Joseph and Benjamin – A Play

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Not many historians I know are writing plays, but I am. Joseph and Benjamin – A Play is very much a labour of love. It stems from my research in early US-Habsburg relations and all takes place because of an Italian and hot chocolate…

In 1777, the Holy Roman Emperor and co-regent of the Habsburg Monarchy, Joseph II, travelled to France to visit his famous sister, Marie Antoinette. During his stay in Paris, he drew up a list of people whom he wished to meet; featured on that this was the new world savant and recently proclaimed American Ambassador Benjamin Franklin.

Since Joseph couldn’t very well be seen to meet with a revolutionary who was helping to overturn the British Monarchy in North America, the Emperor relied upon a secretary in the Tuscan delegation in Paris, Abbé Raimondo Niccoli, who invited Franklin to taste hot chocolate with ‘Count Falkenstein’ – the Emperor’s incognito alias – on Wednesday 28th May 1777.

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Benjamin Franklin and Emperor Joseph II

However, both Franklin and the Emperor were to be disappointed as Franklin’s recollection informs us that “The Emperor did not appear, and the Abbé since tells me that the number of other persons who occasionally visited him that morning… prevented his coming… [though] at twelve… he came but I was gone.” The persons, I show in my PhD thesis Empires on the Edge, were in fact the British delegation who prevented Joseph from meeting with the dangerous American rebel Franklin.

This is the point then when historical fact ends and historical fiction meet. We are left to only wonder and speculate what may have occurred had the two met. And in this leap of the imagination I am not alone; in 1787 the Scottish statistician William Playfair published Joseph and Benjamin – A Conversation. His piece ‘based on a French manuscript’ instead arose from the rumour mill of French salons in the 1780s, as far as we can tell, during his own visit to Paris.

The pamphlet is a rich fictional dialogue, something quite in vogue in the eighteenth century, between the revolutionary American and revolutionary Emperor. It is a meeting of minds, where human nature, economic theory, and good humour are exchanged between them. In itself the work is a testament to legacy and vibrancy of the early connections between the Habsburg Monarchy and United States, but I also feel such a dialogue and such an imagined encounter begs for greater use.

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Front page of William Playfair’s Joseph and Benjamin (1787)

The script I am composing is based upon both the text by Playfair and complimented by my understanding of US-Habsburg relations during the Age of Revolutions. My thought and intent is to create a short but entertaining and illuminating piece as an experiment in historical practice and fun. Whether it will be more Withnail and I than Waiting for Godot is anyone’s guess.

Please feel free to contact me about any aspect in this project or my other projects, especially if you’re an historian who has already written — or also struggling to complete — a theatrical piece.

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