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A life of revolution
NIALL MULHOLLAND reviews A New World: A Life of Thomas Paine by Trevor Griffiths, at Shakespeare's Globe, South Bank, London until 9 October.
THE BRITISH aristocracy hated and feared Thomas Paine - the "philosopher" and pamphleteer of the 1776 American Revolution and the 1789 French Revolution - in his lifetime. It was fashionable amongst their number to wear shoe nails inscribed with 'TP', so as to trample on Paine and his ideas with every step they took.
For the poor masses, however, Paine's radical ideas, calling for an end to colonialism, slavery and monarchy, and for democracy, equality, progressive taxation and even an early welfare state, were enormously popular and hugely influential. After his death, Paine's writings had a direct impact on the emerging workers' movement, including the Chartists in Britain.
On the 200th anniversary year of Paine's death, the British playwright, Trevor Griffiths, has produced a marvellous, energetic play, A New World: A Life of Thomas Paine that entertainingly covers Paine's eventful life; interspersing dialogue with songs and extracts of Paine's stirring words. John Light is impressive as Thomas Paine, as is Keith Bartlett, who plays Benjamin Franklin, the play's narrator.
Voyage to America
Beginning with Paine's arduous voyage from Britain to the American colonies, in 1774, which nearly cost his life, the 37-year old 'master stay-maker' soon made a name for himself by publishing articles against slavery in a Philadelphia journal.
He quickly comes to the attention of leading anti-colonialists, such as Thomas Jefferson, who entreat him to write a pamphlet in support of American independence.
The result is Common Sense (1776), the plain prose style of which makes a direct appeal to the working masses' egalitarian instincts. Over 100,000 copies sold in a few months, though Paine never profited greatly from his works and generously gave much of his income to revolutionary causes.
So powerful are Paine's words that General George Washington instructs that Paine's American Crisis pamphlet, which begins with the famous words, "These are the times that try men's souls..." is read out to the Continental Army to boost morale before battle.
The popular American Revolution finally ensures that 'superior' British might is defeated but with victory Paine finds he has enemies amongst conservative fellow 'revolutionaries'.
When Paine denounces a former American envoy to France, Silas Deane, for corruption, a Congress investigation backs Deane. Filled with disgust, Paine declares they have "ensured the rich and powerful remain".
Paine travels to revolutionary France, in 1790, where amongst other leaders he meets the revolution's great orator Georges Danton (brilliantly played by James Garnon). When Edmund Burke publishes his infamous Reflections on the Revolution in France, Paine responds with his immensely popular defence of the revolution, The Rights of Man.
Paine's enormous popularity in France sees him offered a seat in the National Convention in 1792. But he finds himself isolated in his opposition to the execution of the King, arguing that while he supports abolishing the reactionary monarchy, guillotining the despot will only play into the hands of counter-revolutionaries.
Regarded as an ally of the Girondins, Paine is imprisoned by Robespierre and his allies in December 1793. While others around him, including Danton, are taken from their cells to the guillotine, Paine writes the first part of The Age of Reason, which includes an attack on organised religion: My Mind is My Own Church.
Paine is convinced that one of his old conservative adversaries, Gouverneur Morris, who is now US ambassador to France, thwarts his pleas for liberty on the basis of his American citizenship. He also comes to believe that George Washington abandoned him, later publicly quarrelling with the President.
Eventually a new ambassador ensures Paine's liberty in 1794 and he returns to America, where he is attacked for his views on religion, his association with the French Revolution and for his friendship with the new President, Jefferson.
Paine is shown dying, at the age of 72, and just a handful of mourners attend his funeral, including black freedmen. Yet the play ends with Paine's revolutionary inspiration, as he declares that despite all the setbacks he witnessed through revolution and counter-revolution, men and women "will be free".
In The Socialist 16 September 2009:
No Job Cuts
War and occupation
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party women
Socialist Party review
International socialist news and analysis