Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Playwrights Theatre Sedition Raises Important Issues
The chairman of the German Department, Andrew Schrag, is being urged to speak at a rally in opposition to a declaration of war against Germany by his friend, French associate professor Cassidy. However, the vacillating Schrag is convinced by his young wife of six months not to risk the potential consequences of being perceived as un-American for opposing the President's position.
Following our entry into the war, a Mr. Megrim representing the "State Council of Defense" is on-campus to investigate the loyalty of faculty opposing our actions. When asked for the names of those who share his ideas (who are not already known because of their participation in anti-Wilson actions), the fearful Cassidy in order to protect himself names Schrag. Thereafter, Schrag, shaken by the battlefield death of a former student, speaks out against the war at his memorial service. After hearing Schrag's impassioned oratory, Megrim says, "Put him on the list. That is sedition."
A bit of history might be helpful here. In 1789, in an effort to destroy Thomas Jefferson and the Republican Party, The Federalists passed the Alien (3) and Sedition (1) Acts. The particularly reprehensible Sedition Act made it a crime to print "false, scandalous and malicious" material about the government and governmental officials. It is clear that this broad restriction on freedom of speech would have been declared unconstitutional had it not died by expiration in 1801. However, in 1917, after our entry into the World War I, the Espionage Act was passed, which made it a crime to convey false information with the intent of interfering with the success of our military or aiding our enemies, or to attempt to cause refusal of duty or obstruct recruitment or enlistment efforts of the military. This law was upheld as constitutional and, to the present, the Supreme Court has followed the policy of trying to determine the proper balance between freedom of speech and national security. Even those who are not First Amendment absolutists would be hard pressed to deny that this has led to brutal and unnecessary violations of free speech.
While it is not anywhere near to being fatal, Wiltse has overextended the range of a story which organically is about freedom of speech and academic freedom. He has contorted his account of America's entry into World War I in order to also make it a platform for the expression of his unalloyed hatred for the current American president. Wiltse has taken virtually every criticism that has been heaped upon George W. Bush and applied it incongruously to Woodrow Wilson employing the language of today's anti-war sentiments in the process. Thus, our entry into World War I is seen by Wiltse's surrogate as being caused by a desire to protect our bankers' and financiers' investments in England; improper interference in a parochial war in which we had no stake, and in which both sides were engaged in their centuries old practice of slaughtering one another; a President with a Messiah complex seeking "transformation at the point of a gun"; and "stupidity at the top." Possibly, the added charge against Wilson that he was envious because he was being ignored while the King and the Kaiser fought their pointless war was a substitute for the charge that George W. led us into war to obtain revenge for his daddy. The cost of World War I in lives was far more horrendous than it is in Iraq, and it was also more pointless. However, the issues and the two presidents were certainly not the same. Now and in the future, the concern is that the long term result of Iraq not be as disastrous as it was after World War I.
The issue of academic freedom is presented strongly and unarguably. Our Professor Schrag has no hidden agenda. He has a strong, reasoned and sincere point of view. Clearly, the fact that it is unpopular should have no effect on his status. However, today, when anti-government positions are dominant on elite campuses, there are more pressing issues which are not addressed here. Holocaust deniers can retain their positions under the cloak of academic freedom. Innovative and dissident scholars who fail to conform to the orthodoxy of their field cannot hope to be hired. There is rightfully a place on American campuses for faculty who believe that America has been a lawless aggressor earning the enmity of other nations. However, the issue on the most prestigious ones is whether there is a place for those who don't share that belief.
Most roundly and satisfyingly explored in Sedition is the issue of freedom of speech. Although I think of myself as a First Amendment absolutist, it is often a struggle to retain that position in the light of the dangers of terrorism in the technologically advanced world of the 21st century. It is edifying to hear Wiltse's paean (beautifully delivered by John Pietrowski) to the Bill of Rights.
This is the first time that I have seen John Pietrowski, Playwrights Theatre artistic director, trod the boards here. As Andrew Schrag, Pietrowski brings a refreshing passion and enthusiasm to playing a character with whom he is unquestionably totally in synch. Marianna McClellan makes his young wife, Harriet, appear as a fully rounded character, a solid accomplishment in a play given over mostly to ideas rather than character and subtext.
Walter Jones brings a smoothly insidious quality to the role of Megrim. Jones neatly captures the sort of emotionally constricted hatchet man who enjoys a job which gives him power over the lives of his betters. Paul Murphy's Chancellor displays a benign aspect which serves as a facade behind which he can perform his-self serving manipulations. Sean Marrinan as the weak Cassidy, and Merritt Reid as the student who goes off to war each lend solid support.
David Wiltse has dedicated Sedition to "the memory of my grandfather, Andrew Schrag." Surely, it is a fine and fitting memorial. Director James Glossman has directed it in a brisk and straightforward manner as befits the material. The only problematic element in his production is the dark and distracting scenery. Aside from a bit of furniture, the set consists of a series of rectangular doors and flats on wheels which are covered on both sides by what appears to be black crepe paper. There are sheets of the same black paper on the top and sides of the proscenium. I think that the scenery is intended to emphasize the surrealistic nature of the events to which Schrag is subjected. However, both the drabness of the black crepe and the distraction of interpreting it, outweigh any thematic benefits.
Sedition is an engrossing play of ideas which illuminates the Bill of Rights and early 20th century American history.
Sedition continues performances (Fri. & Sat. 8 pm/ Sun. 3 pm/ Wed. - 4/30 11 A.M./ Thurs 5/1 at 3:30 pm & 8 pm) through May 4 at Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, P.O. Box 1295, Madison, NJ 07940; Box Office: 973-514-1787, ext. 10; online: www.ptnj.org.
Sedition by David Wiltse; directed by James Glossman