The story behind “Year One of the Empire” with Prof. Joyce Antler

Photo credit: Steven Lembark

Joyce Antler, Samuel B. Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture and Women's and Gender Studies, is theJoyceAntler author of “Year One of the Empire,” a groundbreaking play that she co-wrote with theater critic Elinor Fuchs 35 years ago. The play has its New York City premiere Feb. 29 – March 30 at the Metropolitan Playhouse.  

“Year One of the Empire” is the story of the little-known Philippine-American War, fought at the turn of the last century. It chronicles the moment when America literally became an empire and the “American Century” began.

Read further to discover why Antler believes this story is still important for Americans to be aware of today…

Q. How did you and Elinor Fuchs get involved in writing “Year One of the Empire” 35 years ago?

A. Elinor and I met quite accidentally – in a beauty parlor for “long hair,” of all things, in the late 1960s. It was at the height of the Vietnam War and we began to talk about other moments when an unpopular war divided the nation. Some initial readings gave us hints about the little-known Philippine War, then called an “insurrection,” and soon we turned in earnest to probe multiple historical sources– Senate debates and hearings, War Department reports, memoirs and correspondence, anti-war protest meetings, and much more. We believed we could make a play out of it. It took four years.

Q. Why did you decide to focus the storyline on the Philippine-American War? What would you like Americans to know about the conflict?

A. Following the “splendid” little war with Spain, the brutal Philippine War shocked Americans, who had been led to believe that the Filipinos would welcome us as liberators. Despite vigorous protests from the "aunties," as the anti-imperialists were derisively called, the champions of the new global American empire won the day--with disastrous consequences. Four thousand American and 50,000 Filipinos combatants were killed, and a conservative estimate is that 250,000 Filipinos civilians died from war-related causes.

Q. How did the public receive the play when it was first produced?

A. Although we wrote it as a play, “Year One” was first published as a book (by Houghton Mifflin in 1973), which is very rare for a theatrical piece. The book was greeted as a novel work of history and reviewed very favorably in The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other places.  The play was produced by the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles in 1980 and ran for several months. It won a "Best Play" award that season.

Q. Is there any significance in the timing of the New York premiere after 35 years? Does it draw parallels to the war in Iraq much like it did with Vietnam?

A. History led us to write the play and now contemporary events have brought it back. There are many parallels to Iraq - predictions of easy victory; escalating military measures to deal with a guerilla enemy; the use of torture, especially the “water cure”; hearings; court-martials; deep disillusion and mounting protests at home.

Q. What do you hope audiences will take away from the performance?

A. At the Metropolitan, 11 actors will be playing dozens of roles, producing an amazing tapestry of events and perspectives. Because none of the language in the play was invented (beyond occasional interstitial phrases), it restores history to the present tense, with all the compromises, blunders and accidents that make up the historical record.   We hope that our audiences will emerge with an appreciation of the many ironies and complexities of this story.  As we kept on telling each other as we worked on the play, “you just can't make this stuff up.”

Q. Is there any chance you might write more plays in the future?

A. I have often taught “History as Theater” at Brandeis, a class in which my students create dramas taken from the historical record. Elinor and I did the first such class on the 1960s years ago.  I look forward to more plays like this– history and theater make a beautiful alliance!

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