Dayna Hanson‘s piece Gloria’s Cause is first and foremost a collage. It is not entirely dance theater, not exactly a musical, and it is definitely not a straight play. It kind of takes place during the Revolutionary war and it also kind of takes place now. In my first encounter with it on Ontheboards.tv, I did not necessarily know what make of it. That is the nice thing about digital theater; you can watch it again. And I came to realize that Hanson’s creation exists in the in between. The entire point is that it forms bridges between past and present, between image and movement, dance and theater. The piece not only bridges these forms but finds the contradictions within America by smashing them together.
I was first drawn to this piece not because of the collage-like nature, but because of the content: the Revolutionary War, America’s favorite war. It doesn’t have the controversy around it that the Civil War has, and it happened here. It is about freedom and equality (America’s favorite subject). Yet, as we are more than aware, our present America has proven that some freedoms are greater than other freedoms, and some people are more equal than other people. This is the foundational contradiction that Gloria’s Cause sets out to explore. The opening monologue of the play (which begins after two naked women perform a synchronized dance) features an actor asserting that he was born free. He even claimed, “My freedom means so much to me that I might paradoxically put myself at risk to protect it.” This is the thesis statement of the Revolutionary War. This country’s founding father’s put everything they knew on the line so that this country could be born, and it could be born free. If this idea of freedom, no matter the cost, is central to our country’s birth, how do we understand it as permeating US culture since then? Our country’s existence hinges on paradoxical freedom. And it occurs again and again throughout our history. Consider runaway slaves who fought for the Union. As soon as they reached the North, they could have lived free and safe. Yet, they chose to put their own lives at risk for the ideal that is freedom. Furthermore this country has seen countless movements where peaceful (and non-peaceful) protesters put their own personal safety and freedom on the line to fight to keep this country free and equal. Those protestors knew they were facing jail (and often times worse), but they stuck it out because they believed in the ideal our founding fathers put forth,
But what exactly was that initial founding ideal of freedom and equality? As Hanson’s piece (along with a number of historians and high school AP US History teachers) asserts, “It is not that all men are born with certain rights, but that certain men are born with all rights.” The ideologies of freedom and equality don’t apply to women, black people, Native Americans, and essentially anyone who is not a rich white male. Though America’s label might be “freedom and equality for all,” it has never truly been free or equal for everyone, even since its conception. Our founding fathers meant to exclude large portions of the population. The system has been flawed since it was born.
Another concept Hanson plays with is the the idealization of the founding fathers. We put so much stock in them; yet, they were just men–no better (and sometimes worse) than anyone else. One actor asserts at the beginning of the piece that he can’t read something by Paul Revere because he was going to play Washington later–it would mess him up. Throughout the play he continues to stress the fact that he will be playing Washington. This character puts Washington on a pedestal, almost anxiously looking forward to the moment he’ll get to portray him. When Washington does finally show up, he is drunk to the point of embarrassment. He won’t listen to his soldiers, and he is indecisive. While this is not entirely historically accurate, Washington did lead an aristocratic life. He had many slaves. He wouldn’t commit to a political party. Hanson’s point is that Washington was a person, not a grand figure who did no wrong. The founding fathers were flawed, and they made flawed decisions.
And all of a sudden, our country starts to make sense. It was not made by ideal men with universal ideals. It was birthed by a group of flawed and aristocratic men who believed that the universal rights we hold dear to our hearts only applied to certain people. The struggles of inequality in our country come straight from the moment our country was born. Our founding fathers are at the heart of it. Yet, Gloria’s Cause doesn’t seem to place blame on Washington and his comrades only. We are at fault for the pedestal we place those men on. And furthermore, the institution of slavery (something the US of the past upheld) is at fault. The piece ends with Washington on a literal pedestal while a soldier points a gun, and another character auctions off invisible slaves. The United States was born in violence and hierarchy, and so it stays in violence and hierarchy. Though we may not being fighting the Revolutionary War anymore, and we may not uphold slavery, those values (or lack thereof) are still at the core of our country. The birth of a thing is not unrelated to its current existence.
Also, happy anniversary of the start of the Revolutionary War.