You are standing in the midst of battle. Smoke swirls, cannons blast, bullets ricochet, and the hectic shouting and rapid, voluble clop of horses' hoofs bearing down almost make you want to throw your arms up as a shield. Barricades of entwined tree branches offer scant protection.
Then the smoke clears and the chaos subsides . . . only to reveal a line of Redcoats standing in a row, their rifles cocked with the composure of experienced executioners. There's the crack of the fusillade, the discharge of smoke. You duck. Then it's over. The wounded moan; nearby a bereaved woman wails pathetically.
The experience--a brief segment of Lights of Liberty, a first-of-its-kind walking sound-and-light historic re-creation show that debuted earlier this month in Philadelphia--intends to offer more than a sterilized, voyeuristic foray into battle. The idea is to revitalize the story of the American Revolution and renew people's appreciation for the courage and sacrifice of those who waged it--by using technology to take them there.
Equipped with headsets and directed by costumed guides, visitors take a 60-minute nocturnal tour on a cobblestone path through Philadelphia's historic district. As the drama of the American rebellion plays on the headset in audio, massive projectors and robotic light fixtures throw images onto the walls of historic buildings, starting with Benjamin Franklin's former residence on Market Street and ending at Independence Hall. Five years and $12 million in the making, it's a technology-assisted, surround-sound saunter through a chapter of American history most people know only in outline, if at all.
Colonial Philadelphia was the richest and largest city in British North America. As a protected trade enclave, it avoided the empire wars and skirmishes that damaged other colonies, benefiting culturally and politically. From 1790 until 1800, the city was America's capital. Its wealth and success attracted a diverse ethnic crowd of Scots, Swedes, Welsh, Germans, Native Americans and blacks, among others.
That diversity, along with the florid English language of the period, is effectively captured in the narration, a five-act screenplay by Ron Maxwell, the Los Angeles writer whose script for "Gettysburg" intrigued Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, an American Revolution buff who got so involved in the project that he vetoed earlier script drafts by other writers. Celebrities including Charlton Heston, Claire Bloom and Walter Cronkite provide the voices. Whoopi Goldberg narrates a children's version.
The Lights of Liberty crew wanted to expand the universe of "the founders" to include women and blacks, who made up 50 and 20 percent, respectively, of the city's population. Black participation in the revolution was especially remarkable considering Britain's offer of emancipation in exchange for renouncing the America that enslaved them. James Forten, the grandson of a slave who bought his own freedom, was one who stood by America. An early abolitionist who was captured and jailed by the British, Forten is resurrected to narrate the show.
The main story line centers on Benjamin and Deborah Franklin and their son, William, who was governor of New Jersey and ultimately a British loyalist. The tour starts outside Franklin's house and a (still-functioning) post office that the Philadelphia luminary set up to earn a pretty penny via the Stamp Act. Off in England to negotiate licenses and commissions, Franklin underestimates his compatriots' fury over the newly imposed tax. Feeling betrayed, a mob gathers at his house. Some propose to burn it down.
Trapped inside, Franklin's terrified wife writes him beseeching letters. As a visitor, you get two simultaneous views. Standing beneath an image of the Franklins' house, you are part of the mob. Yet the narrative takes you not just into the house but into the Franklins' thoughts.
A sad tale evolves. The elder Franklin sides with the Colonists; his son remains loyal to England. Their relationship is destroyed, and William, who in 1754 had helped his father gather an army to repulse a French and Indian attack on the Colony, winds up in jail, an enemy of his father's cause and people. When they met some 20 years later, father and son had little to say to one another.
The relationship was a microcosm of the split between loyalists and patriots--most of whom at one time regarded themselves as English subjects. Through the first half of the show, you witness the ambivalence about independence that must have tormented that generation. As a cross section of Philadelphians--merchants, sailors, tradesmen, British loyalists, all with sundry accents--parade through the story, you experience their irritation with taxes, the back-and-forth over what to do about it and the reevaluation of their identity as citizens. Outside Carpenter's Hall, the site of the first Continental Congress in 1774, Patrick Henry announces the dissolution of the Colonial government.
In the show, the rising spirit of revolt reaches its climax at the columned front of the Second Bank. With reports of shooting in Concord, Franklin's face is magnified in successive images as he shares a letter written to a British member of Parliament.
"Look at your hands," he says. "They are stained with the blood of your relations. You and I were long friends. You sir . . . are now my enemy!"
Battle erupts--the show's only displaced event, since Philadelphia was never a battle stage--and then the audience moves to Independence Hall, where it is privy to the signers' debate. Here, we're reminded of a unique fact about the American revolutionaries: Whereas most upheavals are waged by poor discontents, this one was led by wealthy, successful people. They had much to lose--and many did indeed lose their families, fortunes and lives.
The show concludes with signer John Nixon proclaiming the Declaration of Independence outside the State House (now called Independence Hall). The document scrolls up the wall and the Liberty Bell rings. Forten, who returned to America emaciated after his imprisonment, does not gloss over the human-rights challenges the new nation had yet to overcome: "And so the American Republic was born," he concludes. "For some the fruit [of liberty] was slow to ripen, and watered with much blood."
That acknowledgment, often missing from patriotic retellings, keeps the show from being merely sentimental, and it manages to avoid both pandering to political correctness or diminishing the contributions of the founders. The 3-D technology, along with the strong script, succeeds in re-creating three-dimensional people and leaves you feeling a proper measure of admiration for the men and women whose revolt and ideals changed the course of world history.
Not a bad message to carry away from a visit to Philadelphia.
The hour-long tours start at dusk and run until 11:15, and are held nightly through October, weather permitting. The cost is $18, with child, group, senior and affinity club discounts. The show is available in Spanish, Chinese, French, German, Italian and Japanese. Info: 1-877-GO-2-1776, www.lightsofliberty.org.
Todd Pitock last wrote about the Palace at the Lost City in South Africa.