“We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense, a pamphlet of less than fifty pages, published in January of 1776, months before the Declaration of Independence was drafted. In clear and robust prose, Paine urged his fellow Americans to do the unthinkable, the impossible – to declare themselves an independent nation.
Given the chaos of American politics at the present moment, many of us no doubt long for the power that Paine invokes here – the power of citizens to alter their government – an idea that may seem quaint in the age of Trump, but which is, after all (or used to be), at the heart of American national identity.
That desire to reshape the world for the better is also at the heart of Ian Ruskin’s compelling one-hour drama on the life of Paine, arguably America’s most fervent revolutionary and certainly the most radical of our Founders. The film is returning to public television stations around the country this week, with multiple airings on the World Channel on and around Independence Day. (Where I live, in the Detroit area, Thomas Paine’s To Begin the World Over Again will be shown four times between July 3 and 4. To find airdates where you are, visit The World Channel, thelifeofthomaspaine.org, or web-search the schedule for your local PBS affiliate.)
I discovered Ian Ruskin’s work through his blog-piece: “Why Thomas Paine Matters,” posted to Daily Kos in April of 2012. The article, reflecting on both the importance of Paine’s ideas and the dearth of political truth-telling in America, also contained links to video excerpts from Ruskin’s stage play.
For me, this was a perfectly timed coincidence. I watched in wonder and delight as Thomas Paine came to life on my laptop screen. I had been making a study of Paine and his writings ever since reading The Age of Reason in 2009. (The tale of my acquaintance with Mr. Paine can be found in my own Daily Kos diary from about a year ago.) Ruskin’s pushback against a distorted Tea Party version of American history was grounded in fact, not ideology. Better still, he used Paine’s actual words and ideas to press his case. His characterization immediately struck me as jaw-droppingly right – exactly in line with the man I had glimpsed in countless letters and essays, and in the sarcastic humor and soaring rhetoric of all his major works. I knew I had to see this play. And I really wanted to talk to the man who had written and performed it.
About a week later, I sent an email – a fan letter, really – to Ian Ruskin. Since then I’ve had the privilege of chatting with the playwright several times about the purpose and evolution of his play. I saw it performed in Philadelphia at the American Philosophical Society in 2012, and later helped bring it to an audience at Bowling Green State University, where I was then a graduate student in American Studies. One of the undergraduate students told me afterward how inspired he’d been to see the performance (and that he’d also read The Age of Reason), and I realized that history didn’t have to be oversimplified or whitewashed to connect with non-scholars.
In March 2015, I was in the audience at the Lillian Theater in Hollywood as To Begin the World Over Again was filmed. The experience was magical. The creative and artistic process was fascinating, of course – but almost as amazing was getting to see how others in that audience absorbed and reacted to a historical figure as someone relevant to their own lives.
Historian Harvey Kaye, one of the many scholars consulted for Ruskin’s Paine project, has observed in his book Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, that we tend to look back to the American Founders in times of national crisis, habitually seekng inspiration in “our revolutionary past at times … when the very purpose and promise of the nation [are] at risk or in doubt.” Paine in particular, according to Kaye, is the embodiment of the American impulse to radicalism. Ruskin’s goal in bringing Paine to the stage (and now the screen) was originally to remedy public perception of a “misunderstood” historical figure and to counter the “complete distortion of Paine’s words and work and beliefs” by entities such as the Tea Party.
Ruskin seems to have found his mission in rescuing historical figures who’ve been misunderstood or have faded from public memory. He began exploring the potential of history-based one-man plays in 2001 with From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks, which celebrates the achievements of labor radical Harry Bridges. His next project will take on the life and thought of the inventor Nikola Tesla.
Both the stage and film versions of To Begin the World Over Again capture the turbulence and heartbreak of Thomas Paine’s life, while also exploring his most important ideas – which have shaped American political thought for more than two centuries now.
The film opens with Ruskin as Paine lighting candles on a darkened stage – an apt metaphor for our own political moment. Over the course of an hour, he recounts his tumultuous career – from poverty in England through the upheavals of the American and French Revolutions, to the public declaration of his own non-Christianity in The Age of Reason – an event which led to public censure and neglect in the years before his death in 1809. Along the way, period music and eighteenth-century art (political cartoons and portraits of Paine’s contemporaries), help to flesh out the story and re-create the atmosphere of Paine’s time in all its messiness: its rationalism (for the lucky few), its revolutions, its abject poverty (for the many) and its boisterous and often corrupt politics.
If all of that sounds a little familiar, it should.
The play was called timely by several critics even before the election of 2016. Now, as our nation endures seemingly endless corruption and chaos, meanness and hatred directed at the most vulnerable, and a looming constitutional crisis, Paine’s words and ideas take on a new and urgent relevance.
“I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.” — Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
Far from being a textbook lesson about a lone genius, Ruskin’s film is a believable human drama about patriotism and sacrifice – about the potential cost of idealism, selflessness, and speaking truth to power. As we learn, Paine sacrificed nearly all for his vision of a better, more humane world: intimate love, emotional and financial security, domestic ties to family and country – and many of his closest friendships, whether to death or to ideological disputes. Ever more abandoned and solitary, Paine ages before our eyes in this film. His bitter, late-in-life breaks with George Washington and Samuel Adams are wrenching – for him and for us. His literal appearance as a lone figure on the minimally dressed stage becomes all too symbolically fitting.
Perhaps Ruskin’s most impressive feat here is to provide us a glimpse into the heart and mind of a man whose inner life, even for scholars, remains elusive. Paine was not in the habit of self-disclosure in his writings, most of which are intended to persuade through reason and sheer force of rhetoric. Yet Ruskin somehow gets beneath the surface of the political man, using Paine’s personal correspondence, his religious writings, and the observations of scholars and contemporaries to fill in the knowledge gaps – and by making intuitive leaps as necessary. In interviews, Ruskin cites his own sense of kinship with Paine the immigrant as a factor that informs his interpretation of the character. The deeper Ruskin dives into Paine’s psyche, the more riveting his performance becomes.
In some ways, I am reminded of the musical 1776, one of my personal touchstones to the American Revolution from about the age of about eleven. Like that much longer play, To Begin the World Over Again moves from lightness and bawdy eighteenth-century jokes (Ruskin’s Paine speaks of the similarities of “politics and farting”), to the darker aspects of revolution and its human toll. The excited, almost bubbly Paine that we see in the first half of the film contrasts sharply with the somber character of the second half. It is in the film’s closing moments, when Ruskin’s delivery slows down and Paine becomes reflective, that we see the man worn down to his essentials, a weary soul battered by harsh experience, yet still unwilling to compromise his words or beliefs. As an actor, Ruskin is at his most compelling while revealing Paine’s slow emotional breakdown. The unblinking and up-close eye of the camera makes that decline harrowing. On film (as opposed to the live stage), Paine is literally no longer at arm’s length, and the effect is powerful.
For those who don’t want to wait, the film is currently available to stream at on Amazon Prime and Vimeo. The DVD can be ordered on Amazon or directly from Ruskin’s non-profit.
Thomas Paine not only knew how to rally a resistance movement – he knew the rigors of sustaining one. During the winter of 1777, as Washington’s troops retreated across the frozen Jersies and the American Revolution appeared to be doomed, he wrote the first of his Crisis papers, opening with the line: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The essay reaches its rhetorical climax in these lines–used by President Obama in his first inaurgual address:
Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.
I urge everyone to spare an hour over the July Fourth holiday to take in the story of America’s Founding Radical, a man who, in the most personal way, understood that “it is dearness only that gives every thing its value,” and who fought all of his life for the “celestial article [of] FREEDOM” for every single human being. At a time when America’s founding ideals are being threatened as never before, the voice of Thomas Paine, always ahead of his time, continues to speak powerfully to our own.