Theater Review: Amazing Grace – Too Bad It’s Not True

I promised everyone a theater review, didn’t I?

I’ve been putting it off because I feel so conflicted. How much should I consider information that I found out about the story after I saw the show rather than taking the show at face value? The show is about a British trader who, after surviving a storm at sea, becomes more religious, becomes heavily involved in the slave trade, becomes an abolitionist and writes the lyrics to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” The order of these events, as we will see, matters.

Many years ago, I used to feel annoyed if basic facts in “true stories” were changed too much. However, over the years, I’ve gotten inured to the falsehoods “inspired by a true story” often implies. I try my best to enjoy them as stories, much the way I would a story inspired by anything else. Taken in this way, “Amazing Grace” is a wonderful play. The story is eventful, the performances are excellent, the staging is professional and polished, the singing is fabulous. It’s touching. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry – well, cry more than laugh, after all it’s about slavery. But, in the end, he gets the girl, and you leave the theater feeling elated.

My only puzzle, initially, was whether or not to address the fact that it is clearly religious propaganda. As I mentioned the other day, I picked the play because it was opening, without much foreknowledge. I knew it was about the man who wrote the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” and I assumed that the religious angle was probably part of what attracted the people who created the play to the story. I felt while watching the play that it was not simply a play that happened to have the religious feelings of the main character as part of its theme, but it did in fact rise to the level of propaganda. For instance, we are told repeatedly that the woman with whom the main character, John Newton, is in love is “Christian.” Since the play takes place in mid-eighteenth century England, that is rather redundant. We can safely assume that everyone is Christian unless they are specified as being something else. However, I enjoyed the play so much, I was thinking of just letting it go. After all, if that’s the story, that’s the story.

I first went digging because there was one sour note in the play that bugged me, even taking everything presented at face value. The character of Thomas did not ring true. He seemed more of an anachronism, also, a cliche, the wise and proud servant who speaks back to his master and is generally right. Frankly, free people rarely speak so tartly to their employers. So, I first started looking into John Newton’s actual life feeling that if Thomas was at least based on a real person I would feel better about the character. While I was at it, I also did some reading about slavery in England at that time. I know a little bit about slavery as it was practiced in the North American colonies and a little less about it in Canada and Caribbean however next to nothing about how it was practiced in England itself. I was under the mistaken impression that slavery was not legal in England despite being promoted by the British in their colonies. The situation seems to have been somewhat more complicated.

So, I decided to read John Newton’s own account about the events related in the play. What I discovered has very much affected my opinion. They did not simply take liberties to heighten the drama. To steal one of my favorite put downs, “every word is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

In the play, John Newton is a the son of a prosperous captain of a slave ship who has a prominent position with Royal African Company. The real father was a shipmaster in the Mediterranean. It is hard to be sure, but while he appears to have been prosperous, he doesn’t seem to be as important as the father in the play seems. However, in his own account of his story, he does mention that his father had “air of distance and severity in his carriage.” His mother, in real life as in the play, was a religious woman who died of tuberculosis when Newton was young.

When the play begins, he already has a relationship with his childhood sweetheart. Like the father being more important and more severe the he was in real life, this is the sort of exaggeration of reality to heighten the drama that I normally expect. However, when you consider the play’s function as Christian propaganda, the changes take on an insidious cast. In the play, Mary is a highly devout woman, described several times in the play as a “Christian.” She repeatedly exhorts John to be a better person. In real life, John and Mary’s mothers were close friends but John did not see her family much after the death of his mother. By chance, he is invited to visit and he falls in love with Mary who is then fourteen.

All intercourse between the families had been long broken off; I was going into a foreign country, and only called to pay a hasty risk; and this I should not have thought of, but for a message received just at that crisis (for I had not been invited at any time before). Thus the circumstances were precarious in the highest degree, and the event was as extraordinary. Almost at the first sight of this girl (for she was then under fourteen) I was impressed with an affection for her, which never abated or lost its influence a single moment in my heart from that hour. In degree, it actually equaled all that the writers of romance have imagined; in duration, it was unalterable.

It’s still a very charming story and his own account is filled with repeated references to how much he loves his wife and how important she is to him. Towards the end of the his narrative, Newton writes:

A life of ease, in the midst of my friends, and the full satisfaction of my wishes, was not favourable to the progress of grace, and afforded cause of daily humiliation. Yet, upon the whole, I gained ground. I became acquainted with books, which gave me a farther view of Christian doctrine and experience, particularly, Scougal’s Life of God in the Soul of Man, Herve’s Meditations, and The Life of Colonel Gairdner. As to preaching, I heard none but the common sort, and had hardly an idea of any better; neither had I the advantage of Christian acquaintance. I was like-wise greatly hindered by a cowardly reserved spirit; I was afraid of being thought precise, and though I could not live without prayer, I durst not propose it even to my wife, till she herself first put me upon it; so far was I from, those expressions of zeal and love, which seem so suitable to the case of one who has had much forgiven.

So, while Newton does love his wife, and thoughts of her console him at his darkest moments, she seems not to be as religiously motivated as Mary in the play.

The character of Mary is very exciting and there were moments that I wondered why no one had made a play about her before. I could not find any confirmation that any of the information about Mary is true. Early in the play, she witnesses an auction of slaves conducted by John at the port in Chatham. Although such auctions took place throughout the British Empire, I could not find any confirmation that they took place in England itself. The auction is disrupted by abolitionists. A woman is spirited away by the abolitionists and, impulsively, Mary gives her her cloak to disguise her. This act triggers Mary’s involvement with a group of abolitionists.

I didn’t do much reading beyond Wikipedia, so I can’t be entirely sure, but the play opens in 1744.

In 1783, an anti-slavery movement began among the British population. That year a group of Quakers founded the first British abolitionist organization. The Quakers continued to be influential throughout the lifetime of the movement, in many ways leading the campaign.

There were the beginnings of an abolitionist movement in the British Colonies, but I couldn’t find information about any organized, active groups operating in England at that time, breaking up slave auctions with force and dramatically spiriting people away.

Now, we have moved beyond slight exaggerations into a falsification of history. As it happens, a major is in love with Mary. She encourages his interest so she can get information on the actions of the military and pass it on to the abolitionists, who seem more like a revolutionary group than a group petitioning for legislative change.

The major, as it happens, is cousins with the German born Crown Prince Frederick. Frederick will be visiting Chatham and the Major wishes to present Mary to him as his fiancee. Mary decides to take this opportunity to deliver a speech on slavery before the Prince. The choirmaster of the church finds a draft of the speech in her pocket and reports this to the major. The major arrests Mary’s Nanna, the African nurse who raised her, and threatens to throw her Nanna in jail. Nanna insists that she should deliver the speech even if that means she is jailed. Mary does just that.

I don’t know how much of this extremely dramatic subplot is true, but I suspect none of it. I ate it up while I was watching it and now I feel embarrassed by my gullibility.

I mentioned that the play is propaganda. There is a clear connection drawn between Mary’s Christian beliefs, her moral clarity and her willingness to act on her beliefs even at a detriment to herself. However, if Mary was not especially devout in an evangelical vein, if the last regular slave auctions in Chatham were held by the Romans, if abolitionist groups were not yet active in England, if Mary did not act as a spy, if she was not engaged to the Crown Prince’s cousin, if she did not deliver an anti-slavery speech to him, if she wasn’t raised by an African woman whom she adored, then what do we have left?

While watching the play, I thought Mary was an incredibly exciting character. Too bad she’s fake.

You may say that the main thrust of the play is about John, but I’m afraid we only fare slightly better there.

He is pressed into service in the British navy. So, they got that much right. In the play, the British ship is attacked by the French and sunk off the coast of Africa. He is saved from drowning by Thomas, who bizarrely is pressed into service with him. (I hope I’m getting this right. I did only see the play once.) They are the only two survivors.

In reality, it is not the Navy ship that goes to Africa. After a brief attempt at desertion, Newton sets sail. While at Madeira, en route to India, the naval ship encounters a merchant vessel. Newton begs the captain to allow him to be exchanged with the merchant vessel. The captain, to Newton’s evident surprise, agrees and Newton is now headed to Sierra Leone and “the adjacent parts of what is called the wind-ward coast of Africa.”

Besides, I had a little of that unlucky wit, which can do little more than multiply troubles and enemies to its possessor; and, upon some imagined affront, I made a song, in which I ridiculed his ship, his designs, and his person, and soon taught it to the whole ship’s company. Such was the ungrateful return I made for his offers of friendship and protection.

On board the ship was an Englishman who had been successful in Africa. Newton becomes his servant hoping to have similar success in Africa. He accompanied the Englishman to an island he calls Benanoes. After way too much time scouring maps, I have concluded that it is probably the Banana Islands. If that is the case, the successful Englishman was possibly William Cleveland. Before I relate that interesting bit of history, let’s return to the play to see what the fictional John Newton was doing.

So, they are both on the coast of Africa, on the Banana Islands and Plantain Island, which were at that time run by the same Eurafrican family.

I didn’t have time to ascertain if the character Princess Peyai is fictional or if there was someone by that name.

The play: Princess Peyai has a working relationship selling her own people as slaves to the French. She seems to have a vaguely sexual relationship with every European man on stage with her at the same time. At first she treats John miserably, but eventually, as he becomes more submissive, he starts helping her with the business. Meanwhile, she writes a ransom note to John’s father. Princess Peyai is one of the most colorful characters in the play. She’s better than a bond villain.

In real life:

I had now some desire to retrieve my lost time, and to exert diligence in what was before me; and he was a man with whom I might have lived tolerably well, if he had not been soon influenced against me: but he was much under the direction of a black woman, who lived with him as a wife, She was a person of some consequence in -her own country, and he owed his first rise to her interest. This woman (I know not for what reason) was strangely prejudiced against me from the first and what made it still worse for me, was a severe fit of illness, which attacked me very soon, before I had opportunity to shew what I could… do in his service. I was sick when he sailed in a shallop to Rio Nuna, and he left me in her hands. At first I was taken some care of, but as I did not recover very soon, she grew weary, and entirely neglected me.

His life does seem very miserable and the Eurafrican couple were engaged in the slave trade, however John Newton is nothing more than a low-level servant, clearly doesn’t have a dramatic, flirtatious relationship with woman and doesn’t run her business. Also, he’s not held for ransom.

In the play, John’s father arrives with the ransom. Princess Peyai decides to hold him hostage, too. The elder Newton whips out a gun. There is a fight. Princess Peyai is killed and John leaves on board his father’s boat.

In real life, Newton sends a letter to his father who finds some friends sailing to Africa to bring him home. Meanwhile, he gets a position with another trader and, working for him heads for the mainland.

Now, I confess I’m forgetting the sequence of events in the play. There’s a storm at sea and John’s father dies. I forget which one comes first.

The storm is the central part of the real life narrative and is a point the two stories have in common, because it is in the storm when he nearly dies that he truly finds god and has his heart permanently changed. In the play, having inherited his father’s ship and heads towards Barbados to pick up Thomas, the incident that started me wondering how much was true. They return to England in time for John to harangue the Crown Prince along with his true love.

Meanwhile, we’re only partway through John Newton’s own narrative of events. Newton becomes concerned with how to maintain and nurture his new-found religious feeling, which he had found and lost several times in his life already, while at sea. He is offered command of a ship, but declines feeling that he would be better off learning as a first mate before accepting his own command. Eventually, he gets his own ship and returns to Africa to start dealing in slaves in earnest. He continues until 1754 when he has what seems to have been some sort of seizure. He retires from the sea, becomes a clergyman and then eventually turns against slavery and becomes an abolitionist.

It is clear that John Newton had a fascinating, eventful life. It is clear that he was highly religious. However, the thrust of the play is that faith gives Mary and John a  moral clarity to distinguish right from wrong and the strength to act on it. The power of the story lies in it being “true.” When I realized the extent of the deviation from the true story, I felt betrayed, duped. I left the theater feeling elated and now I feel vaguely dirty. However, if you don’t know the truth, it’s a very effective play. I suspect we will be hearing many lies about John Newton in the future as I think the entire audience was as deceived as I was.


On an amusing note: Google has rendered the title of one of the books Newton read as “Lift of Cod in the Soul of Man.” In fact, at several junctures Newton searches for Cod. I couldn’t help thinking that if he had sailed west to Canada instead of south to Africa, he might have found Cod sooner.


    • fojap said:

      Thanks. The play itself was highly enjoyable. A very strange feeling I have to say.

  1. Well written review.
    Many years back I watched a musical with the same title about John newman. I can’t remember any of it now though. All I remember is I enjoyed the music

    • fojap said:

      The music was very enjoyable. All the performances were top notch. Afterwards, I looked up in the playbill and everyone was an experienced Broadway performer, so this isn’t like one of those Christian movies that you have to be already convinced to enjoy. It really was a good play with excellent singers.

      I learned lots of interesting things looking this up, but it took quite a bit of time. I wanted to write about the Banana Islands and Plantain Island. It seems that a couple of Englishmen, one on each group of islands, declared themselves “king.” They intermarried with ruling women in the area, as did several other traders, and the families became very wealthy. Potentially and interesting story there, as well. However, it probably doesn’t break down as well in terms of good guys and bad guys. Really, there are so many interesting stories in the world, it’s amazing there are any bad movies or plays out there.

      How are you doing this morning?

      • There is a big market for bad movies.
        That sounds like it was a good play

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