Republic For Which We Stand
by John Stoltenberg
For anyone who is more than a little unnerved that President Trump might go off half-cocked and trigger a war—which he could do with as little thought as he puts into a tweet—this civic-minded play has some bombshell news: The U.S. president can’t actually lawfully do that. According to the nation’s Founders. The Constitution they debated and crafted states explicitly that only Congress has the so-called war power.
Never mind that the U.S. is currently engaged in nine president-declared wars. And never mind that since Truman started the Korean War, thirteen successive administrations have violated the War Powers Clause of the U.S. Constitution. We have become a warfare state, perpetually at war, with all the cost, carnage, and family suffering that entails. Congress was never supposed to be the rubber stamp if a chief executive has a whim to win to war. Congress was meant to be the sole decider.
So that ought to be that. Except obviously it’s not.
Republic For Which We Stand by John B. Henry—a self-described citizen playwright—is an imaginative restaging of the deliberations that led the Framers of the Constitution to conclude that giving the president war power would be a really bad idea. They knew they didn’t want an empire like the Brits had; they wanted a republic instead. So they broke with history and decided they didn’t want a monarch crowned with powers that an impetuous and bellicose ruler could one day abuse.
Gosh, whoever could they have had in mind?
The play is a quasi-comic, quasi-historical dramatic pageant set behind the scenes of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1781. Among the characters are several A-list originalists: George and Martha Washington, James and Dolly Madison, George and Sarah Mason, and Benjamin Franklin, in whose home the play takes place. Also making an appearance is Alexander Hamilton, though he comes in for a drubbing. Fans of the valorized version renowned in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical may be surprised that here Hamilton is the bad guy: the play’s sole proponent of giving the president unlimited war powers, and the foil for all the arguers on the prevailing side.
Republic for Which We Stand is the second play in a trilogy by Henry. Like the first, Arguing With God, it crackles with smarts. Epigrammatic arguments fly by like arrows with Shavian aim. In the mouths of his amusingly portrayed characters, John B. Henry’s terribly swift words bring an epic historic controversy vividly to life. To wit, on one side:
You can’t be the leader of the world without fighting wars.
War’s the best way to excite the loyalty of your subjects.
If you’re a great warrior, the barons will bankroll you.
And in compelling counterpoint:
Our Constitution must be designed for peace.
Only unsheath the sword of liberty in self-defense.
Our Constitution will stand or fall on resisting the temptation of war.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I must pause to mention the absolutely extraordinary circumstances of the performance. It took place at the United States Capitol Visitor Center in the Congressional Auditorium subsequent to the introduction by Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) of a House Resolution drafted by the bipartisan Committee for the Republic that defines a presidential war as an impeachable offense. Playwright Henry explained in his opening remarks that because Congress has so far failed in its duty to debate that resolution, the debate would play out here in theatrical form instead. Adding to the resonance of the event was the fact that in the tradition of early Greek theater, the play was cast with so-called citizen actors, many of them professionals in other spheres but all non-pros as performers. The evening—far from being the amateur hour a cynic might expect—turned out to be a singular synchronicity of activist people’s theater and real-life politics of conscience the likes of which I cannot recall being witness to.
By coincidence the next week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to address Trump’s authority to issue a first nuclear strike. There’s plenty of war worry going around. Reportedly, some Republicans have hatched a plan to literally tackle Trump if he reaches for the nuclear code. The political issues posed by Republic For Which We Stand could not have higher stakes than they do at this moment in American history—and that awareness gave the performance rare salience.
The work itself is a playful pastiche of serious and comedic history sketches with pop songs along the way—among them “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar,” “Material Girl,” and “You’re No Good,” (all really well sung by Pat Nicklin as Dolly Madison). The period garb by Costume Designer Paula Hughes contributed substantial eye appeal to the catchy spectacle. The premise of the play is that George and Martha Washington are presenting three plays-within-the-play, each featuring one of England’s great warrior kings—William the Conqueror, Edward III, and Henry V—and a sometimes grisly rendering of their exploits (including beheadings). After each such object lesson in the perils of limitless executive power (“It’s the divine right of kings to take their countries to war!”), the assembled guests debate how to keep the U.S. prez in check. In Henry’s contemporized view, the Founding Mothers have equal say with the Founding Fathers, as in this exchange:
MARTHA WASHINGTON: We must entrust the war power to an institution with no inherent incentive to exercise it.
DOLLY MADISON: Otherwise we’ll be just like the British. And there goes our exceptionalism.
ALEXANDER HAMILTON: We must emulate the British monarchy. Otherwise we’ll never reach our manifest destiny: world greatness.
MARTHA WASHINGTON: The only thing that’s manifest is your vaulting ambition.
Surreally but consistent with the play’s intentional centering of female voices, there are also appearances by the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc (who, again in Nicklin’s full voice, gets to sing an amusing “I Love Paris”). Other noteworthy performances included Jennifer Ruger as a pacifistic Virgin Mary (“Conquest defeats itself, but justice lives for the ages”), Bill Nitze as a fiery George Mason (“All Executives are predisposed to war”), and Hugh Hill as a full-of-himself Hamilton who in the closing moments ominously predicts,
America will replace Britain as world leader. Our political parties will ignore the Constitution and embrace my elective monarchy. Congress will rubberstamp endless presidential wars.
Director Rick Davis, Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts and Professor of Theater at George Mason University, not only wrangled/managed a stageful of characters coming and going but infused the whole with an entertaining balance of levity and edification. Indeed the lively performances had something akin to the esprit of kids playing dress-up and going, “Hey, let’s put on a show!”—except these were grownups doing a decisive drama in perilous times in dead earnest. To that end a haunting choral dirge recurred:
We’re the victims of war.
War turned us into orphans.
War turned us into widows.
War caused us to bury our sons before our sons could bury us.
We’re the unknown collateral damage of war.
At the end, a company chorus of “This Land Is Your Land” got the audience singing and clapping along. It was a deserved upbeat ending to the thoroughly engaging show these citizen actors had put on. But the play had also been a sobering reminder that a founding principle of our country has been usurped. This had not hit home for me till I watched Republic For Which We Stand. And I left that imposing grand assembly hall with a heightened appreciation of how, since ancient times, people’s theater performed by politicized citizenry serves an essential civic function: to inform us and rouse us to act.
Director: Rick Davis; Costume & Props Director: Paula Hughes; Costume Assistant: Sonja Taylor; Drama Poo Bah: Richard Squires; Humorists: Richard Rymland, Travis Brown; Moral Philosopher: Bruce Fein; Dramaturge: David Hoffman; Plantagenet Advisors: John Lewis, William Garner; Virgin Mary Advisor: Tuck Grinnell; Literary Advisor: Francisco La Rubia Prado; Artist: Joan Danziger; Photography & Video: Kenny Reff; Social Media: Max Mohr.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
Republic For Which We Stand played November 7, 2017, at Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation performing at the Congressional Auditorium in United States Capitol Visitor Center, 1 East Capitol Street NE, Washington, DC. For news of future performances
An on-book performance of Republic For Which We Stand at Castleton Theater May 28, 2017.