Year One of the Empire: Why We Wrote a Play About the Spanish-American War

Culture Watch

Ms. Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Brandeis University. Ms. Fuchs teaches at the Yale School of Drama, where she is a Professor of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism.

Year One of the Empire, a documentary drama written by Elinor Fuchs and Joyce Antler, about the “splendid” little war with Spain in 1898 and the horrific Philippine-American War that followed, has its New York City premiere Feb. 29 – March 30 at the Metropolitan Playhouse in Manhattan’s East Village. The play chronicles the moment when America literally became an empire and the “American Century” began: after the war with Spain, the U.S. annexed the Philippine Islands, leading to a terrible military conflict that cost the lives of more than four thousand American soldiers, 50,000 Filipino combatants, and upwards of 250,000 Filipino civilian deaths from war-related disease and famine. The anti-imperialists pointed to another kind of loss: America had “thrown away its ancient principles,” as William James put it, “and joined the common pack of wolves.”

Year One of the Empire, which takes its title from an editorial in the Nation in 1900,  was published in book form by Houghton Mifflin in 1973; its full title is Year One of the Empire: A Play of Politics, War and Protest taken from the historical record.  The book includes 50 pages of Notes and Sources; a chronology, and biographies of over 40 named characters. Year One was performed at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles in 1980, where it won the Drama-Logue Critics’ award for Outstanding Achievement in Theatre for Playwriting.

While the Vietnam parallels sparked the authors’ original interest in the Philippine War, now the parallels with the Iraq War have made the play contemporary once again. The New York Times calls the current production at the Metropolitan Playhouse “enlightening, entertaining .. engrossing.” It is “rousing drama,” according to, “the best kind of documentary theatre, keeping us compelled and engaged throughout and providing lots of food for thought for afterwards.”

Below the authors describe their reasons for writing the play and for choosing the documentary form. For further information and a performance schedule, click here.


YEAR ONE OF THE EMPIRE came out of the discovery of a little-known chapter in American history, the three-year war fought by the United States in the Philippine Islands from 1899 to 1902. In 1967, when we began our research, there was almost no historical material about this war. We two authors were not yet the theater scholar and historian we later became, but were young Americans living through the national anguish of Vietnam. We wanted to say something about the history of our own time through the medium of theater. As we followed clues in our reading about the Philippine “insurrection,” we realized that Vietnam was not unique in American history. The more we learned, the more the two conflicts, in the Philippines, and in Vietnam, revealed startling similarities: the difficulty of fighting a war in a terrain so alien to our own; the confusion of confronting an enemy that could melt into the general populace; the frustration of capturing a town only to see it return to hostile guerilla forces as soon as we withdrew; the official assurances of speedy victory followed by additional troop deployments; a revolving door of military leaders and tactics without improvement on the ground; the devastation wreaked on the civilian population; and, perhaps most shamefully, the resort to a policy of waterboarding and other torture by our own military as the bewildering resistance dragged on. We decided to make this first American war of the twentieth century the subject of our play, and to shape it entirely from documentary sources.

Our text is composed entirely from the historical record, culled from the widest array of archival materials: press reports, Senate debates and hearings, court-martial transcripts, personal correspondence and autobiographies, popular humor, army marching songs, political pamphlets, and more. Our writing consisted of a kind of “film editing,” in which we looked for attractions, contradictions, and conversations among our hundreds of pages of historical notes. Although we create dramatic settings for these documents–for instance an exchange of letters might become a telephone call or a face-to-face meeting–every dramatic scene corresponds to a real historical event.

We have been asked why we wrote a play and not an historical narrative. We made the play with the conviction that theater is an ideal medium through which to capture the myriad individual choices that comprise “history.” We wanted to convey the experience of the intentions, appetites, arguments, fantasies, bargains, accidents, and blunders that combine to become the historical record, in effect, a national “fate.” The documentary form allowed us to present all these contingencies in a fully realized, multi-dimensional form that conveys the plots, machinations, ideals and disappointments of dozens of characters simultaneously. It permits us to stage several overlapping historical narratives and relevant footnotes, all at once.

This particular story, a turning point in modern American history that has still to this day not impressed itself on the wider American consciousness, seemed to us inherently theatrical not only in the sense of providing entertaining figures and dramatic events, but in demanding a certain kind of public witnessing. American theater has virtually no conception of public dialogue, no space to consider our broadest concerns as Americans. In the deepest sense, ours is a theater of private enterprise: its economic base and its prevailing subject have a common identity. But with this play we imagined a theater that could use the simple commonality of attending a play, of being an audience, as a platform from which to take account of our shared history as citizens. The documentary form seemed to us the ideal basis for such a theater.

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