefore deserves the obloquy that has become his permanent legacy. Yet why have history books been so reticent to tell his side of the story? In a recent PBS documentary on Benjamin Franklin, Professor Carol Berkin considers a related question concerning Franklin’s marginal status in the pantheon of the Founding Fathers. To elevate Franklin’s diplomatic efforts, Berkin argues, is to admit that the colonists couldn’t have defeated the English without the French, “and so when you pick your heroes to revere, you’re picking the myth about yourself that you want to tell.” Same for the villains that we choose—or so Richard Nelson contends in his latest play to confront, through the contradictory figure of Arnold, the slippery Anglo-American divide.
With an assist from a larger-than-life performance by Corin Redgrave, The General From America takes a Shakespearean approach to Arnold’s character. We see glimpses of the man from a variety of sides—lollygagging at home in Philadelphia with his attractive young wife Peggy (Yvonne Woods) and spinster sister Hannah (Kate Kearney-Patch); hounded by petty details at work; even grandly encountering General Washington (Jon DeVries), the one man he considers an equal. Like Coriolanus, Arnold has returned from war a hero and expects civilians to continue to defer to him as such. The only difference is that, as the revolution still rages, the colonial situation remains too imperiled to allow anyone to rest on his laurels.
Battle scars including a painful gimp make Arnold even less tolerant toward the young Alexander Hamilton (Jesse Pennington), who comes to question him on a few professional irregularities, such as the commandeering of public wagons for personal business. “Has fighting for your country now been promoted by the goddamn politicians to a crime punishable by death?” Redgrave’s Arnold asks with a roar that suggests a lion being assailed by a moth. More aggravating still are the questions concerning his wife’s improprieties during the British occupation. “Is it now a crime to wear English dress?” he asks with condescending bravado. “To listen to English music. . . . Hang me because I have a wife with taste!”
Arnold’s frivolous marriage to Peggy won’t get him hanged, but it will encourage him to rethink his loyalties. This is especially the case after he’s betrayed by Washington, who found him guilty on a few minor bureaucratic charges to satisfy a sanctimonious Philadelphia commission threatening to withhold much needed battle supplies. Forced to abandon his home, Arnold is posted to West Point, where he stirs bitterly with his pregnant wife who dreams of living instead in New York City, a place with plays and concerts still going on. “But then of course that’s the British influence,” she remarks ruefully. “Culture.”
Nelson, who directed this co-production between Theatre for a New Audience and the Alley Theatre with his usual smooth hand, quietly pursues his compelling ironies. Exploring the human complexity behind such a reductive term as “traitor,” he exposes the puritanical hypocrisy and corruption that marched beside the heralded courage of our national beginnings. Against a pervasive background of sermonizing self-interest, Arnold’s crimes seem less monstrous than miscalculated. Or, as he puts it himself, “I’ve betrayed nothing—that has not already betrayed itself.” When his death in London is finally reported to Congress, the words “God Bless America” ring as hollowly in the air as they do in our current moments of delusional patriotic grandeur.
While Nelson’s small but substantive character study discreetly goes about its business, Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange blaringly announces its import as though we were all in danger of missing the point. The joke is, it really doesn’t have one—except to bore an audience with smug academic abstractions on the power games behind the labeling of mental illness. Suffice it to say that even an Anglophile as shameless as Peggy Arnold would have to take issue with the groundswell of British hype that has preceded this stale exercise in drama.
Christopher (Harold Perrineau Jr.), an Afro-Caribbean psychiatric patient, can be classified as either a borderline personality or full-blown schizophrenic, depending on how you diagnose his insistence that the orange in his hand is actually blue. Bruce (Glenn Fitzgerald), a psychiatric intern, doesn’t think Christopher is ready to be released and so advocates the psychotic label. His supervisor Robert (Zeljko Ivanek), a blindly ambitious doctor who’s writing a book on the ethnocentric tendencies in the treatment of minority patients, thinks it best to release Christopher to his community. A struggle over Christopher’s soul ensues in the sterile consulting room, with neither physician able to look beyond his own challenged ego to see the muddled case before him.
Directed by Atlantic Theater artistic director Neil Pepe, the production compounds the generic quality of the writing, which seems derivative of both Pinter’s The Hothouse and Mamet’s Oleanna while wholly lacking in the convincing detail of Penhall’s earlier foray into the lost world of schizophrenic illness, Some Voices. Worse, it’s all self-impressed talk and no revelatory action—in short, a play filled with the kind of drawing-room longueurs that only a real Brit could love.