Benedict Arnold: A Drama of the American Revolution in Five Acts, Robert Zubrin

Polaris Books, 2005, 103 pages, US$9.95 tpb, ISBN 0-9741443-1-2

I’m sure that regular readers of these reviews are perplexed: What am I doing, reviewing a historical play about the American Revolution? A good question, almost as good as “What is a space scientist and science-fiction writer like Robert Zubrin writing a play about the American Revolution?” I suspect that the answer is be the same in both case: Because it’s interesting. Why not?

It also helped that this slim volume showed up in my mailbox, unannounced, even as I was wondering how I’d make my review quota this month after spending two weeks not-reading and two more week not-reading-much. Zubrin has been on my shortlist of interesting authors since his SF novel First Landing, and I guess I’ve ended up on his shortlist of interesting reviewers. It’s a fair thing to say that I’ll read anything bearing his name, and when he makes it so convenient to do so… (Sadly, has recently announced a “no-review-copies” policy, so this -falling under a twisted grandfather clause- may be the last such author-solicited review you’ll see here.)

You won’t be surprised to learn that, being French-Canadian, my knowledge of the American Revolution mostly comes from Hollywood movies. Still, even one country and hundreds of years away, the name “Benedict Arnold” is familiar, if only as a synonym for “traitor”. (It helps that the American political class, with its tradition of reasoned discourse, has lately taken the habit of using the name to describe anyone they don’t agree with.)

To its credit, the book is exactly what it title claims: a play, in five acts, describing the infamous actions of Benedict Arnold as he betrayed the nascent American republic to the British. There’s romance, there’s plotting, there’s cloak-and-dagger intrigue and there’s even selfless bravery coming from unlikely heroes. Whew!

But reading a play is, at best, only a partial experience: Until some enterprising troupe decides to select Benedict Arnold as its next project, one can only comment on the text. The full impact of the piece depends on its performance by real live actors. The inclusion of songs in the play can be interesting in a final production, I suppose, but their effect on readers will be limited. (It doesn’t help that the play begins by a lengthy monologue that could be set to music, leading one to the awful impression that it’s going to be “Benedict Arnold: The Musical!”)

The back cover boasts that the play is “historically accurate”, and one is led to give it the benefit of the doubt given the lack of exploding chariots. Aside from some creative license in crafting scene construction and dialogue, supplemental reading indicates no major inconsistencies between Zubrin’s take on Arnold and other version of the stories. (This being said, non-American sources tend to be a lot more lenient toward Arnold’s actions, pointing out that there wasn’t yet an America to betray at that time, and that Arnold was only one of many to choose England over the revolutionaries. Most of the others weren’t celebrated soldiers, though.)

On the production side, a number of historical illustrations enliven the book. The play is followed by a short but essential essay on Benedict Arnold and his place in American History. It also comments and contextualizes the play; an ideal way to cap off the book.

Clearly, I’m out of my league in reviewing Benedict Arnold: No knowing much about American History or plays, my comments will be of limited usefulness. Still, the book is short, the story is interesting and I can even claim to have learnt a thing or two about Arnold in the process. Heck, there’s even a Canadian connection, Arnold having invaded Canada (unsuccessfully, one relishes to add) two hundred years before I was born.

I believe that there’s a good future for this book in high schools across America, as a relatively painless way to learn about that particular episode of history: A simple group reading could do wonders to enliven a class or two. Other potential audiences include American History buffs and high-school libraries. I’m also oddly pleased to see Zubrin stretch in this unexpected direction as a writer, and wonder what’s next on his schedule.

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