Yesterday I saw “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” at the Lantern Theater Company in Philadelphia.
Playwright Scott Carter, a veteran of over twenty years of working with Bill Maher, has a lot to say about ideas and religion, and he ingeniously brings together, in a sort of Sartrean afterlife, three characters who wrote their own versions of the gospels.
Of course the three literary greats feel impelled to try create a common version of the gospels among the three of them. Needless to say, they fail. They stir up a lot of discord about everything from social analysis to spiritual life.
At times they seem to be moving toward agreement on some higher values, like self-abnegation or love of humanity, but ultimately all they have in common is that they all write… and write….
They don’t spare each other and all take their licks for not living up to their own principles, especially about family life. Despite his many real qualities and vital role in political history, Jefferson comes off the worst, perhaps because the others know a lot about him and he never heard of them, given the discrepancy in dates.
It struck me that the Jefferson portrayed here embodies the contradictions in the United States, both as he helped the country to come into existence and as it continues today.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,” he wrote—but of course he didn’t mean people of African descent, or women, or a lot of others.
As all three at last confess some of their misdeeds, Jefferson explains that he took his young slave Sally Hemings as his mistress because he had promised his late wife never to marry again. And besides, he adds, Sally was Martha’s half-sister.
For a man who believed in liberty, he owned a lot of slaves, as Dickens and Tolstoy don’t fail to point out. And he refused to free them even in his will because, he says in the play, he didn’t want to financially disadvantage his heirs. (During his lifetime he did, formally or informally, free Sally Hemings and their children.)
Jefferson can also be cited at the origin of many of the contradictions that still affect us today. Do “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” include the right to health and medical care? What protections do citizens have against financial institutions, which Jefferson heartily feared? Is there an optimal balance between the powerful and the dispossessed? Is it proper (as the 1787 Constitution did) to limit citizens’ right to vote? Would the Founders, and do we, support FDR’s famed Four Freedoms of 1941 (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear)?
Hypocrisy was the founding vice of this country, whose principal apostles of Freedom all were served by slaves except John Adams (who as a lawyer did, however, serve slaveholders in cases against slaves).
If only we could overcome our country’s innate self-contradictions today, we might progress once again as a nation. But when truth has sunk to such a low ebb in our national capital, it’s hard to be optimistic. For states that in 1776 declared themselves “united,” our history continues to generate a lot of discord.
Although Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy do a lot of shouting at each other on the stage, at least they openly discuss some important underlying human values. That might be a good place for us to start, or start over, in 2017.
Jefferson, from Lantern Theater