The American Historian

The Act of History: A Conversation with Ian Ruskin and Gary B. Nash

TAH Staff

Some twenty-five history teachers gathered at a University of California, Los Angeles summer teaching seminar on the American Revolution waited expectantly for a visitor from the eighteenth century who had traveled in time to tell of his experiences on both sides of the Atlantic in the era of democratic revolutions. Thomas Paine, in greatcoat, buckled shoes, rimless glasses, and a slightly disheveled wig, took his place at a table upon which stood a decanter of brandy, a pen and inkwell, several books, a sheaf of papers. For the next seventy minutes Paine, played by Ian Ruskin, spoke of his spotted background, his dreams of a better life and a better world, his struggle to reach America to begin his life anew, his unlikely role as the key pamphleteer of the American Revolution, his reformist ideas to align the new American nation with its stirring founding principles, and his post-revolution years in England, France (which included a spell in prison), and finally back to America. UCLA emeritus professor Gary B. Nash, the seminar leader who had invited Ruskin to perform his play To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine, remembers that the teachers learned more about Paine from Ian’s performance than they would have from any lecturer.

The American Historian spoke with Nash, a renowned scholar of early American history and a former OAH president, and Ruskin, an actor trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London who has since appeared on television and the stage, about the challenges and promises of dramatic portrayals of historical figures on stage, in the classroom, and at public history sites.

The American Historian: Ian, what led you to write To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine?

Ruskin: While on an East Coast trip performing my first play, From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks, about the radical labor leader Harry Bridges (which I performed at the OAH Annual Meeting in 2009), three separate people suggested that I consider writing and performing a play about Thomas Paine. As soon as I began reading about Paine I knew that he would be my next subject. He was a man with remarkable similarities, both personally and philosophically, to Bridges. I then received a City of Los Angeles Fellowship to write the play.

I gathered a number of scholars who had written about Paine to act as an advisory board, including Harvey J. Kaye, a University of Wisconsin–Green Bay professor of history and author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (2005); Jack Fruchtman Jr., a Towson University political science professor, constitutional law scholar, and the author of three books on Paine, including The Political Philosophy of Thomas Paine (2009); and Edward Gray, a Florida State University history professor and specialist in early American history. I also asked Gary, a scholar of the American Revolution and author of The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (2005), to be a part of this process and he agreed. These scholars reviewed drafts of my script and noted any factual inaccuracies and, equally important, questionable interpretations of events and Paine’s part in them. They helped to me understand the dynamics of those revolutionary times, uncover the many layers of Paine’s character, and measure his impact on the events around him. Their guidance also left me free to trust my interpretation of the man himself and write without any outside obligations.

TAH: Gary, what has been your experience with dramatic portrayals of historical figures?

Nash: Teaching courses on the American Revolutionary era at UCLA, and on the road as a guest lecturer, I had dabbled with dramatic presentations—mostly playing Daniel Shays. But acting was better left in other hands. Nonetheless, I saw teachers with dramatic flair contrive first-person presentations for their classroom projects at Department of Education Teaching American History summer and weekend seminars. One teacher played an enslaved African on a Virginia plantation; another portrayed one of George Washington’s generals. I think these kinds of dramatic portrayals serve students well, engaging them with the sense of seeing the clock turned back for a century or more. With plenty of research and a gift for acting, history can come alive when done brilliantly. Or it can fall flat on its face. What’s needed is a great script and great acting.

TAH: Ian, what are the challenges in writing a historical play and portraying a historical figure?

Ruskin:I find two basic challenges in writing this kind of play. First, history is always open to interpretation and there is even disagreement about specific facts, down to details such as the publication dates or even the authorship of a book, pamphlet, or essay. I believe than any historical writing must, and should, be written from a particular viewpoint, and that this applies most especially to a dramatic piece. The second challenge is to find a character whose life had high and low points, victories and defeats, and personal challenges and demons that can make for exciting drama. A dramatic presentation must firstly be entertaining for the audience, whether it is a fictional or historical piece. An audience must care about the figure or figures being portrayed because of who they are as human beings, not because of their particular achievements and impact on history. This has been my aim with both of my one-man plays.

If the play is well written and succeeds in portraying a compelling human character, then specific challenges to portraying a historical figure melt away. Any character must have some relevance to our lives today, whether it is Joan of Arc, George S. Patton, or Forrest Gump. There is a particular challenge, however, to performing one-person plays. Actors are taught to perform with other actors and, hopefully, to react to other characters. With my one-person plays I am in a direct relationship with an audience that, in a sense, becomes the other character. Also, once I walk on, there is nowhere to hide and no time to go offstage and take a breath. It is more like jumping off a cliff and hoping that you can first learn to fly and then have the stamina to get to ground safely. I find it exciting if not addicting!

TAH:Ian, are there problems with the ways Paine has been portrayed in popular and political culture?

Ruskin: When I was doing research for To Begin the World Over Again, I discovered so much outrageous misinformation about Paine that defines many Americans’ understanding of his role in American history. To take one example, Bob Basso, a former Honolulu, Hawaii, news anchor and now a corporate motivational speaker, began uploading videos to YouTube in 2007 in which he portrays Paine delivering speeches that espouse Tea Party principles and accuse President Barack Obama of betraying the nation’s founding principles. One of his YouTube videos has received more than 11 million views. In my opinion, Basso delivers the antithesis of Paine’s actual political philosophies. To take another example, David McCullough’s HBO miniseries John Adams (2008), which one might assume would be a more accurate portrayal of the American Revolution, had one moment and one line, in an eight-hour program, for Thomas Paine. Yet he and Adams were passionate combatants who helped to define each other’s political philosophies. It makes me wonder why such omissions happen, and why some figures from history thrive while others starve.

TAH: Gary, what are the drawbacks of historical reenactments as a teaching tool?

Nash: An hour with a historical reenactor is usually entertaining and enlightening but the performance, however beguiling, is often misaligned with modern scholarship. Much depends on the venue and sponsorship of the event. Millions of Americans and overseas visitors who have seen the Thomas Jefferson interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg will enjoy the portrayal of an ever-brilliant Jefferson and a sunny portrayal of a son of the Enlightenment. But Colonial Williamsburg is a tourist attraction that does not want to disappoint. So however enthralled they might be by the Jefferson reenactor, K–12 teachers who flock to Colonial Williamsburg for summer seminars (and who pay a hefty tuition fee to do so) will learn little about Jefferson’s belief in the innate inferiority of Africans; little about Jefferson’s retreat from earlier efforts to find a way to end slavery, which he recognized as an evil and corrupting labor system that undermined the principles on which the Revolution was fought; little on Jefferson’s treatment of his own mixed-race children; and nothing on Jefferson’s squandered opportunity to free his several hundred slaves spread over three plantations, when he withdrew as the executor and beneficiary of Tadeusz Kosciuszko’s American estate that the Pole had left to his bosom friend. These inconvenient truths don’t make for pleasant Colonial Williamsburg visits, though Colonial Williamsburg, to be sure, has done much in recent years to cut through the romanticized picture of the colonial Virginia capital.

The case of presenting Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia is similar. An excellent actor has been interpreting Franklin for nearly four decades. Many thousands will testify to how they have come away with a deepened reverence for Franklin’s intelligence, humor, political savvy, and voracious scientific appetite. Franklin becomes the essential American, and this cannot help but please the tourist-industry leaders in the City of Brotherly Love. What visitors (and teachers) will not come away with is an understanding of Franklin’s involvement in the African slave trade and the ownership of slaves, his callousness toward his wife, his sponsorship of the conversion of Pennsylvania to a royal colony, and other uncomfortable aspects of his career.

TAH: What, then, is the appropriate role for historical plays and portrayals in the teaching of U.S. history?

Ruskin:I hope that my plays present compelling figures from history that are as human as they are “giants of history.” I strive to do more than simply educate a group of students about a particular time, but to show that these often revered figures were human beings, with the same challenges, possibilities, and frailties that we all share. After a performance of To Begin the World Over Again at Cerritos College, a California community college, Julie Davis, a Cerritos professor of history and women’s studies, wrote to me to say that the play not only highlighted Paine’s “life, work, historical context and significant impact on Western thought” but also did so “in such an engaging, empathic way that it vividly impresses upon the viewer the belief in the triumphant possibility of the great impact of one person’s imprint on the historical record.” She added that the experience was especially valuable for the community college student audience, who, she wrote, “are all in their own right struggling to realize their own value and contributions to this world.” I believe that my presentations can inspire individual audience members, teachers and students included, to stand up for themselves and see the possibilities of building better lives.

Nash: In general, historical portrayals today, insofar as they treat the founding era of the nation, mostly glorify the Founding Fathers, turn them into men of marble, and perpetuate founding myths that ignore the tumultuous birth of democracy (a concept that was roundly attacked by some members of our pantheon such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton) and the radical reform agenda launched by lesser leaders of the time such as Thomas Paine. Ian is very aware of this; in his presentation he shows us Paine, warts and all. Beholden to nobody and not limited to a revolutionary-era venue, Ian can construct his portrayal from original sources and scholarly analysis of Paine. This uncouples him from what David Lowenthal, in his book Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1996), called the “heritage crusade”—the “chief focus of patriotism and a prime lure of tourism.” With no need for “domesticating the past,” Ian is at liberty to address inconvenient truths (pp. ix, xi).

Ruskin: Can a theatrical presentation to a group of students, whether at a highly regarded university such as Harvard or a community college such as Cerritos College, actually educate and inspire students through the telling of a story? Is there a value in an actor/writer, guided by one or more scholars, attempting to present a slice of complex history in a one-hour presentation? Perhaps the answer to these questions lies in the extent to which history can be brought alive not just through an understanding of facts, but through an understanding of the human beings who, with all their human frailties, and in their own turbulent times, made history happen.