Corin Redgrave with Yvonne Woodsin The General From America(Photo: Charles Erickson)
Corin Redgrave with Yvonne Woods
in The General From America
(Photo: Charles Erickson)
Of the first-rate British actors shuttling between England and the states, Corin Redgrave may be the least celebrated. His ranking among peers in this generation is reminiscent of the pecking-order in which his father, Michael, figured: Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Ralph Richardson were usually designated as the top three, with Michael Redgrave then mentioned as a slightly lesser fourth. Even in the second-generation Redgrave family, Corin seems to take a secondary position to sisters Vanessa and Lynn.

This is egregiously unfair, since Corin Redgrave is as good as they come. In the last few years, his performances in London and New York theaters as well as his television assignments (he's superlative as Old Jolyon in The Forsyte Saga) must be considered second to none for refinement of character, the ferocity with which he confronts emotion, his facility at accents. He has absolute authority on stage. A big man who resembles a fleshier Paul Newman more than he does his lanky, long-faced dad, Redgrave may not see his name flashing above as many marquees as it ought, but he nevertheless radiates 1000-watt light whenever he arrives from the wings.

He does it again as Benedict Arnold in Richard Nelson's 1996 drama The General From America. Playing the valorous military man who morphed into America's foremost turncoat, Redgrave hobbles on a supposed bum leg, talks over his subordinates, changes mood from one word to the next, snorts and whines, darts conflicted looks at the walls, charms and subdues his wife, and ultimately gives himself over to the half-smiles affected by men who have slumped into resigned defeat. He speaks in a mid-Atlantic accent far from that of the Southern warden he played a few seasons back in Tennessee Williams's Not About Nightingales or the rounded parlor tones he used as the Somerset Maugham-like character in the West End production of Noël Coward's Song at Twilight.

Would that the role to which he's now giving so much of himself deserved it. It almost does, but in the end, Nelson's Benedict Arnold isn't an entirely successful character. The work Nelson did in researching the man behind the sorry myth definitely shows; while most American history books merely tarnish the man for plotting betrayal, Nelson uses shorthand to establish context and the frame of mind in which Arnold came to his misguided decision. He lets it be known that in 1779, when the drama is set, the colonies were in woeful economic straits, with morale low and hope for victory slim. As a result, Arnold -- who had gone into debt in fighting for his new country -- had good reason to wonder whether the goals for which he and his fellow revolutionaries campaigned were realistic.

This is not a bad idea for a play, especially considering that the loss of belief in causes is also cited as the motive of spies as recent as Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean, not to mention Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames. The flaw in Nelson's sketching is that it's sketchy. Covering Arnold's activities during a period when he is sent back to West Point and, as a result, decides to divulge to the British army news of a visit from George Washington, Nelson tells a large story in a series of small, talky scenes, some of them quite well crafted but some not. He trails Arnold from a time where he's reprimanded for war profiteering through his decision to give maps of West Point to a British officer who, instead of taking them back to his commander, is captured by Americans and hanged. This leads to Arnold's being exposed and eventually shipped to England to live in compromised circumstances. (Just how compromised is in question; though it appears that Arnold was shunned in the years before his death in 1801, the commemorative plaque on his Gloucester Place house in London refers to him as "American Patriot.")

During the course of the play, Arnold hobnobs with greats and near-greats including George Washington (Jon DeVries), Alexander Hamilton (Jesse Pennington), British major John André (Paul Anthony McGrane), Sir Henry Clinton (Nicholas Kepros), and Pennsylvania president and firebrand Joseph Reed (Sean Cullen). They're all men of strong character, which partly accounts for the frustration engendered when Nelson hurries them into the action and then hustles them out again. The playwright does hit a peak during the first scene with Washington, a man who breaks down at the thought of a deprived populace but who also responds to the capture of yet another traitor by saying, "First have the hearing, then hang him." Another potent sequence comes when Clinton meets the caught Arnold and treats him with the respect one soldier owes another, even as he disdains his counterpart's selling out the principles for which he'd been crusading. At the end of this vignette, however, Nelson hits a bump: He implies -- as, apparently, historical records have done -- that Clinton was having a homosexual affair with André but then drops the subject abruptly.

Also, as dramatist and director, Nelson plays fast and loose with the characters' ages. In 1779, Arnold was 38 and Washington was 47. Redgrave and DeVries, who's tough and polished, not only look like contemporaries, they appear too old for their roles (DeVries maybe less so). This, of course, affects the dynamics of the characters; Washington's confrontation with a younger man whom he considered up-and-coming would have had another, perhaps more intriguing impact. Also, as it stands, Arnold's December-May marriage to the very English Peggy (Yvonne Woods) seems to be something that calls for more background information than is vouchsafed.

Paul Anthony McGrane and Corin Redgravein The General From America(Photo: Charles Erickson)
Paul Anthony McGrane and Corin Redgrave
in The General From America
(Photo: Charles Erickson)
One of the most interesting aspects of this contemplation of a man torn between England and America is the way in which it mirrors Nelson's own situation. American-born and the author of, among other works, Some Americans Abroad and Two Shakespearean Actors, Nelson probably wins the "American Playwright as Anglophile" prize hands down. In delving into Arnold's dilemma, is he unconsciously examining his own mixed reactions to the country where he's held in such regard (he's an honorary associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company) and the homeland that has been slower to recognize him? Robert Marx writes of Nelson in his program notes, "Only Shakespeare has had more plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company." Is the peripatetic playwright examining where his own loyalties lie? Just asking.

The Theatre for a New Audience's production of The General From America is competent without being notably rousing. Aside from Redgrave's sterling rendition of Arnold and the stylish and stalwart work of DeVries, Kepros, Cullen, Pennington, and McGrane, the major contribution is from sound designer Scott Lehrer, who throughout airs such subtle effects as the sound of cicadas, distant cannon fire, and voices echoing through public areas. Adequate help is supplied by Woods and by Kate Kearney-Patch as Arnold's meek sister, as well as by set designer Douglas Stein (who keeps the furnishings minimal), lighting designer James F. Ingalls (who keeps the stage quite dark), and costume designer Susan Hilferty. But the reason to see The General From America is the performance of Corin Redgrave.