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Captain Jack’s Revenge

Plays and Players, March 1971, Jonathan Hammond

I liked ‘Captain Jack’s Revenge’ a great deal – both for the ideas and the ways it expressed them. Michael Smith, its author, is drama critic of ‘The Village Voice’ and all his writing on theatre, as might be expected in a weekly catering for the radical American young, is related to an attractively anarchist political attitude. His main quality as a critic is an instinctive appreciation of the significance of a play in terms of his own personal outlook, rather than a clear-cut intellectual rationality: and this comes out also in his interesting, slightly melancholy book, ‘Theatre Trip’, about his experiences with the Living Theatre in Europe.

All this personal background is necessary for a full understanding of ‘Captain Jack’, which examines the sources of the conflict between the alienated radical young referred to above and the middle-class, middle-aged conformists. On the one side, there is Jack, his girl Mary, and their friend William, all ‘drop-outs’ living in the same sleazy downtown New York apartment: on the other there is Mary’s father, General Canby and two friends, intent on reclaiming Mary for the ‘silent majority’ and all its so-called virtues and values. During their encounter, they all act out a play written by William based on a true incident in California in 1873, where a battalion of the US Army stole an Indian tribe’s land. This is not as Pirandellian as it sounds: it is an extended analogy between situations, imperfect in details but correct in essentials, where one culture and philosophy tries to impose  itself by force on another. William’s play ends in a victory for the Indians who slaughter their perfidious opponents: Smith’s play, however, ends in a victory for the ‘straights’, and this conclusion is an ironic illustration of the truth that all radical change needs violence to carry it out. While the Indians were not afraid to kill to preserve their way of life, today’s gentle, dreamy young ‘drop-out’, searching for an alternative to a ruthless capitalism, by his very nature cannot hate enough to kill and therefore in the end must capitulate.

Despite some imperfections of technique (the different levels of reality and fantasy, particularly, are not always clearly defined), the play speaks with a very personal voice. It’s central dilemma, embodied in Jack, is convincingly presented, though, perhaps inevitably, the ‘straights’ are caricatures with little of the depth and sympathy accorded to the younger characters. Nick Wright’s direction is a little fuzzy and negative in that he makes no attempt to hide the play’s occasional shortcomings – but at least he has the sense to recognise that this is essentially a writer’s piece and let it speak for itself and can be forgiven much for his masterly touch of periodically punctuating the action with Crosby, Still and Nash music, which has just the right flavour. The acting is variable – but Michael Pennington is consistently impressive as Jack, Edward Jewesbury has a nice line in discreet paternal authority as Canby and Anthony Corlan as William delivers the play’s climatic anarchist speech with the requisite fire and conviction.

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