“A New World – A Life of Thomas Paine” at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London

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As exhibition-goers exited “Henry VIII: Man and Monarch” (23 April-6 September) at the British Library, theatregoers entered Shakespeare’s Globe for “A New World – A Life of Thomas Paine” (29 August-9 October).

Even though Henry attacked ecclesiastical popery and Paine political popery, both royalist and republican would have encountered a similar experience. After all, both defended the spread of sovereignty against the Old World’s opposition as articulated by Pope Clement VII and Edmund Burke (even if the Henrician Reformation was as personal as Paine’s radicalism was as universal).

For all the differences between these two great Englishmen, there are similarities between the two flagship events: one to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to the throne; the other to commemorate the bicentenary of the death of Paine. In short, both were as strong on life as they were weak on legacy.

Historically fascinating, emotionally moving, atmospherically vivid – little separated exhibition and bioplay. Take the venues for instance. Much like the Tudor atmosphere created north of the River Thames, wooden paneling and archways tower over visitors to the Southwark stage. Techniques used in the reconstruction of the Theatre were painstakingly accurate. The Globe is as faithful a reproduction as possible to the Elizabethan model which burned to the ground during a performance of (ironically enough) Henry VIII in 1613.

The narrators only added to the experience. While Tudor historian David Starkey provided the headset commentary as you followed the life of England’s best know king from the first baptismal record to his final will, Benjamin Franklin guided spectators through Paine’s time as emigrant and exile. The chronological divisions of his life were not uniform but based on what the playwright, Trevor Griffiths, like Starkey before him, determined were important years and key events. Biography is the key to history here, and by using original sources the dead speak once again. All this made for a three-hour history lesson on the seismic political and religious conflicts of the age. Despite testing both the constitution and concentration of its audiences, the play was almost worth the wait.

Almost, because Griffiths erroneously confined Paine’s story solely to the eighteenth century. Starkey, on the other hand, did explore the political and religious not to mention intellectual and cultural developments that were to shape England for the next half millennium, even if, by the penultimate section, the majority of visitors were fatigued and passed through rather rapidly. Yet the pre-show platform discussion back at the Globe which featured Griffiths and Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole failed to illuminate Paine’s legacy and the new world order, notwithstanding its billing and hosted on September 11 of all days.

Ironically, like Henry, who was not meant to be king, but transformed England from the medieval to the modern world, Paine, who was not meant to be an honorary “founding father”, played a part in the birth of the New World. Indeed, had the pair died in their late-thirties there would have been no exhibition to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to the throne or play to commemorate the bicentenary of the death of Paine.

Paine’s writings continue to influence American politics. His words were evoked by Ronald Reagan as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and by Barack Obama in his 2009 inaugural address. It is just a tragedy Griffiths did not inspire those who exited the British Library uninspired but entered Shakespeare’s Globe inspired.

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