Mirrors of history

Published : Apr 25, 2008 00:00 IST

Michael Hardart as Theodore Roosevelt.-TRACY LANTZ

Michael Hardart as Theodore Roosevelt.-TRACY LANTZ

A play written in 1968, Year One of the Empire, finds new meaning in the present political context.

HISTORY repeats itself all too predictably. And with an unerring script, as a new production of Year One of the Empire points out. A play about the American invasion of the Philippine Islands in 1900, originally written in 1968, when American tanks were still rolling into Vietnam, finds striking resonance in the present day. Drama contained in the small cosmos of an East Village stage becomes once again metonymic for the larger political world.

The reader will now forgive my unconventional review method here of quoting a large portion of the text of the play. I present the random selection of dialogue below for the reader to make his/her own connections to the contemporary political clime. But I also present the dense tapestry of historical data enfolded within the dramatic structure of Year One to indicate that it is integral to the raison detre of its current revival. No fact is intransmutable, no detail too trivial, no circumstance mitigated.

Roosevelt: Personally, I hope the fight will come soon. The real danger is that we shall lose the great fighting features of our race, lose our moral spring and become genuinely effete. (Page 5)

Third Correspondent: Horrible tales of butchery are being brought back from the interior by responsible men. Prisoners are being slaughtered in the fields, their bodies mutilated. Nothing but the intervention of some powerful nation can stop these scenes of bloodshed and destruction. (Page 7)

McKinley: Gentlemen, in the name of humanity, in the name of civilisation, on behalf of endangered American interests which give us the right and the duty to speak and to act, the war in Cuba must stop. (Page 21). I now ask the Congress to empower the President to take measures to secure a full and final termination of hostilities in Cuba, to secure in the island the establishment of a stable government, and to use the military and naval forces of the United States as may be necessary for these purposes. (Page 22)

Reporter: No war in history has been more righteous, or for a nobler cause. (Page 23).

Speaker: It has been a splendid little war, begun with the highest motives carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit favoured by that fortune that loves the brave. It is now to be concluded with the fine good nature which is, after all, the distinguishing trait of our American character. (Page 41)

General: My friends, war is gradually changing its characterthe army among Anglo-Saxon people is no longer a mere instrument of destruction. It is promoting law, order and civilisation. (Page 43)

Schurz: We are now being asked to agree to a treaty which takes away from the inhabitants of those islands their right to their own country. (Page 55)

Hoar: And have not the Philippine people shown that they are fit for self-government? These are not savages. This is a people. They have a written constitution, a congress, courts, universities, newspapers, the Christian religion and houses, works of art, pianos. They have statesmen who can debate questions of international law, and men who can organise governments. This is a nation, and it is a great crime to crush out its life. Government is not a gift. It is a birthright. There can be no good government but self-government. (Page 67)

William Mason: We are told that the people of the Philippine Islands cannot govern themselves. No, nowe are told we must civilise the Filipinos. (Page 71)

Foraker: Suppose it is essential for the safety of our interests there that we acquire the whole island. suppose we acquire it for a purpose absolutely essential for the national defence? Would we jeopardise the national interests because somebody there had not been consulted? And suppose we consult the population and they object, or some of them object? What then? (Page 75)

Mason: I was willing to vote for the treaty because I was told it would stop the fighting. I voted on the promise that afterwards we would pass a resolution and give these people a chance. (Page 87)

Lodge: The Filipinos deliberately precipitated an attack against a friendly nation. (Page 87-88)

War Department Spokesman: The insurgents are fighting with great desperation. This is an indication that they staked everything on the outcome of this fight. (Page 93)

Second Reporter: It is privately conceded in Washington that great reinforcements are needed. (Page 101)

Schurz: The President says that if we withdraw our forces from the Philippines, the Filipinos would at once drop into anarchy, and cut one anothers throats. There are few Americans who do not frankly admit their regret that this war should ever have happened. It is not merely the bungling conduct of military operations but a serious trouble of conscience that disturbs the American heart about this war, and this trouble of conscience will not be allayed by a more successful military campaign. (Page 109) What is to be done? Precisely because we are in it, let us turn out of power those who got us into it, and put into power men who wish to get us out of it! (Page 110)

General Bell: To combat a hostile population, it is necessary to make the state of war as insupportable as possible by keeping the minds of the people in such a state of anxiety and apprehension that living under such conditions will soon become unbearable. (Page 129)

General Smith: I want no prisoners! I want you to kill and burn! (Page 130)

Private: The ordinary form of torture is known as the water cure. The native is thrown on his back, his mouth pried open with a bayonet, and water poured into his throat, filling the stomach, lungs, and intestines until he swells up like a toad. Then he is trampled on, and the water forced from the mouth, nose, and eyes, and even the ears. Sometimes kerosene or coconut oil are used instead of water, or salt or sand are added to the solution, but the effect is the same. (Page 135)

Second Correspondent: You did not attempt to stop our troops from administering the torture?

Flint: No, I did not. At the time I think I did not disapprove of the procedure. To suggest that there was any impropriety would have been a suggestion against our very presence in that country. (Page 137)

Aide Commanding General Adna R. Chaffee, successor in these islands to General MacArthur/Chafee: The United States government, disregarding many provocations to do otherwise, has for three years exercised an extraordinary forbearance and patiently adhered to a magnanimous policy toward the inhabitants of these islands. This governments kindliest efforts at pacification have been arrogantly interpreted as an evidence of weakness and fear. What is needed now is the wholesome fear by these people of the American army. We are dealing with a people who are absolutely hostile to the white race, who regard life as of little value, and who will not submit to our control until absolutely whipped into such a condition. Any means to that end is advisable. (Page 139)

Storey: We know now we have been deceived! That statements made to us for years as to the beginnings of the war the feelings of the Philippine people, the extent and nature of the struggle, the manner in which it was conducted were not true! (Page 142)

Carmack: The point to which I wish to direct the attention of the Senate is that while all these horrors have been steadily going on for months and years, while the story of them has been pouring in upon this country all the time, there has been absolutely no effort on the part of the administration or of the War Department to put an end to them, but every effort to conceal or deny them. (Page 144)

MacArthur (former military governor of the Philippine Islands): In my opinion, American possession of the Philippine Islands is likely to transcend in importance anything that has happened since Columbus discovered Americait has been the most legitimate and humane war ever conducted on the face of this earth. (Page 157)

Root: Now the court martials are a farce.

Lodge: And the hearings are a whitewash. (Page 168)

Roosevelt: I dont know what I would do if a month went by and I wasnt attacked in Mr. Dooleys column. I should give up plans to run a second term.

Root: Besides, people dont want to hear from the War Department. Theyre thinking about the tariff. Roosevelt: Were going to come out all right on that!

Root: And the Philippines seem to be a matter of merely historical interest.

Lodge: The press is finished with the thing. The Philippines have ceased to be an issue. (Page 169)

Every line finds new meaning in the present day, reminding the audience of the specious claim of weapons of mass destruction, the recent announcement of American military fatalities in Iraq crossing the 4,000 mark, the silence about Iraqi fatalities, Bushs unforgettable Mission Accomplished, Guantanamo Bay, the Congressional refusal to classify waterboarding techniques as torture, the unseemly American enthusiasm at the news of Fidel Castros retirement, and John McCain, the only clear presidential candidate so far, who takes a lead in national polls currently because of his support of indefinite American troop presence in Iraq.

But what is truly remarkable about Year One of the Empire is that all the dialogues, except for the occasional exclamation, are in fact taken from chronicles of the Phillippine war. Rather than attempting an imaginative verisimilitude of what might have happened, playwrights Elinor Fuchs and Joyce Antler present us with what is virtually a historical document, albeit distilled through their terribly sharp political acumen. Hence, a copy of the script comes appended with a robust bibliography and the production programme with a precise timeline. This is, then, the narrative of a war told by its own key players. Yet the playwrights point to something crucial in their unusual methodology of working much like film editors where they pick out reliable sound bites to represent a larger (horror) story criticism, and by extension action, is inherent in the dialectic of governmental proceedings. The discussion, disbelief and dismay surrounding the war come from within Parliament, given voice here by a talented ensemble of seasoned actors. Their utterances are made all the more powerful because of the intertextual wish that repetition of the facts will somehow cement opposition to them.

The play, in its current avatar, was staged at the Metropolitan Playhouse in Manhattan, where a quick count revealed it to have a capacity of well under 100 seats. The stage is small and bare save for a balcony that runs along the length of the upstage back wall. A giant insolent bald eagle is painted on the floor of the stage, with its talons menacingly clutching at a much-dwarfed globe. A gentleman announces that we shall all rise for the national anthem, yet, in a moment of perfect complicity in audience etiquette, no one rises. Only the actors sing the rousing strains of the Star Spangled Banner, with an automatic patriotism one associates with the start of a baseball game, let us say, where the whole stadium would sing along, but not here in the theatre. The production ends with a similarly fervent, here somewhat jaded, rendition of Oh, Beautiful America, an informal anthem much like our Saare Jahan se Accha. America, through the ravages of the action of the drama, emerges in equal part quite ugly.

Year One of the Empire is weighty in its subject matter and, therefore, a challenge to anyone approaching it with the intention of staging it. Alex Roe, the director of the production and also artistic director of the Metropolitan Playhouse, must have struggled hard to achieve a sufficiently animated mise en scene. Actors flow in and out of roles in a cast list of 43 characters, which helps to keep the fluidity of action. But it also makes the historical personages themselves almost incidental, for what stands out as memorable and relevant are their statements. The most delineated character in the production is Theodore Roosevelt, with Michael Hardart giving a very convincing performance as the hot-headed, militarily inclined, reluctant seeker of elected office, and accidental President Teddy.

It is perhaps no surprise that in this male-dominated political world of the play, one scarcely hears the voice of a woman. We are told of the neurotic and prone-to-fainting Mrs. McKinley, who can cause an international misunderstanding with her inappropriate conduct at state dinners. Even more surprisingly, the only female character to actually appear in Year One is Senorita Juliana Lopez. She is the only Filipina we hear from in her enactment of her letter to her sister. Her epistle performs the familiar function of breaching the divide between the public and private worlds by showing the impact of the war on the everyday lives of citizens. In a play that runs the risk of treading the rarified realm of ideology, her interlude, then, personalises the war. But while her dispatch shows her sound political understanding of current events, she is unfortunately little more than a representative of bourgeois Manila with its mixed Spanish heritage.

The entire Third Act moves towards narrating the horrors of war, starting with Julianas letter and then eyewitness accounts of the water cure being administered by American soldiers, and the subsequent enquiries. Yet the most down-to-earth perspective from the American standpoint is provided by two recurring characters, Mr. Hennessey and Mr. Dooley, who chat about politics while cleaning up at a local salon. They serve as plebeian commentators of, and appropriate relief to, the hallowed annals of government functionaries, showing how confounding the logic of war policy is to the general public.

The viewer is left wishing that the director had used more of his stagecraft to relieve the tedium of dialogue without pause. For instance, instead of the simple blocking of representatives moving from one bench to the other to show their crossing over sides in the war debate, a more imaginative and allegorical action could have been used to indicate the fluidity of party lines. Any such staging techniques could also have substituted the lengthy House debates in the script that tend to get repetitive. The production as it stands is over two and a half hours long.

The overwhelming feeling the audience walks away with is the inescapable recurrence of history, the loss of life as a result of imperial conquest, the fickleness of public opinion, and media collusion in instigating a war. But yet Year One of the Empire is more than an unhappy chronicle. In its original writing in 1968 and its present production, then as now, it is a call to action. It is not incidental that this revival is staged in these important run-up months to the November elections. For as a character admonishes the House, by extension the audience, the reader of this piece and hopefully an ever-expanding circle of influence Precisely because we are in it, let us turn out of power those who got us into it, and put into power men who wish to get us out of it!


Year One of the Empire: A Play of American Politics, War and Protest Taken from the Historical Record by Elinor Fuchs and Joyce Antler; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973.

Shayoni Mitra is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Performance Studies, New York University, completing her dissertation History of Political Theatre in Delhi.

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