The late essayist Christopher Hitchens argued that U.S. political polarity is traceable to a disagreement between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson over the value and meaning of Thomas Paine. When he arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 the 37-year-old English ex-pat, and soon-to-be editor and propagandist seemed destined for division. The American Revolution is inconceivable apart from the galvanizing influence of Paine’s populist pen. The mega-bestseller Common Sense tipped political sentiment, girded loins, and drew muskets. The selfless, albeit imprudent, author waived all proceeds, and donated everything to the cause of liberty. And yet, a generation later, when the impoverished and frail reformer returned from political imprisonment (and near execution) in France, Americans greeted him with contempt. His crime? A treatise, The Age of Reason, which relentlessly argued that formal religion was an irrational human vice. Paine, however, was no atheist; but readers were unready for intellectual terrain beyond the black and white of belief and disbelief.
That ambiguity still bubbles below the cultural surface, and Paine today is largely forgotten or ignored, when he is not mischaracterized or selectively quoted for very un-Paine-ion political purposes. But now comes an opportunity to set the record straight thanks to playwright and actor Ian Ruskin. The Anglo-American actor, trained at Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, toiled many years in conventional television and stage work before reaching a career point where offers were spare and unsatisfying. The pivotal moment arrived in 1994 while playing the lead in Rob Sullivan’s Strike Story: The Harry Bridges Story. A rehearsed reading before the ILWU, the renowned labor leader’s own union, was capped by a 10-minute standing ovation. “Obviously this man, for these people in the union, had an enormous place in their hearts and in their lives,” said Ruskin by phone last week. “I remember standing on stage and thinking, ‘Ah! This is something worth doing.’” Ruskin couldn’t let Bridges go, and five years later put his hand to writing and recording radio documentaries and one-man plays, including From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks, which was eventually directed and filmed for PBS by the legendary Academy Award-winning cameraman, the late Haskell Wexler.
Thomas Paine was the ideal figure to fall next into Ruskin’s sights. “One of the things that drove me to write the Bridges play and the Paine play,” Ruskin admitted, “was that they are so misunderstood and have been relegated, almost written out, of the history books.” Despite Paine’s worldwide impact, and Bridge’s decisive sway on American labor, both “were gently erased,” according to Ruskin. “It made me angry.” In 2010 Ruskin received a COLA Fellowship to write To Begin the World Over Again: the Life of Thomas Paine, and has toured over 60 performances to date, including Harvard Law School, The American Philosophical Society, the ACLU, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. What’s more, a film adaptation (Wexler’s final project, before passing away at 92), narrated by Elliot Gould, is now complete and will be featured on PBS nationwide later this year. In the meanwhile, Ruskin has launched a campaign for sneak peek grassroots screening parties at homes, schools, libraries, churches, etc. Beyond that, Ruskin has plans for translations and worldwide distribution. “Paine was a citizen of the world; he shouldn’t be restricted to the English Language.”
Ian Ruskin will present “To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine” Saturday, February 13, 3 p.m. at the Faulkner Gallery, S.B Central Public Library, 40 E. Anapamu St. Call (805) 962-7653.