Listen to this article
In principle, Eric Schlosser’s new play tackles a fascinating and pertinent subject: the creation of the American constitution.
In practice it translates into something like a local council meeting conducted in period costume. It’s good to identify with the characters on stage, but not when the person who strikes a chord is George Washington (John Stahl) refusing a drink for fear of falling asleep during proceedings. To be fair, Schlosser has distilled 16 weeks of close argument into 2¾ hours, but even so, and even given the significance of the material, as drama the piece proves almost as inert as Alexander Hamilton’s wig.
It starts well enough. It is 1787 and the newly independent America is rocked by rebellion and dispute. We follow James Madison (Robert Bowman) as he scurries round the country trying to persuade men of influence of the urgent need to draft a constitution. Subsequently we attend the Philadelphia convention as it finally gets off the ground.
There is much fascinating material here. Schlosser reminds us that the founding fathers were flesh-and-blood men, sweating out compromises in a hot, stuffy room. He points up the huge conflicts of interest: the rifts between north and south, small states and large, slave-owners and non-slave-owners. Should there be proportional representation? Should there be one house or two? Who or what should rule? Should the country have a standing army? It’s particularly interesting to note the possibilities that weren’t adopted, and to consider how different the world might have been if they had been. Schlosser pays tribute to what the delegates did achieve and laments what they did not (missing the opportunity to outlaw slavery, for example) and he explores the very idea of government.
But despite this, and despite odd delights, such as watching Benjamin Franklin (a capricious John Bett) sing a drinking song, the static nature of the piece makes it drag. Such a play might work better in a small, confined space, but on the Globe stage it is swallowed up, bogged down by detail and often inaudible. The director Charlotte Westenra injects energy with the entrance of a live horse and the play is, poignantly, laced with African griot music. But, for all its good points, this proves uphill work, and not just for the delegates.