The country is at war. From state to state, vastly different values predominate, often driven by religious faith. The economy is perilously volatile. It’s hard to tell who’s running things, politicians or businessmen or the military. Charges of corruption abound, always met by protestations of innocence. We’re talking, of course, about the year 1779, which is the setting for The General from America, Richard Nelson’s play about Benedict Arnold that opened November 21 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. 

Directed by the author, the production stars Corin Redgrave in the title role of the man whose name is synonymous with traitor and features Jon DeVries as George Washington, the iconic "father of our country." In Mr. Nelson’s play, these figures from American history and the chaotic time they lived in are portrayed with considerably more complexity than high-school history books usually convey. Were General Arnold’s motives for defecting to the British side purely mercenary, a matter of wounded pride, a gambler’s leap of faith, a retreat from the barbaric colonial mentality to a civilized culture, or all of the above?

The New York production presented by Theatre for a New Audience, which came directly from four weeks of performances at the Alley Theater in Houston, was instigated by Mr. Redgrave. The 63-year-old actor appeared in the original production of The General from America in 1996 at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which commissioned the play. He recommended it to Gregory Boyd, the artistic director of the Alley Theater, where Mr. Redgrave had recently appeared in a Julius Caesar produced by the Moving Theatre, the company he founded with his famous sister Vanessa and his wife, actress Kika Markham. It took a few years to schedule the production -- in the meantime, Mr. Boyd produced and Mr. Redgrave starred in Trevor Nunn’s premiere staging of the early Tennessee Williams play Not About Nightingale, which played to rave reviews in London, Houston, and New York. But the delay has served Mr. Nelson’s play well, Mr. Redgrave observed in an interview after the first preview of The General from America.

"In those six years, the play has gained resonance immensely," said Mr. Redgrave, who is as soft-spoken offstage as he is fiery on. He was sitting in the balcony lounge at the Lortel wearing a black jacket with an anti-war button saying "Not in Our Name" pinned to the lapel. "In 1995 and ‘96, the author was looking at a certain tendency to view things in a Manichean light -- black/white, good/evil -- and how that can play absolute havoc with people’s sense of where they belong and what they belong to. This seems extraordinarily relevant to me now. You have a president in this country who actually says, ‘You’re either with us or against us.’ This is a dangerous thing to say because it polarizes the world into two opposing camps. The play makes you see how people who might be your intimate ally can be made, by that thinking, into your worst enemy. Benedict Arnold is publicly rebuked by the commander-in-chief for things that he did and didn’t do, but they’re minor compared to what he’s brought to the revolution up until then. So he switches sides. It’s a fantastic subject for a drama."

Speaking of switching sides, Mr. Redgrave played the brief but dazzling role of Washington in the R.S.C. production, directed by Howard Davies. It was Mr. Nelson who suggested he play Benedict Arnold in the current staging. "I was very, very happy playing Washington," the actor said. "After scene ten, you can go off to the green room and have a glass of wine and let the rest of your colleagues get on with the play. It’s absolutely wonderful. When Richard said, ‘You must play Arnold,’ I was not sure about it. I had once played Coriolanus, which turns on approximately the same theme, and I found it immensely difficult. Both plays are about men who can’t really account for what they do. They do it in the heat of the moment and figure out afterwards why. They never explain to themselves or others. Which is the way life happens, but it’s difficult to play. Fortunately, I trusted Richard as a director."

Mr. Nelson, the prolific playwright (Goodnight Children Everywhere, Madame Melville) and Tony Award-winner for his acclaimed adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, considers Mr. Redgrave’s performance crucial to comprehending The General from America. In a phone interview, he said, "At the end of the day, the play is about how we should look at the world through the complexity of human lives rather than simple, easy ideas. So you need someone like Corin, who’s able to show the richness and texture of a human being. He can be warm, decent, principled, proud, selfish, blind, thoughtful -- the contradictions all human beings have, Corin is able to convey and still be the same person."

Written for the New York Times, November 2002 not published.