Putting the Spine Back in the Commonwealth

In the prologue to Henry V (staged in 1599) Shakespeare described the Globe theatre (built in 1599). It is where the muse of fire ascended, this is the cockpit holding the vast fields, this is the wooden O crammed with war, the place of imaginary puissance. The ‘English nation’ as an ideological patriotic construct, yes, was constructed in this O, and then again when Henry V was put up in World War Two on the silver screen. Again, it was ‘the nation’.

A couple Fridays ago though it was A New World: A Life of Thomas Paine that was performed at the Globe, Trevor Griffith’s magnificent play. We walked across the Thames afterwards, across the Millennium Bridge, the footbridge that sways, to Mansion House and the Circle Line. St Paul’s Cathedral was lit up, the Globe behind us was still illuminated, the clouds parted to reveal a full moon, and light glittered on the river. No, the scene was not that to evoke the nation. Between the banks of the Thames we could point out, amid the bank buildings of the City, where the demos of 1999, 2001 took place (‘Take Over the City’) against privatization of England and the planet. Again, the buildings were the background to the demo last spring against the G-20. Already, the commons was a call.

I sit on an oak seat in the upper gallery, peering down at the yard and the groundlings, nursing their pints, sipping their coffee. Looking into the sky, an occasional star shines through the moving clouds, or a jet moves across the night sky, and a cold wind comes up. Has the theatrical illusion been broken?

Elinor Ostrom has won the Nobel prize. And for what? While the Nobel committee says “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons,” I think we can safely say for common sense, though to be sure this is covered in many layers of jargon social sciencey, economistic, and otherwise. Instead of saying ‘the commons’ and risking evocation of thousands of years of history, or instead of saying “all things in common” and kindling the scriptural spirit of the religious, she will write of “common pool resources,” and found an institute and win a prize. The discourse appeals to policy makers rather than commoners who might prefer Thomas Paine.

The Nobel committee continues, “Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes.”

Trevor Griffiths pointed this out years ago in Occupations (1970) in his play about Gramsci. Gramsci was to become all the rage. You thought his notion of ‘egemonia was the name of a village in Sardinia? It had not yet become the shibboleth of grad school Marxists. He said that the auto workers could take over the factory and do a better job without the bosses. Treat the factory as a commons. That was Turin in 1920. Now I’m not going to say Tom Paine was similarly into workers’ control or workers’ councils, but we should quote this from his Agrarian Justice (1797). “It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state, was, and ever would have continued to be, the COMMON PROPERTY OF THE HUMAN RACE.” “neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue.”

The dispossessed must be indemnified for their loss, and he proposed a hefty chunk of be distributed to everyone on reaching the age of twenty-one. The sum was approximately equivalent to a subsistence farm, a garden, cow, a pasturage, some implements. And then again another chunk of wealth was to be disbursed at retirement, and retirement began at age fifty. Paine does not call for the expropriation of the expropriators, or the negation of the negation. Far from it he seeks to protect the affluent from the risk of tumult, and the only means of doing this, short of class war, is justice. “the great mass of the poor, in countries, are become an hereditary race, and it is next to impossible from them to get out of that state of themselves.”

This play must travel. Of course Griffiths is a master of the movie script as well (Reds is his). And he has written a TV drama, Food for Ravens, on the founder of the National Health Service in the UK, Aneurin Bevan. (It too should be shown – in the waiting rooms of hospitals, in the lounges of nursing homes, on the closed TV circuits of prisons.) So his Tom Paine play might be shown in several media. But the play is live. And we long for life.

How to challenge American theatre to produce Trevor Griffiths’ Tom Paine? Against the pious stuffiness of the John Adams mini-series let us have the lively, raucous debates that set him off to begin with – Tom Paine. I’d like a mainly Black cast for a production in Detroit, perhaps for next years World Social Forum. Why not a mixture of Arab and Hispanic, Afro Am, Korean, and Anglo in Pittsburgh? Wouldn’t it be great in New Orleans or Berkeley?
The production I saw was London theatre at its best. Here was the engineering of first-rate stage-craft. The stage was used, the trap door, the scaffolding, the balcony, the portable speakers-platform on wheels, the hanging yard arm with sails furled. A cast of twenty or more playing multiple parts. Music, too, songs and ballads. It was not didactic or preachey. Great wit, fast talk, superb acting. Common people rushing all over the yard shouting out slogans and thoughts from Common Sense. Fighting for American independence in England!

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow.”

A theatre of ideas but the ideas are in the people, they don’t float apart. The ideas emerge with conflict. Now here is A New World and as usual America is stuck in the old, the old world of empire, the old world of tyranny, the old world of banks and commodities, money as the network of exploitation and oppression, the old world of diffidence and despair. A New World belongs to our times for the students in California protesting the cuts, for the students of Pittsburgh viciously attacked by the G-20 robocops, for the prisoners, the foreclosed, the homeless. It belongs in the U.S.A. I compare it to The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, the Peter Weiss play of 1968, as theatre for our times. Griffiths takes us to America, to the sea, to France, to England, and back to America. The little O has begun to embrace the planet.

Paine believed passionately, to quote Trevor Griffiths, “in the rights of men and women as equal citizens under the law based on constitutions they drew up for themselves rather than inherited from the class-ridden past.”

From Agrarian Justice, “The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust… It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it… The contrast of affluence and wretchedness, continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together … the condition of millions in every country … is now far worse than if they had been born before civilization began… There must grow, and soon, a system of civilization so organized that not a man or woman born in the Republic but shall inherit some means of beginning the world and see before them the certainty of escaping the miseries that up to now have always accompanied old age … An army of principle will penetrate where an army of soldiers can not; it will march on the horizon of the world, and it will conquer.”

He dedicated Rights of Man, part one, to George Washington that he may enjoy the happiness of seeing the New World regenerate the Old” and in 2009 it must be the reverse, and Trevor Griffiths’s play, A New World, must find realization, dramatizations, readings, in America. What was significant was not “independence” but the “revolution in the principles and practice of government.” He was against monarchy, and the boss principle generally (my way or the highway).

He began his career in America writing against slavery. He himself was disenfranchised – cast off from the voting rolls, in New Rochelle, N.Y. – and African Americans attended his funeral but not a white man unless you count the few Irish men. How can you not read of his funeral without profoundest pity. Friday night there was not a dry eye in the Globe from gallery to ground.

On the way along the funky Northern Line from our hotel at King’s Cross down to the Globe who should be sitting opposite on a crowded five o’clock train but an old friend. On her way to Palestine next week, she was meeting someone for a Turkish dinner across the street from the Globe and to see A New World, wouldn’t we join them? So we were right in the middle of our old London. Ye olde Englande I’m going to have to say (give the heritage industry its due).

Yes, that was Trevor Griffiths sitting in the garden of The Swan overlooking the courtyard into the entrances of his theatre, our theatre for the evening. He was in the center of a table of friends, theatre people, and I shouted and went over, brash as Americans used to be. Come and see me during the interval. He introduced me to the director. I tried out theatre talk. You must show it in South Africa, in Ireland, in Delhi. And they burst out laughing, wondering which delicatessen I had in mind.

So I spoke of Pittsburgh and the demos in California, and the criminalization of shack dwellers in South Africa. Trevor got serious too and told me about four years of readings, four years of staging (I almost said campaigning) all over the UK. The play is not “national” he said, not part of the 21st century nation. I couldn’t quite judge the undertones in the way he said ‘nation.’ The emphasis was on the regions, in the localities. The goal, the ambition is what I got out of it. We must aim at least for the same. It’s not the nation. Something else. Unless we put spine back into ‘the commonwealth’ restoring its nerve and bone, that’s not it either.

A muse of fire? A collective, communal muse?

A new world.

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at: plineba@yahoo.com

Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: plineba@gmail.com