Though many are familiar with the name of Benedict Arnold, how many people today have a clear grasp of what actions caused him to be maligned as a traitor for over two hundred years? In constructing his play The General From America around Arnold, Richard Nelson has attempted to give a voice to the man who betrayed West Point to the British during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, Nelson has not remembered to give him much of interest to say.
In fact, were it not for Corin Redgrave's performance, the Benedict Arnold represented here would be as great an enigma as he normally is. Redgrave brings a definite humanity to the role, finding perfectly plausible dramatic justifications for Arnold's actions, and making him, at times, almost sympathetic. It's a well-crafted performance, providing the layers needed to change Arnold from a the caricature we all think we know into a real person.
But how much support Redgrave got from Nelson is never exactly clear. As Nelson also directed the piece, it's difficult to avoid comparisons between what his direction accomplishes and what his text does not. His staging of scenes is smooth and elegant, but the scenes themselves are choppy, preferring a quick hit of plot to a more studied examination of events. His staging draws sensible connections between otherwise unrelated events, yet this same devotion is not reflected in the characters he's crafted.
This might be because Arnold is the only fully defined character Nelson has provided. The rest are far less interesting, very much types regardless of their basis in historical fact. There's the idealistic young Alexander Hamilton (Jesse Pennington), the scheming drunk Englishman John Andre (who also fancies acting) to whom Arnold betrays West Point played by Paul Anthony McGrane, Arnold's young and devoted yet devious wife Peggy (Yvonne Woods), and so on. It hardly comes as a surprise by the time George Washington makes his appearance that he is played by Jon DeVries as an almost brutal, unforgiving figure; it's perfectly in keeping with Nelson's examination of the story from Arnold's point of view.
But at times, Nelson stretches even that dramatic device a bit far. However justified his motives may have been in his own mind, Arnold - even as depicted in this play - was still guilty of betraying his country to its wartime enemy. Nelson's late second act depictions of Arnold's critics are a bit unsavory in the way they deal (or don't deal) with this simple fact; Arnold's wife's denouncing him publicly isn't enough, we also have to see a group of American patriots cheering at news of Arnold's death? The less overtly Nelson goes after his point here, the more effective it is.
Douglas Stein's simple scenic design of wooden walls and doors and Susan Hilferty's picturesque costumes effectively evoke the simple needs of the period, though James F. Ingalls's lighting sometimes finds scenes too dark to be maximally effective. The production's actors are generally fine if unexceptional, though Kate Kearney-Patch turns in the production's most intriguing performance, bringing multiple layers of need and obligation to Benedict Arnold's suffering single sister, Hannah.
The General From America isn't effective as a lesson in history or a lesson in historical revisionism; it's one point of view, perhaps unusual in this day and age but not more or less correct, designed to replace a more commonly held one. But too often the play feels forced and untrue; Nelson never finds a way to apply his point of view in a way to make it stick. As a contribution to American historical perspective, the ideas in The General From America are unlikely to exist much beyond the play itself.
Theatre for a New Audience