Americans in London

Americans in London

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Massive street protests–and the biggest security operation Britain has ever seen for a visiting head of state–will greet George W. Bush when he visits London tomorrow. Antiwar protesters say they will resist moves to enforce an “exclusion zone” designed to keep them from Buckingham Palace, where Bush and his wife will be staying with the Queen.

As the organizer of the Stop the War coalition said last week, “It is an outrage that the most unwelcome guest this country has ever received will be given the freedom of the streets, while a movement that represents majority opinion is denied the right to protest in the area which is the heart of government.”

Meanwhile, miles away from Buckingham Palace in a rundown part of London, another kind of protest is being staged during Bush’s visit. Americans: A New Century Begins with an Act of Blood, is a play about the rise and decline of imperial power. Eric Schlosser–who demolished the junk food industry in the best-selling Fast Food Nation–wrote it in 1985, at a time when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were giving old imperial attitudes a new spin for a new generation.  

Empire has once again become fashionable. So, ironically a play written nearly twenty years ago, about early 20th century America’s determination to replace Britain as the world’s leading imperial power, is being staged for the first time as King George arrives in London.

Set in the period before and after President William McKinley’s assassination, “Americans” explores the fall of the British empire, the birth of the American colossus, and the historical parallels between the late 19th and 20th centuries.  “On both sides of the Atlantic,” Schlosser says, “worship of the ‘free market’, growing corporate power, union-busting and a widening gap between rich and poor suggested the dawn of another Gilded Age.”

Leon Czolgosz,, the anarchist who assassinated McKinley at the Pan American Exposition in 1901, is a central figure in the play, and many of his lines resonate today. “If America chooses to become the big bully of the world,” he tells another US President, “I promise you, America will pay.” Czolgosz saw himself as a Brutus warning his country against the horrors that tyranny and the misuse of power would inflict. 

One of the most chilling moments in the play has the unrepentant Czolgosz going to the electric chair warning the assembled witnesses that American cities will one day go up in flames, paying the price for “your outrageous vanity.”

The great Southern writer William Faulkner eloquently noted that the past is never dead. It isn’t even past. Schlosser speaks for the millions of Americans who understand what Faulkner meant.

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