The other night, I got stuck. Fourth row center at a performance of Ian Ruskin’s one-person show, To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine.
I was excited to see this show, presented by the Associates of the Boston Public Library. I have been a huge Thomas Paine fan ever since the fourth grade, when I read a juvenile biography of the man who used the pen, rather than the sword, to achieve independence. For over fifty years, whenever asked who my hero was, the answer has always been: Thomas Paine. I’ve written about him in this blog (Common Sense and On January 6: The Wisdom of Thomas Paine). A few years ago I felt an even closer connection to my hero when I discovered Edward G. Gray’s book, Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge: Building a United States. The guy was not only a persuasive writer, he was also an enlightened architect/engineer!
The play was excellent history, if not exactly compelling theater. Mr. Ruskin moved between three set pieces, representing England, the United States, and France: the three place Thomas Paine lived through his long and chaotic life. As an Enlightenment idealist with little formal education and no interest or ability to make a buck, Thomas Paine enjoyed universal fame, huge sales (for which he abandoned copyright according to his principles), scandal, and imprisonment. He was feted for bringing the intellectual underpinnings of the America Revolution to the average man in the colonies, and later doing the same for the peasant in the French Revolution. Yet, in each case, he was later denounced by the government that took hold, as well as the one that was overthrown. He died penniless and unknown. To this day, the location of his remains is a mystery.
After a satisfying 75 minutes of history brought to life, Mr. Ruskin stood aside while the lights dimmed. Then stood forward as they came back up, and asked for questions.
I looked about, trapped. As much as I love theater, I detest Q&A’s, and talkbacks are even worse. The way I see it, Mr. Ruskin researched his subject, wrote the play, and performed it admirably. He had 75 minutes to tell us what he wanted to say, in the manner he chose. What can possibly be improved upon by following his stirring close with the mutterings of audience members who either missed points because they weren’t paying attention; or worse, introduce queries spouted wide of the mark.
In previous experience, performances that will include a talkback note that on the program. When that’s the case, I sit on the aisle to facilitate a speedy exit. Even then, custom dictates a five-minute break between the play and the Q&A, to allow those of us who wish to exit. BPL did neither of these. Thus, I was stuck, fourth row center, to listen to forty-five minutes of audience members pontificating what they knew about Thomas Paine, before offering poor Mr. Ruskin some stale question.
I don’t know who invented the talkback. I imagine it was someone’s engaging notion of participatory theater. I don’t mind if they occur, so long as I am forewarned and can escape. Hopefully, with the power of the playwright’s words and the actor’s revelations still resonating in my head.