Corin Redgrave in The General From America(Photo: Charles Erickson)
Corin Redgrave in The General From America
(Photo: Charles Erickson)
The last time Corin Redgrave played New York, he gave us a brilliant, Tony nominated, portrait of unquestionable villainy: the sadistic and brutish prison warden in the 1999 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' reclaimed early work Not About Nightingales. Redgrave is back in town and, this time, he's playing Benedict Arnold, a man history has designated as one of America's most notorious traitors. But it may not be so easy to boo the character; in Richard Nelson's The General From America, a co-production of Houston's Alley Theatre and New York's Theatre for a New Audience that opens on November 21 at the Lucille Lortel Theater, Arnold is presented with a complexity that defies easy labels.

"History is always unfair on people who make the wrong decisions and, clearly, Arnold did make the wrong decision," says Redgrave during a break in rehearsals at the Lortel. "But the play isn't a history lesson. I think it's a very humanistic play. It says, 'Don't be quick to pass judgment on things' -- you may have to spend further time investigating. And even then, in some cases, do you need to really need to pass judgment at all?"

Redgrave first became acquainted with The General From America six years ago. The play was written by Nelson as part of a standing commission with the Royal Shakespeare Company and received its world premiere at the company's Stratford base in 1996. In that production however, Redgrave played the much smaller part of George Washington, Arnold's one-time friend and patron. "The play moved me an awful lot and I became a sort of agitator for its further life," Redgrave recalls. "I felt it should be seen." The 63 year-old actor had, by that point, developed a relationship with the Alley Theatre and suggested that the play be produced in Houston; the current New York run immediately follows a month-long engagement at the Alley.

As most people know, Redgrave is part of a distinguished theater dynasty: the son of Sir Michael and actress Rachel Kempson, brother of Vanessa and Lynn, and father of Jemma. His promising acting career, which took off in the early 1960s, seemed to be derailed during the '70s and '80s -- to a far greater extent than that of his sister Vanessa -- when establishment theater and movie producers steered clear of him on account of his passionate political views. Since the mid-1990s, however, he has re-emerged as a powerful and intelligent performer, receiving high praise for his work on stage as well as in film and television. A founding member of England's current Marxist party, Redgrave remains politically active, having most recently inaugurated two movements: Artists Against Racism and the International Movement For Peace And Justice in Chechnya.

Over the past few years, he has initiated theater projects that have afforded him the opportunity to play historical figures who were pilloried for their political views and for their perceived infractions against established codes of behavior. Through his company The Moving Theater -- which he founded with his sister Vanessa and his actress-wife, Kika Markham -- Redgrave commissioned (and played the title role in) a play about Sir Roger Casement, the Irish Republican folk hero whose private diary entries detailing homosexual encounters were leaked by the British government in order to bolster their case for executing him as a traitor. The actor also commissioned from Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde's grandson, a stage adaptation of De Profundis, Wilde's moving letter from prison to Lord Alfred Douglas, which he performed in London last year. And, this past August, Redgrave portrayed Sir Anthony Blunt in Blunt Speaking, a play he wrote for himself about the renowned art historian who was revealed to have led a double life as a spy for the Soviet Union.

But Redgrave downplays the common theme running through his recent roles. "I don't think it should be overstated," he murmurs. "Actors are far less in control [of the parts they play] than one would suppose if you look at it from the outside." He admits that he did, of course, consciously seek out the three roles mentioned above; but Arnold in The General From America was offered to him by playwright Nelson, who is also directing the current production.

Kate Kearney-Patch, Corin Redgrave, and Yvonne Woodsin The General From America(Photo: Charles Erickson)
Kate Kearney-Patch, Corin Redgrave, and Yvonne Woods
in The General From America
(Photo: Charles Erickson)
"I had planned on doing Washington again," Redgrave explains. "It's an astonishingly self-contained part. Washington is in two scenes but, to all intents and purposes, you might say the bulk of the part is concentrated in one scene of about 15 minutes. It is also very clear morally, in terms of intentions and meanings. Playing Arnold was Richard's idea, not mine. Arnold is much more difficult to play, I think, because he is not always fully conscious of his own motives. He's trying to work them out as he goes along. That is what makes it difficult, rather than the moral dimension, because you can make a perfectly good argument for what he did. He believed he was saving lives -- American and British -- and he did what he saw was in the best interests of his country."

Of course, as the play itself indicates, one can also attribute a more selfish motivation to Arnold: His pride was hurt because Washington issued a public reprimand declaring him guilty of imprudent and improper behavior on two charges of corruption. "That is clearly part of what drove him," concurs Redgrave, "but he had other reasons. He thought that the American Revolution was becoming hopelessly entangled in competing rivalries within itself, which would leave the country in a protracted, bloody, and immensely costly war with no certain result." Redgrave allows that Arnold "had no modest view of himself -- but rightly so. He was the most successful and courageous general America had. And he was lucky too. Luck plays a huge part in these things. Just look at the luck that has gone George Bush's way," the actor ruefully notes. "So the personal also contains a larger dimension there."

In the original RSC production, Redgrave's Washington exuded a weary melancholy that seemed to stem from bearing the burden of keeping the Revolution on track -- balancing the interests of various fractious groups among the politicians and the military. Switching roles for this production has afforded Redgrave a different viewpoint. "I look at Washington now -- speaking as if I were inside the character Arnold -- as a man who has lost his way and has surrendered to forces which he ought to have stood up against more obstinately than he did."

The way Redgrave sees it, the Washington-Arnold relationship echoes an archetypal theme in drama. "Every good play has strong mythical elements," he says, "and a theme being investigated here is what it is like to kill your father. In that sense, Arnold has two competing father figures within him -- on the one hand, Washington, and, on the other, his Colonial ancestry. And there is another element, from Christian religious myth: Lucifer was God's favorite angel until pride led him to pit himself against God. He was cast out and became the antithesis of himself. There's a lot of that tragic story in Arnold, I think. You see, he is horrified by what Washington does because he's got this extraordinary conception of the man's greatness and magnanimity. He can't understand it, therefore, when Washington makes this compromise, which was ultimately in Arnold's favor. In that sense, he is a victim of his own hero-worship of Washington."