Acclaimed radical playwright Trevor Griffiths spoke to Socialist Worker about his work on the life of the revolutionary Thomas Paine.
Paine, who was charged with treason for publishing The Rights Of Man, was an active participant in both the American and French revolutions.
In 1987 Griffiths began working with Richard Attenborough on These Are The Times.
The title is taken from “These are the times that try men’s souls,” the opening lines of Paine’s book The Crisis, written during the American Revolution.
The film has still not been made due to lack of Hollywood finance, a process Griffiths describes as, “On a scale of ten I’d say the frustration level is 12½.” It was recently performed on BBC Radio 4.
Griffiths says that perhaps part of the reason the film has not come to fruition is because “Paine’s root-and-branch attack on monarchy and the British state guaranteed he and his ideas would be marginalised by the mainly reactionary academic establishments that have held sway over cultural and historical judgments on what should endure and what should not.
“Paine’s refusal to allow himself to be absorbed and incorporated into the structures of ruling class thought and practice made it certain that he would be severed from ‘mainstream’ political-cultural discourse.”
The contemporary resonances of Paine ring through the script. Griffiths says, “The political elites are now pretty well self-perpetuating.
“We have to continue to find ways of writing them off, cutting free from them, learning again the arts and crafts of self-government. Who was it who said, ‘One man’s anarchy is another man’s order?’
“My writing has always been governed by a basic axiom of the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci – ‘It is a revolutionary duty to tell the truth’.”
It is a motto that equally applies to Paine. According to Griffith, “It’s Paine who first points up the huge importance of demanding a revolution not just in politics but in the very foundations of our human civilisation.”
The script for the film finishes with Paine reading from his pamphlet Agrarian Justice, with Paine calling for “revolution in the state of civilisation.”