It is good to be reminded of the fact that history is full of eccentrics, radicals, and pioneers who never appear in the history books - especially when they turn out to be women, so usually sidelined, who were many steps ahead of the game. Such a woman is Frances Wright, a 19th century Scot-turned-American whose life is brought to the stage in this one woman show written by Karyn Traut and performed by Dylan Guy. Wright's story is a classic tale of American exceptionalism – an immigrant arrives in the land of the free and home of the brave in the early 1800s and sets about creating a utopian society, Nashoba, free from the class-bound strictures of the old world.
This obscure true story reminded me of the strangeness of America's history and of the ways it could have been very different. What comes across very strongly is that America was in its early years considered by many a ripe area to become a kind of socialist paradise – Wright's attempts to emancipate slaves through education and honest work in her new community embody this belief. The language hums with the high ideals and lofty rhythms of early American prose, with Jefferson and Lafayette being prominent and unexpected cameos as they hold out the promise of America to Wright, a promise that she increasingly finds cannot be kept. ‘Justice is in one balance, our self preservation in the other’, opines Jefferson, and Wright is to discover that the latter balance is to be frustratingly favoured.
The performance itself is hardly electrifying, read as it is off a script, but Guy is a characterful enough figure - dressed in pure white, deftly swapping accents between the Scot she once was and the American immigrant she became, and everything in between. Her sense of defiant womanhood is nicely captured with the cutting off of most of her hair - a shackle she feels women should not have to deal with in this brave new world. Also, the amiable logic of her racial theory – that since white people get sunburnt in hot places, they can't be meant to be masters of the whole earth – is charming in its innocence, as it arrives to conclusions we all now take for granted. Her latter decay into marriage is less interesting though, marriage being to her a passive way of loving, and to the audience a little too passive for the purposes of interesting drama. We never hear much about the fascinating Nashoba itself and its establishment, which you would you assume to be the crux of the story. However, anyone who considers her greatest achievement to have made a lot of people angry probably deserves this recognition, and this is a pleasant if not extraordinary account of a failed but noble utopian radical, a classic American eccentric.