The Low Road: Unrevolutionary Bastardy

Today’s guest post is by Hannah Farber, an assistant professor of history at Columbia University. Her manuscript in progress, tentatively titled Underwriters of the United States, explains how the transnational system of marine insurance, by governing the behavior of American merchants, influenced the establishment and early development of the American republic.

Bruce Norris’s new play The Low Road, which had its U.S. premiere in spring 2018 at New York’s Public Theater, asks a very important question. What if a bastard, orphan, son of a whore sets out to seek his fortune in revolutionary America … but instead of becoming a hero and a scholar, he simply reveals himself to be a terrible person?

In the mordantly anti-Hamiltonian The Low Road (2013), the orphaned Jim Truitt (last name changed from the original production’s “Trumpett,” for obvious reasons), happens upon the doctrine of self-interest during his youth in a Western Massachusetts brothel, and decides to make himself its lifelong devotee and prophet. Truitt, played in the Public Theater’s production by the sublimely punchable Chris Perfetti, soon sets off to seek his fortune–that is to say, he insults, rapes, thieves, and murders his way across Revolutionary America, with a pithy speech about self-interest at the ready for every occasion.

With Adam Smith presiding as the play’s mild-mannered omniscient narrator, a familiar portrait of America soon appears, in which just about everyone is on the make. Norris’s main point, in this very post-2008 play, is that Truitt’s dogma of the free market is a socially destructive fiction that feeds on and perpetuates social inequality. Jim is an orphan who owes his life to a woman’s uncompensated care, a male who makes his first money by selling women’s bodies, and a white man who always gets the benefit of the doubt in his disputes with a black man. Norris demonstrates the hollowness of Truitt’s “free market” ascent most effectively by comparing it to the far more poignant struggles of Jim’s foil, the enslaved John Blanke, for freedom, romantic love, and meaningful patrimony.

What makes this play worth watching, however, is not the moral lesson it delivers but the broad slyness with which it undercuts this lesson at every turn. The play’s characters are all compromised in some way: mothers turn out to be selfish, religious figures bigoted, officers of the law corrupt. Even the noble John Blanke turns out to be a bit of a bore, and–worse yet–a lousy playwright. A lot of this is pretty funny, which is a good thing, because it distracts us from some of the play’s underlying aimlessness. The narrative arc of Hamilton draws a flawed hero toward a destiny that he more or less deserves. By contrast, The Low Road ends with a bewilderingly rapid series of twists of fortune that (spoiler alert) kill off a lot of characters for no particular reason.

So what’s the point of it all? While many Americans no doubt leave this show shaking their heads at the destructive characteristics of a capitalism they recognize as uniquely their own, it is actually striking how little interest The Low Road has in the American Revolution, or in the republican political experiments that emerged over the course of the war. The Low Road‘s anti-Hamiltonian anti-hero and the rest of its compromised cast, though wandering a landscape within which British officers and Hessian soldiers are frequent obstacles, show an astonishing indifference to the war’s progress. And the Revolution itself, in its turn, seems to engender nothing.[1] Where Hamilton solves the symbolic dilemma of American patrimony by establishing its titular hero as the adoptive son of General Washington, The Low Road makes a running joke of Washington’s sterility. That is to say, The Low Road insinuates, there is no meaningful inheritance from the American Revolution whatsoever. And if there were to be one, it would be the eighteenth century’s cruel injustices rather than its experiments in self-governance. (In Hamilton, Hamilton’s widow sponsors orphans; in The Low Road, Truitt’s family “line” survives because he commits rape.) The Declaration of Independence did nothing, after all, to save Americans from the rapaciousness of capitalism, much less from people like Jim Truitt (né Trumpett). In fact, Norris hints, capitalism itself is the global disease, akin to the smallpox that (in his retelling) George Washington contracted during a youthful visit to Barbados, a notoriously cruel center of capitalist activity even in its own time. The deadly disease from abroad has left us with a permanent infection, foreclosing a truly revolutionary future.

In its apatriotism, The Low Road play tracks rather well with a great deal of emerging scholarship on the “divisive and bloody” American Revolution, whose acts of violence were sometimes terrifyingly random and at other occasions played out along all-too-predictable racial lines.[2] Norris’s disinterest in the Revolution would, however, have surprised The Low Road‘s presiding deity-pedagogue, Professor Adam Smith. The historical Adam Smith penned the famous phrase “the invisible hand” on the eve of the American Revolution. He was keenly aware that British Americans shared interests–and perhaps just as crucially, sensibilities–that might diverge drastically from those of Britons at home. As Smith’s modern-day devotees sometimes forget, Smith was a scholar of moral philosophy and political economy, not of “economics.” In his time, one would not attempt to set economic questions apart from other matters of public policy. Moreover, as recent scholarship has emphasized, Smith’s scholarship involved deep moral commitments and careful attention to the role of sentiments in producing a healthy society.[3] Thus, to the historical Adam Smith, a Revolutionary-era play that did not frame its moral critique in political terms would have seemed as bizarre as the idea that he was the horrifying Jim Truitt’s intellectual father.

The Low Road‘s lack of interest in the American Revolution would also have gobsmacked playwrights of the early American republic, who spent decades hashing through the challenges of sustaining virtuous republicanism and producing a distinct American identity.[4] Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787), to name just one example, offers a happy ending in which homespun American “probity, virtue, [and] honour” triumph over the temptations of imported finery.[5] Tyler and his fellow playwrights would, however, have immediately recognized at least one of Norris’s tropes: the use of a Native American character to represent a doomed, degraded, or bygone world. In The Contrast, a “Song of Alknomook” recounts the inspiring, noble death of a Cherokee warrior. Jeffrey H. Richards interprets the Cherokee Alknomook as a model of “stoic self-sacrifice along a republican model,” but of course Alknomook is most easily celebrated because he is dying. The Low Road mocks this American theatrical tradition, but does not quite escape it. The play begins with an actor in Native American costume stepping onstage, as Adam Smith narrates an origin myth about the Mohegan peoples’ divine parentage. The character is then summarily shot dead from offstage, as Adam Smith announces, “This particular narrative… does not concern [the Mohegans].” Thus with a single gunshot, the Indian is deprived of his spiritual lineage, his theatrical present, and his claim to the American future. I should also mention that this event gets the play’s first big laugh. Making “bad” characters say naughty racist things for laughs is a time-honored theatrical practice. It’s also a lousy way to use the power of theater.[6] Playwrights can do better.

The satirist has no obligation to provide answers to the social dilemmas he observes, which is lucky for Norris, because he has none to offer. The disorienting Davos-style forum of global capitalists and philanthropists that kicks off Act II descends into a fruitless shouting match. An even stranger event at the play’s end suggests that the only real solution to capitalism is, quite literally, beyond the reach of humanity. Like most good satirists, Norris finds ways to make even this devastating message enjoyable for his ticket-buying audience. As every wave of laughter in the Public Theater suggested–and there were a good number of them–there is some comfort in the collective contemplation of hopeless challenges. The Low Road ultimately produces an effect with which eighteenth-century theatergoers were entirely familiar: a good set of rueful laughs at society’s hypocrisies, a few moments of deep dismay at the profound injustice of the world, and ultimately, an exit from the theater with one’s own values reaffirmed. I am certain that Adam Smith would have enjoyed it.

_______

[1] On this dramatic dilemma, see Mark Peterson, “The Founding Fathers and their Dysfunctional Families,” Common-Place 10 (Oct 2009).

[2] See especially Patrick Spero and Michael Zuckerman, eds., The American Revolution Reborn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

[3] Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

[4] Jeffrey H. Richards, “Early Republican Drama,” The Oxford Handbook of American Drama, eds. Jeffrey H. Richards and Heather S. Nathans (2014).

[5] Royall Tyler, The Contrast: A Comedy in Five Acts, With a History of George Washington’s Copy by James Benjamin Wilbur (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1920), 114-15.

[6] For a deeper critique of the practice of surfing on audience enjoyment of “bad” racist characters, see Sara Holdren, “Theater Review: Why I Can’t Accept Admissions,” New York Magazine, March 12, 2018,

3 responses

  1. Is this based on the current day political environment ? From what I have read it paints a picture mounts the pressure of current storylines and delivers in an almost Dickens manner. The ‘interesting times’ in which we live in certainly make for thought provoking stories like this.

  2. Pingback: New York History Around The Web This Week | The New York History Blog

  3. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

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