Schlosser said that he originally wrote this play back in the mid-eighties after he had finished college however despite trying to get it published nobody was really all that interested in it. However, after becoming famous for writing 'Fast Food Nation' and the hysteria that was created by the September 11th terrorist attacks, this play, which had seen nothing but the inside of a draw for something like 20 years, suddenly came out into the open and was even performed. I guess the reason is that while the ideas that come out of the play have always been relevant, at the time it was originally written (during the Regan Era) people were not questioning the idea of patriotism and empire.
What this play shows us is how despite 100 years having passed, the attitudes of the Americans have changed little. The play looks at both those who are in power (in the form of the two presidents that appear in the play) and those who are not (namely Leon Czolgosh, the convicted assassin of William McKinley). The play raises the question of power and of empire, and also the struggle between isolationism and making an impact in the world.
The panic that was caused following the assassination of McKinley and the panic that after the September 11th attacks were similar in scope, and in fact a similar panic occurred after the assassination of President Kennedy. However it is these two events that are in focus here, particularly with the idea of being patriotic towards ones own country. The actions of Czolgosh end up playing into the hands of those in power. Roosevelt (Teddy, not Franklin) would have been destined to be nothing more than a footnote in history if it was not for Czolgosh's actions, however instead he became president, and not only did he become president, he set the United States on another course.
It is clear from the play, as it is from history, that Roosevelt was not much liked among the powers that be, which was why he was made vice-president. In fact it was said that is opponents groaned after the assassination because what they had been trying to prevent had come to pass. No wonder his opponents did not like him because Roosevelt was not a friend of big business, and one of the things that he did during his reign was to break apart the multi-national corporations of the day. In Roosevelt's eyes, if something was too big to fail then that something was simply too big and something had to be done. It would be good if such a person could step into the scene these days.
The idea of patriotism also comes out in this play and we see this with the Czolgosh's changing their names so as to distance themselves from the actions of their son. In fact Leon Czolgosh, at the time, became one of the most hated people in the United States, and all reference too him beyond his assassination has been blotted from the history books. Much of what is said in the play is not so much related to him, but rather to the anarchist movement of the day. What Schlosser is exploring through the play is the idea of empire and its limits, and that to be patriotic is to support the idea of empire. Of course, a similar thing happened recently with the idea that if you did not support the government's response to the September 11th terrorist attacks, then you were unpatriotic and were siding with the enemy. A similar thing came up during the Iraq War where if you were joining the protests then you were supporting Sadam, despite the protesters attempting to distance themselves from Sadam while trying to hold their own government accountable. However this idea of patriotism is nothing new and not necessarily limited to America.
Another idea that comes out of this play is the comparison of America to Rome. Czolgosh says a lot about the similarities where initially the idea was that government should do as little as possible to interfere with people's lives. The idea was to create an agrarian Republic where people lived on their farms, tilled their land, and subsisted on what they could grow, only moving into the cities or towns to spend any excess and to purchase supplies. However this failed in Rome in the same way that it failed in America.
I don't like comparing America with Rome, but in a way there are a lot of things to compare and things of which we should be aware. The period I am looking at would be the period where the republic went through a transition to an empire, and I guess the general panic that came about in the United States at the assassination of a president may have kindled thoughts of what happened in Rome. We all know that Ceaser was assassinated when he went into the Senate to give a speech, but the reason for the assassination was that people believed that he was a tyrant and was attempting to make himself king. However the people that were most opposed to him where the wealthy elite, while most of Ceaser's supporters were the working classes. What Ceaser's assassination did was to send Rome further into civil war (they had just come out of one with Ceaser as the victor) and this war did not come to an end until Augustus (Ceaser's adopted son) had defeated all of his enemies and had emerged the undisputed ruler of Rome.
The concern here is not so much that the wealthy elite are ruling and are trying to take away our rights, they are not. As long as we are compliant citizens then they are happy. The concern is that a populist figure will arise, and it is the populist figures that are the more dangerous because they are the ones that end up undermining the democratic principles of the state. Remember Hitler was a populist figure, as was Ceaser and Napoleon. There are probably a number around today. Hell, from another book I read, George Bush was a populist figure because he reached out to the working class and his base were actually the working poor in America.
Just as Ceaser's death changed the direction of the Roman Republic, one can also see that McKinley's death also turned the direction of America from isolationism to imperialism. We even have a scene where there is a discussion regarding arms (and in those days it was the size of the navy and the size of the battleships). Roosevelt pretty much says that he does not care for such treaties and will build them as big and build as many as he wants.
The other idea is the idea of what to do with a tyrant. The Romans believed that it was right to kill a potential tyrant to protect the principles of the Republic (which was what they did to Ceaser) and similarly was the case in Ancient Athens (though they also had the principle of ostracism, which meant that if any one figure became too powerful or too popular they could be voted to be kicked out of the city for a period of time). This idea was brought down to America with people like Thomas Jefferson saying things along the line of 'the tree of liberty needs to be watered with the blood of patriots from time to time'. Of course, nobody every actually wants an armed revolution, and the idea of such a revolution, even a successful one, will not necessarily be what maintains people's liberty. Ceaser is a case in point because his death moved Rome from a republic to a dictatorship. As for the United States, the definition of a tyrant is so broad that it could mean anything, but nobody can actually get away with killing a president, despite invoking the ancient law of Tyranicide. As one of the characters says in the play, 'this is not Greece'.