A Play Against Perpetual War
John Henry’s transfixing play “Republic For Which We Stand” sounds the tocsin against the chosen people mentality that fuels perpetual war, one-branch government, and limitless surveillance in the United States. That un-starry-eyed message is leavened with recurring humor, satire and comedy that capture the full spectrum of vices and foibles in all their moods and tenses. Our Founding Mothers and Founding Fathers come to life, warts and all, to remind us of what made America great.
We are mired in nine unconstitutional presidential wars. None shows any light at the end of the tunnel. The multi-trillion dollar military-industrial-counterterrorism complex is extending its web everywhere, drawing all power into its vortex. Since 9/11, it has turned millions of wives into widows and children into orphans in the Middle East. No one asks why we have protest marches for women, climate change, and tax disclosure, but none for them. Tis folly to be wise and ignorance is bliss in the corridors of power and the sycophantic mainstream media.
“Republic For Which We Stand” is a breath of fresh air. It dramatizes the birth of the American republic and the wisdom of the founders in entrusting war-making responsibility exclusively to Congress. Yet thirteen successive administrations have flouted the Declare War Clause of the Constitution. When Truman started the first presidential war in Korea, Secretary of State Dean Acheson boasted: “The United States is the locomotive of mankind and the rest of the world the caboose.” Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make arrogant.
The great little James Madison is featured in Henry’s action-packed play as the wunderkind of the Constitutional Convention. He uniquely understood that institutions have personalities; and that institutional personalities trump the personalities of the occupants. Madison recognized that the executive branch personality—like a pit bull—concocts excuses for war to aggrandize power and to leave a legacy. But the legislative branch, which gains nothing from belligerency, goes to war only in self-defense—like a Labrador retriever. Thus, as thirty-five consecutive Congresses abjectly surrendered their war power, the nation has fought gratuitous presidential wars irrespective of the varied personalities of the White House occupants. Only the official picture in the White House War Room changes from presidency to presidency.
The war power is the most important enumerated power. War dethrones the rule of law. Everything is subservient to national security. Thus, in the name of fighting international terrorism, we have endowed the president with power to play prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner to kill any person on the planet the president believes is an imminent threat based on secret, unsubstantiated information. King George III would have blushed with envy. Friedrich Nietzsche got it wrong. God isn’t dead. God has simply moved into the Oval Office.
A reinsurance CEO, the talented new playwright uses drama as the Greeks invented it to stimulate political discussion. In 2003, Henry brought together establishment foreign policy “realists” opposed to the invasion of Iraq—including C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel to President George Herbert Walker Bush; and Chas Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia—to found the Committee for the Republic, a non-profit organization which holds monthly foreign policy salons in Washington DC at the historic Metropolitan Club. In 2016, Henry started the Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation to produce historical dramas staged out-of-doors in a remarkable amphitheater Henry spent seven years building with his own hands on his farm 80 minutes from Washington.
“Republic For Which We Stand” pits Alexander Hamilton’s enthusiasm for beating the British at empire against Madison’s commitment to liberty secured through a separation of powers—a structural Bill of Rights to protect citizens from oppression. In the play, Madison persuades George Washington and the other founders to place the war power in Congress to secure peace, liberty, and prosperity and to reject the British model admired by Hamilton. Never before had the war power been severed from the executive branch—a break in history that propelled the United States to unimagined prosperity and peace for a century.
The founders frequented Philadelphia theaters during the Constitutional Convention. George Washington had his soldiers perform the play Cato at Valley Forge. So in “Republic For Which We Stand,” Washington has three “history plays” performed by convention delegates in Benjamin Franklin’s home while they await a quorum in the spring of 1787. Henry chose the three greatest English warrior kings—William the Conqueror, Edward III, and Henry V—because their unvarying imperial ambitions prove the institutional eagerness of the executive branch for war. Contemporary words or references come trippingly off the tongues of the players to show the continuity in the human condition. History—with all its volumes vast—has but one page.
“Republic For Which We Stand” adroitly exploits the notoriety of the mega-hit “Hamilton,” the Broadway immigrant-makes-good hip-hop hero. Henry’s more realistic monarchy-leaning, over-zealous (almost on steroids) Hamilton declares: “Congressional government leads from behind.” Hamilton dismisses Madison’s claim that the president cannot be trusted with the decision to take the country to war. Like Hamilton himself, the presidency is “bellicose” and indeed (as he repeatedly brandishes his pistol) “kinetic.”
Hamilton’s “chosen-people” hubris is linked to Henry’s riff on the wrong-headedness of our Old Testament foreign policy (“good guys” vs “bad guys”) explored in his 2016 play entitled “Arguing with God.” The bombastic Hamilton frequently bounds about the stage wearing or flaunting a shirt embroidered with a large “No. 1.” “You can’t be leader of the world without fighting wars,” Hamilton exhorts. “Better to fight too many wars than too few.” Madison’s response: “Our Constitution will stand or fall on resisting the temptation of war.”
Henry’s play is sometimes a courtly dance, other times a slew of medieval beheadings, plus one (off-stage) rape scene. But it always burns with a hard gemlike flame, throwing off beams of light as well as heat, cool as well as astringent, witty as well as wise—a buoyant bonfire of all human vanities, a fiery metaphor he himself ardently pursues at his sprawling Northern Virginia farm, Stone Hill, when he invites friends and neighbors each year to a costumed “spectacle”—heralded with drums and bagpipes the last weekend before Halloween.
All the actors in Henry’s plays are so-called “citizen-actors”—amateurs, not professionals. Committee for the Republic Board members Bruce Fein, a highly-respected constitutional lawyer and advocate of impeaching presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama for their unconstitutional presidential wars, and Bill Nitze, a Committee co-founder and environmental entrepreneur for clean energy technologies to combat climate change, play James Madison and George Mason respectively. Johns Hopkins University professor of medicine Hugh Hill plays Hamilton, booming like he is shot out of a cannon. As director, Rick Davis—Dean of George Mason’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and Professor of Theatre—has directed what Davis calls Henry’s “ambitious series of plays, a growing body of work belonging to an ancient and honorable tradition of theatre that addresses the largest questions we face.” Davis defines it as “drama of the people, by the people, and for the people,” linked to a distinctive constitutional foreign policy perspective “downstage center in a new way.” “Republic For Which We Stand” embraces a Renaissance tradition—wrapping history plays within a history play, in Davis’s words, to make “an urgently contemporary point.” Obama inherited three presidential wars from Bush and left nine presidential wars to Trump.
Davis explains his love for citizen theater: “Every time I engage with this extraordinary company of ‘citizen artists’ whose daily lives occupy a vast terrain professionally, politically, theologically, and philosophically, I feel a breath of the freshening air of ancient Athens, where Western drama took root. In Athens, drama and democracy came of age at the same moment and for the same ends. The form and style have changed, but the purpose remains: to help us, the people, think together about the institutions we have built and the assumptions on which they rest.”
The opening performance of “Republic For Which We Stand” was before a sold-out, 160-person audience at the Castleton Theatre House in Rappahannock County, Virginia, on May 28, 2017. The second performance of the play is September 22 at the Woman’s National Democratic Club (WNDC) in Washington DC. Other fall performances will be announced on Facebook. If you are interested in having the play come to your area, please contact [email protected]
Among the two-dozen cast is the president of the venerable Woman’s National Democratic Club, Pakistani-American Nuchhi Currier, portraying Queen Isabella, the avaricious (for money and power) French-born bride of the weak English king, Edward II (portrayed by William Nitze, scion of the late Paul Nitze, former Secretary of the Navy and long-time hawkish defense intellectual.) Playing Washington is Bill Walton, a libertarian, private-equity fund manager who led the Trump administration’s transition team for the Treasury Department. In two roles—as Dolly Madison and Joan of Arc—is the effervescent songbird Patricia Bland Nicklin, former executive vice president of the National Park Foundation and onetime official in other philanthropic ventures including the Bush Points of Lights Foundation. Nicklin closes the show when she leads the cast in rousing choruses from the Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is your Land.” Eleven-year-old Maeve Ciuba virtually steals the show in a brief but stand-out role as the youthful version of Edward III, played in adulthood by a slyly punchy and highly hormonal Bob Randolph, a board member of the Committee for the Republic.
“My play celebrates the founders as the greatest generation in history,” Henry explains. “They believed the war power is the most important in the Constitution. They entrusted sole responsibility for war in Congress—the branch with no incentive to exercise it except in self-defense. The founders recognized that getting the war issue right is indispensable to keeping our Republic. They worried that getting it wrong would destroy the last best hope on earth.”
David J. Hoffman serves as the elected Vice President for Programs at the Woman’s National Democratic Club in Washington, DC.