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[New York: T. Gaus, 1976.]
One of the most overused clichés in courtroom dramas involves the sudden transformation of an inept lawyer, who prefers to lounge about instead of taking life and the law seriously, into a master litigator. Tom Cruise's character in A Few Good Men serves a perfect example of this. In his Washington Shall Hang: a drama of lost revolution (New York, T. Gaus, 1976), Robert Wallace Russell drags out the same hackneyed plot twist. He has a dilettante lawyer outwit the legal establishment through his infallible knowledge of the law and presence in the courtroom. The twist is his lawyer is Banastre Tarleton and his client is one George Washington.
Needless to say this is an alternative history. The play starts with the British high command enjoying stunning triumphs. The victorious British troops led by Sir Henry Clinton and Benedict Arnold have driven the American revolutionary forces into the Ohio backcountry. Due to Arnold's betrayal, most of the Patriot leaders have been killed or captured, including General Washington. The only unhappy man at British HQ is Banastre Tarleton who sulks about after his defeat at Cowpens and is ordered by Clinton to wear a standard British uniform instead of his famed green outfit. Spurred by on by the crafty and dishonest John André, Clinton decides to try Washington for treason in proper British style and even concedes that he should have legal representation. Washington chooses a certain law school drop out to represent him and the fireworks begin.
While it is nice to see Banastre as a good guy, Russell totally misreads our hero. Instead of the fun loving young man who lived for the high life, Russell presents a ruthless and efficient solider who barely cracks a smile. His Tarleton revels in "Tarleton's Quarter" and even implies that he would break the rules of honor when engaged in a duel (an activity the real Ban frowned upon). The only time Ban ever breaks out of his shell of being an angry young man is when he cracks up after Washington leaves his wooden teeth as a present. The end of the play indicates that Ban will kill a British officer and, despite his reputation, will defect over to the American side; again something the real Banastre Tarleton would never have dreamed of. It is hard to imagine Tarleton passing his days in rustic contentment on the Old Northwest frontier (maybe that is why things went wrong with Perdita and Ban ended up with Susan -- he wanted to live on a farm and spend his days fishing). While Russell does capture Tarleton taking considerable pride in his military skills and his immense personal vanity, the playwright totally misreads the Green Dragoon.
While Tarleton may not have been as stupid as Mary Robinson's fictional characterizations of him, he was not a learned genius either. Russell goes out of his way to make Ban an intellectual giant. Lawyer Tarleton summons obscure legal precedents off the top of his head despite not having studied law (and even then how much studying did Ban really do?) in almost a decade. Tarleton knows the law, inside and out. He proves quick on his feet, a masterful litigator, who outwits Clinton, André and Arnold at every turn. Who knew that Ban studied and retained obscure parts of English common law and the history of the Middle Ages?
The worst part is when Demi Moore wants Ban to stop playing baseball so he can see his clients... oh wait, wrong play. Still, I can see Ban being something of a perpetual adolescent drinking Yoohoo and wearing a Red Sox hat. Or at least a Oakland A's if he does not want to break color.
On a historical level, Russell is not much better with the other characters. Arnold seems properly crude, nasty and henpecked. Peggy Arnold comes off as a scheming sex kitten. A young Horatio Nelson pops up and George Washington gives him advice about falling in love with the wife of a friend. Nelson, apparently already dreaming of his love affair with Emma Hamilton in fifteen years, cheerfully agrees.
Russell engages in character assassination in regards to both Clinton and André. Instead of a slightly neurotic and painfully blunt "shy bitch," Clinton comes off as a natural schemer who is always finding ways to elevate his reputation in England and lower anybody else's. André is shown as something of a scheming manic depressive with suicidal tendencies. Needless to say the grace and wit that characterized the historic André are noticeably absent in the play. Both Clinton and Arnold spend most of the play scheming and dividing up the American colonies as their future dukedoms and baronies.
Ban even dares to call Clinton to the stand. Clinton does not want to answer Ban's questions. Sir Henry taunts the Green Dragoon. "You want me on that wall. You need me on that wall." In a really tense moment, the following exchange occurs:
Sir Henry: You want answers ?
Ban: I think I'm entitled to them.
Sir Henry: You want answers?
Ban: I want the truth.
Sir Henry: You can't handle the truth.
Well, maybe that didn't happen.
Despite these grievous errors in characterization, the play remains a fun look at a possible ending for the Revolution. Certainly Russell's view of Ban Tarleton remains one of the more unique fictional butcherings of his character.
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