Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"Jefferson & Adams: A "Stage Play" from Colonial Willamsburg


The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation offers a 92 minute play “Jefferson & Adams: A Stage Play,” authored by Howard Ginsberg, here also on Amazon. The director is Douglas Anderson. The cast comprises Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson, Sam Goodyear as John Adams, and Abigail Schumann as Mrs. Abigail Adams.

The play was performed in February 2004 at the Kimball Theater in Williamsburg VA and later at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, VT. There are two acts, with nine scenes in each act.

The stagecraft is simple. There are usually a few furniture items of the period, and usually the players appear and have descriptive confrontations. The camera in the DVD does a lot of close-ups as the men talk, and often focuses on desktop items, emphasizingh colonial colors (a lot of green and brown) and dress. Men are shown writing with quilt pens. A scene with Abigail shows an interesting sculpture of a bluebird, probably more common in colonial times. One scene simulates being in Paris during the French Revolution.

The play starts on July 4, 1826, when both men died in their respective homes after a fifty-plus year friendship. John Adams is awaiting a letter from Jefferson. (“No letter from Jefferson?” Adams feels chilled even in July. Jefferson does intend to write an apology.) The play then tells the history as a back story. Soon rationalizes his use of slaves, but he wants to see them “educated.” Abigail starts out by talking about remembering “ladies” in the law, and by curbing the unlimited power of husbands; women were to be treated as “precious beings.” Abigail relates the hardships of disease, like diphtheria and smallpox.

Jefferson comes across as the strong proponent of individual liberty and limited government, and even mentions the freedom to lead private lives. This first comes across when they work together as part of a committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Adams comes across as seeing the need for strong republican government and rule of law. Adams, remember, supported the idea of a senate of “better born” men as a way of dealing with a transition from a system of government that had been based on aristocracy. Later they talk about sedition and newspapers. Jefferson says that, given an absurd choice, he would take newspapers without government. Jefferson seems to be coming across strongly for freedom of speech, Adams for consideration of the harm that reckless speech could cause. Jefferson seemed to think that the individual freedoms were essential to a nation whose citizens were “worthy of independence.” (Doesn’t this remind one of the debate over China and the Internet today?) It’s odd that Adams comes across as more conservative to us when he had become Unitarian; the letters between the two men often debated religion and philosophy. Later, Jefferson is in Paris and wants to side with the revolutionaries of the French Revolution. At one point, Jefferson says he cannot countenance “life without books.”

The two men would reconcile some differences in 1812, about the time of the War of 1812, in fact, which had started in part over the issue of the impressment (involuntary servitude) of American seaman when captured by British ships. The war would be seen as a desire by Britain to take back the colonies, but the British struggle with Napoleon probably overshadowed the war. John Adams takes great pride in the career of his son, John Quincy Adams, who serves as negotiator ending the War of 1812 and then becomes president in 1825.

The play overlaps some of the material covered in the outdoor “Revolutionary City” in Williamsburg, probably particularly the Monday show.

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