David Vass talks to Ian Ruskin about his play Thomas Paine’s To Begin the World Over – performed at the Corn Hall on Thursday 9 MayPosted on 29th April 2019
Ian Ruskin has acted all his life, with credits that stretch back as far as the seventies, with TV shows such as ‘Space 1999’ and ‘Secret Army’, and go right up to this summer’s animated blockbuster ‘Missing Link’. It is, however, his parallel career as a writer that seems to most animate him.
“It changed my life,” said Ruskin. “It has introduced me to so many incredible people and taken me around the world.”
Ruskin wrote his first play, about union leader Harry Bridges, 20 years ago, but it’s his second – a reimagining of Thomas Paine – that will be performed at the Corn Hall on the 9th May. Paine was the author of the ground breaking Rights of Man and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, but he spent his formative years in his native Britain, working in Diss as a stay maker.
“Paine worked for Mr Gudgeon in Cock Street (now Denmark St),” explained Ruskin. “He found little joy in the work. Had Paine remained in Diss making corsets, I am sure that the revolution would have eventually happened, but I think it would have taken many years to come to a head. His pamphlet Common Sense was the spark of the American Revolution. Everyone either read it or had it read to them, and it changed the attitudes of the people, turning them towards independence.”
Much like Paine (and Harry Bridges for that matter), Ruskin left his native country to settle in America – was this what encouraged him to write about these men?
“Yes, I feel a connection,” he agreed. “Particularly to Paine. I was 34 when I arrived in the US and I certainly felt the potential. I had not experienced any setbacks or rejections in this new country. Everything seems possible. I think that it is a common experience for many immigrants. Their arrival in a new country feels like another chance, leaving behind any setbacks, failures and disappointments from the past for a new beginning. Harry Bridges was only 19 when he arrived in America and so had less life experience, but Paine arrived with 37 years of mainly failure and struggle. I think that he had a clear vision of a new beginning. It is a terrible thing that most of the immigrants and refugees arriving at America’s southern border today have little chance of such hopes.”
It is clear that Ruskin believes Paine’s work has a resonance for our own turbulent times, but when pressed he is cautious about overtly proselytizing.
“A play about a historical person must, above all, be a play about a human being. I can say, however, that all the men that I write about were trying to make the world a better place, they all had unique visions of the ways to do that, and they all paid a personal price for their determination, and sometimes stubbornness, to pursue their dreams.”
So have Thomas Paine’s dreams been realised?
“Paine would be shocked and disappointed by much happening today. He saw all mankind as his brothers and promoted the idea of associations of nations, not nationalism. He had no time for the dark side of politics, the manipulations, lies and endless quest for power that is so prevalent today.”
It sounds as if we still have a lot to learn from him.
“I think so,” he concludes. “Only when the world achieves true equality, ends poverty and gives every man and woman control over their own lives, can we put away Paine’s books.”