U.S. on the March

George Santayana declared, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That may explain why the revival of this 1973 piece of documentary theater, originally written in response to the Vietnam War, comes as a shock. Although most people may know that the United States took possession of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, almost no one remembers that after the treaty with Spain, from 1899 to 1902, the United States put down a Filipino independence movement with tactics that were as brutal as anything the Taliban thought up. Among the many astonishing parallels with more recent U.S. interventions is the use of “the water cure” to get information from suspected insurgents. Playwrights Elinor Fuchs and Joyce Antler took their title from an editorial in The Nation in 1900, a year after United States annexed the former territories of Spain and an election year in which imperialism was hotly debated. In the article, the periodical catalogued the U.S. depredations: “Liberty crushed to earth by the land of liberty...broken promises...trenches full of Filipino dead...smoking heaps where once were happy villages...desolate fields, ruined industries...starving women and children.” Year One covers the run-up to the Spanish-American War and its grisly aftermath, and the characters include some of the most famous Americans of the time.

Drawn from correspondence, speeches, debates, and official documents, the play features a vast array of characters, including generals, political bosses, party leaders, observers, and two Irish stereotypes, Mr. Dooley and Mr. Hennessey, who bring a bit of comic relief while also representing the attitudes of the common man. Among the Imperialists were President William McKinley, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, and patrician Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of the Massachusetts dynasty (“Hooray for dear old Boston/The home of the bean and the cod./Where the Lowells speak only to Cabots/And the Cabots speak only to God”), who was at loggerheads with his senior senator, George Frisbie Hoar, leader of the Anti-Imperialists.

The Anti-Imperialists included ex-Presidents Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie, who offered President McKinley $20 million to buy the Philippines so he could free the citizens. (Only Twain and Carnegie appear in the play.) Unusually, it was the older generation of former abolitionists who battled to keep the country true to its ideals, while the younger generation, epitomized by Roosevelt, were itching for expansion.

The debate touched on all aspects of American life in unexpected ways, as when eye-patched "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, a Senator from South Carolina, admonishes Lodge and his cohorts: “We inherited our race problem. But you are going out in search of yours. ... Let me ask you then, if the Filipinos are not fit for self-government, how dared you put the southern states into the hands of Negroes, as being fit not only to govern themselves, but also to govern white men?”

The production by Alex Roe employs 11 actors in 43 named roles, including three women, although none of the decision-makers of the period were female. But at two and a half hours, and even with two intermissions and a fascinating subject, the production is taxing. Part of it is the amount of information presented, but some of the actors also spoke haltingly, as if still mastering their characters. Perhaps as they become more comfortable with the huge parts the pace will pick up.

Still, there was confident and sharp work from J.M. McDonough in all his roles, including Carnegie and Tillman; Michael Hardart as the young, irascible, determined Roosevelt; and David Patrick Ford as minor characters and as an impressive singer of the national anthem. Roe utilized the small black box space well. A balcony served as platform for the politicians as well as a ship’s deck for Commodore Dewey (the master of gunboat diplomacy, who had already opened Japan and who sank the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila), and flags and music added visual interest.

A host of moments links the play to our own time, from the descriptions of the burnings and starvation inflicted on the Philippines, to the startling debates between the self-righteous imperialists led by a bull-headed Republican President, to the official reassurances that “The boys will be home by Christmas.” If it sometimes plays more as history lesson than drama, it still has a lot of juice.

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