A famous-quotation quiz: Who said, "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country?"
Shame on you if you forgot elementary school history lessons. Those are the supposed last words of inspirational patriot Nathan Hale, hanged by the redcoats as a spy on Sept. 21, 1776.
Ah, but what if the real Hale had also said, "I'm not looking to die just because Ben Franklin wants to get in the history books?"
The saucy revisionist quote is put into a very reluctant martyr's mouth by "Hale the Hero," a one-act play that marks the third-season premiere tonight of "General Motors Playwrights Theater," at 9 o'clock on the Arts & Entertainment cable network.
Kevin Anderson is Hale in author Richard Vetere's imaginative work. When arrested by the British for carrying a scrap of paper with enemy troop strengths and other secrets, the out-of-uniform patriot captain claims he's a deserter, sick of the war.
When Alice Adams (Elizabeth Shue) visits to tell him, "Washington needs a miracle," explaining that Hale's death will inspire the troops, he replies, "Go fight the French and leave me alone."
His passion is strongly anti-war and well-stated, as he asserts, "War is just a sign of impatience."
Yet even his British guard, who allows the pair privacy for some last-wish intimacy -- we never learned that in grade school -- tells Hale, "You've given us all a big boost of courage."
Unfortunately, the play's gallows climax adds an element of ambiguity that suddenly blunts the sharp tone. Was Hale really a hero after all? Dramatically, it might have been better if we were not offered the conventional interpretation.
"Hale the Hero" is the first of four monthly plays (through April) in the third season of "Playwright's Theater." Host Lauren Bacall says the new season, in contrast to an earlier focus on classics of the American stage, will feature "a group of new, brilliant and dynamic playwrights."
Future productions are "Merry Christmas, Baby" by Thomas Mitz (February), "Avenue Z Afternoon" by Stephen DiLauro (March) and "I Remember You" by Alvin Boretz (April).
AIN'T WE SWEET? -- Alas, television too often congratulates itself.
* The salute to CNN's gulf war news team at Sunday's "13th Annual ACE awards Show" was a stunning, mawkish production that blatantly crossed the tenuous line between reporter and subject. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf himself made the presentation, virtually declaring CNN an extra arm of the Pentagon! So much for the media role as antagonist to government.
* The recently feuding folks at NBC's "Today" make nice tonight in "Today at 40," a self-serving celebration of the morning show's 40th birthday (at 10 o'clock, Channel 2).