One man's journey from hero to traitor
His name is the American term for "traitor." He's the country's own Judas, a man who sold out his leader and his cause for a handful of silver. Or its Lucifer, the high-flying favorite of his patron, George Washington, who is cast out for his sins. Or maybe Achilles, a seemingly invincible warrior who finally exposes a fatal weakness.
The story of Benedict Arnold lends itself to classic drama. He might have been the hero of the Revolution, exhibiting immense courage and leadership in an essential victory at Saratoga, N.Y., in 1777, which kept the Revolution alive. But after becoming embittered by what he saw as shabby treatment from Congress, he later turned traitor, almost managing to hand over a key fort - and even Washington himself - to the British.
Oddly, Arnold's life has gotten precious little examination on stage or screen. Popular opinion has simply exiled him as a "bad" man not worth thinking much about. But a play staged this fall in Houston and New York, "The General From America," and a new TV movie, "Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor," are shedding new light on this pivotal character in American history.
Those involved with both productions say Arnold's story has much more complexity than most people realize, as well as a special resonance now as the United States weighs issues of war, peace, and patriotism.
"This is a great time for this [TV] movie to be coming out," says Aidan Quinn, who portrays Arnold in "A Question of Honor" on A&E Jan.13. "America today has very little appetite for complex thinking. We see good or evil, black or white. You're for us or against us."
Few people today, Quinn says, realize that Arnold was "The Man" - "without him there wouldn't have been an America. He was by far the most successful general on either side. He had a messianic following among his soldiers." Arnold's fascinating tale, Quinn says, shows that "life is much more complex" than the stereotypes suggest.
Indeed, "complex" and "fascinating" seem to be popular adjectives used to describe Arnold by those who've looked closely at his life.
"Basically, every American who in 1775 revolted against the British was committing treason. Arnold just did it twice. He said, 'Well, I think I've made a mistake,' " says James Kirby Martin, professor of history at the University of Houston and author of "Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered."
No "United States" existed in 1780, Professor Martin points out, only an armed struggle to break with Britain, a desire that was supported by a minority of the colonists. Most either were neutral or remained loyal to the crown.
Arnold was a fearless warrior (he was severely wounded in battle twice) and a self-made man who supported the cause of freedom financially as well as on the battlefield. The mystery of why he became a traitor is what makes him so fascinating, Martin says. His marriage to a young woman from a prominent loyalist family is often cited as a cause.
But Martin and others see that as vastly oversimplifying. As a "gentleman" of the 18th century, Arnold also resented being passed over for promotions for political reasons. He rankled at being accused of war profiteering. And he eventually resented even his mentor, Washington, for failing to fully take his side against his accusers.
"Arnold had a problem with arbitrary power," Martin says, whether it was the king of England or the American Congress. "He saw how much he had contributed to the cause and how little so many others were contributing to the cause. And he slowly became embittered. You can trace this in his correspondence."
Theater or film offers a way to gain insights into a complex character such as Arnold.
"The General from America," says Corin Redgrave, the distinguished British actor who played Arnold, lets its audience say in effect, " 'I'm Benedict Arnold. How would I have behaved?' That is really all the play invites you to do. It doesn't invite you to accept Arnold's own view of what he was doing.... It doesn't invite you to either admire him or to despise him.
"It simply says these are the circumstances that sometimes produce the most extraordinary and contradictory forms of human behavior. Someone who has [nearly] given his life fighting for American independence ends up trying to put an end to American independence. How does that happen?"
Mr. Redgrave, who has played numerous classical roles, sees many classical allusions in the play. "All great stories are connected by a thousand threads to archetypal myths and images," Redgrave says. "And this one richly so."
Richard Nelson, author of "The General From America," started to write it in the mid-1990s, during the time of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" (it was first produced by Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996). "People were preaching very simplistic solutions," Mr. Nelson says. "Complexity was being tossed over the side of the ship.
"One reason Corin and I got excited about doing the play now was that it seemed even more timely than when it was written.... It can be a dangerous time when people have such simple solutions.... Love of one's country is a very rich and deep and profound thing and shouldn't be simplified."
Ironically, as the TV movie points out, Washington was able to use Arnold's treason as a rallying cry for the flagging cause of freedom, which turned decisively the next year at Yorktown, Va. Arnold spent the last two decades of his life exiled in Britain, ignored there and reviled at home.
In the end, the contrast between Arnold and Washington is stark, says William Mastrosimone, who wrote the script for "A Question of Honor" after 20 years of research. "When Washington encountered a problem, he asked himself, 'What is good for the country?' When Arnold encountered a problem, it's 'What is good for me?'
"The comparison of those two personalities shows the difference between what we would like to think of as the American spirit - Washington - while Arnold is the American spirit gone wrong."