Cato: George Washington’s Valley Forge Play
Attend a live performance of Cato by Joseph Addison
September 16, 19, 20, and 21 at 7:00 p.m. and September 17 at 2:30 p.m.
Clarence Brown Lab Theatre
Produced by: Professor and Department Head Misty Anderson, Ph.D.
Directed by: Charles Pasternak
After the crucial winter victories of 1777-78 George Washington’s troops participated in a Valley Forge production of Joseph Addison’s Cato (1713). This play, which most people have never heard of, is woven into American consciousness through quotations like “give me liberty or give me death,” and “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Cato is a tragedy set in north Africa in 46 BCE, as Cato the Younger braces for the approach of self-proclaimed dictator Julius Caesar and the end of the Roman republic. It stages the conflict between virtuous citizenship on the one hand, and empire, deceit, and greed on the other. Cato, a Roman stoic to the end, commits suicide rather than surrender, leaving the political future in the hands of Juba, the Numidian prince, and his beloved Marcia, Cato’s daughter.
This Constitution Day, we watch in the 21st century as descendants and fellow citizens, living the tension between our country’s best ideals and its actual history. What responsibilities do we have to each other to make good on the constitution’s aspiration to “promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”? Is citizenship a matter of where we are born or the values we hold to? How do we grapple with the contradiction that the founders were remarkable men who put forward a vision from which we still benefit, and, at the same time, did unconscionable things, from which we still suffer unequally? The play’s closing warning about internal political divisions, which can be exploited by those who would undermine democratic institutions, still resonates.
In this production, each audience member has a role to play. You are the Roman Senate, weighing the Senators’ bids for peace or war. You are the conspirators who follow the silver-tongued Sempronius. You are the Valley Forge audience, perhaps a yeoman farmer or a member of the 1st Rhode Island Black Regiment, wondering if this revolution will lead to your freedom too. The play leaves us with this question for our times: what are the practices and values that sustain democratic societies, imperfect as they are, when dictatorship threatens? We’ll ask you to extend your role by staying for 20 minutes to take part in a community conversation guided by our panel, where we will ask you to model active listening and seek to understand your neighbor’s point of view.
For a list of artists, cast, and education material, visits the Clarence Brown Theatre Cato page.
This project is supported by a grant from the Institute of American Civics and the scholarly resources of the R/18 Collective, along with the UT Departments of English, Classics, History, and Theatre, and the Center for Global Engagement.