Dec 14, 2004


Are Republicans fascists? The short answer would be no, but that doesn’t stop theatremakers from using this cheap analogy as a kind of shorthand, as does the City Garage’s otherwise fine, incisive production of Ionesco’s The Lesson, which, as Paul Birchall has noted, substitutes a GOP insignia for a Nazi swastika on the armband strapped on by a murderous professor as she leaves the house.

“Wait, if you’re afraid, wear this, then you won’t have anything more to be afraid of,” her butler tells her as puts the armband on to calm her down. “That’s good politics,” he says with an unctuous smile. This is a permissible liberty—after all, Ionesco’s gnomic stage directions say only that the armband bears “an insignia, perhaps a Nazi swastika,” as if this were a mere arbitrary trifle, and surely his absurdist comedy is open to more interpretations than as a mere anti-fascist screed—but it’s a distracting one. It’s a minor footnote but the intention is clear.

I’m unfortunately used to this kind of reductive comparison among my theatre-making acquaintances, some of whom I've actually heard wondering aloud—hopefully?—if their unspeakably subversive work might get them arrested.

I would have thought an old hand like Sam Shepard would be a little wiser. Indeed, reading accounts of his new play The God of Hell, it almost seems the old crank is having us on—the thing sounds for all the world like a wan parody of lefty paranoia. Culling from Ben Brantley’s New York Times review, we open on a dilapidated Midwestern farm house…
…the home of Frank (Dennis Quaid), a dairy farmer, and his wife, Emma (J. Smith-Cameron), whose family has lived here for generations. Heck, you can't get more American than these folks, can you? But it soon emerges that they belong to a dying species, the only people in their area who still farm, since the government pays their neighbors not to. What's more, their quiet self-sufficiency is about to be exploded, thanks to the presence of the man sleeping in their basement.

That's Frank's old friend Haynes (Frank Wood), a cagey fellow who has the disturbing habit of sending off flashes of lightning whenever he touches another person. Haynes is apparently on vacation -- or is it on the run? -- from a government research project. So it can't be a coincidence when a slick man with a briefcase named Welch (Tim Roth) shows up on the doorstep, ostensibly to sell patriotic paraphernalia.

The plot, which speaks to the worst fears of both Blue State Bush bashers and Red State militia men, also allows Mr. Shepard to introduce some disturbing images that suggest the American war on terror turned on itself. The hooded specter of the tortures at Abu Ghraib, for instance, materializes in Emma's and Frank's living room. And the American flag, seen in a variety of sizes and forms, becomes a dizzying emblem of aggression.

…As played by Mr. Roth... with an undulating walk, pageant smile and distracting English accent, Welch is more an opera buffa villain than the sinister government henchman he needs to be. ''We're in the driver's seat,'' he announces, a bit tediously. ''Haven't you noticed? There's no more of that nonsense of checks and balances.''

…As for those poetic, Whitmanesque arias that Mr. Shepard is famous for, there's really only one example here. It's delivered toward the play's end by Mr. Quaid as he stands on a sofa and clutches his groin, and it turns out to be a priceless parody of the Shepardesque ode to a vanishing America. Its nostalgic punch line is as hilarious as it is sobering: ''I miss the cold war so much."

And New York’s John Simon breathlessly reports the following dialogue as if it’s revelatory:
“He’s from the government!”
“What government?”
“Our government.”
“I don’t know what ‘our government’ is anymore, do you? What does that mean, ‘our government’?”
“That means he knows more than us. He’s smarter than us. He knows the Big Picture, Emma. He’s got a plan.”

Really, now, Shepard has got to be joking—having a good laugh at the election-damaged liberals who lap up this kind of punishment like so much pabulum. Oops—apparently not. In some interviews, Shepard has called his play “a takeoff on Republican fascism,” and he offered such faux-naif pearls as the following to The Village Voice:
"I really wanted to write a black farce, so I went back and studied Joe Orton. Nobody wrote better farce than him, and he was very dark. Not being as witty and clever as Joe Orton, I used Entertaining Mr. Sloane as a jumping-off place. I started with three characters, the couple and the stranger who comes to stay with them. The notion of somebody coming from out of nowhere and disturbing the peace. It fit perfectly with the Republican invasion. The whole storm that built up after 9-11."

Or this:
"The sides are being divided now. It's very obvious. So if you're on the other side of the fence, you're suddenly anti-American. It's breeding fear of being on the wrong side. Democracy's a very fragile thing. You have to take care of democracy. As soon as you stop being responsible to it and allow it to turn into scare tactics, it's no longer democracy, is it? It's something else. It may be an inch away from totalitarianism."

Oy. I’ve got to say I have very little patience with this line of argument from American artists, whose freedom of expression is about as endangered as Donald Rumsfeld’s job but who, rather than mounting meaningful challenges to the real dynamics of authority or exploring the terrible and inherently dramatic contradictions of our bloated, unwieldy, but still functioning democracy, would rather use their unfettered speech to give us reports from the front lines of their distracted imaginings. Even the intermittently briliant Tony Kushner has been dining out on a play, Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, in which Laura Bush apologizes to the ghosts of Iraqi children who died as a result of UN sanctions; it apparently hasn’t occurred to Kushner that among the dubious byproducts of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been the lifting of those onerous sanctions, along with the introduction of some rather more immediate sources of mortal danger.

In the face of such reflexively simple-minded politics, I look to our allies the Brits, who’ve brought the docu-play Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freeom to Off-Broadway. This London import zeroes in on a genuine ongoing disgrace of the war on terror—and, incidentally, makes the imagined tortures of Shepard seem almost offensively absurd, given what’s actually been going on among the “non-combatant” detainees at Gitmo. I’ve also read with fascination David Hare’s Stuff Happens, a sort of hybrid of journalism and theatre portraying the diplomatic lead-up to the war that’s blessedly free of cant.

My favorite play of the moment, though, is Michael Frayn’s Democracy, which I had the privilege of seeing in London in the spring. I’ve heard mixed reviews of its current New York run, and indeed James Naughton sounds all wrong for the lead role of Willy Brandt (played in London by Roger Allam, above), the visionary West German chancellor who made the first strides, in the early 1970s, toward rapprochement with the East. Somehow, by portraying backroom parliamentary struggles that stand at some remove from our current situation, Frayn is able to make the play’s complicated questions—about the frightening impotence of liberal democracy in the face of illiberal foes both within and without, and about the sort of flawed characters, like Brandt, who are actually able to lead without demagoguery—resonate and ripple throughout recent history, from the Cold War to today.

The old East-West divide, of course, was a fraternal squabble among Western powers, which persists today in a much-mutated form along NATO and non-aligned lines. The hot issue of our current historical moment, it seems, is the fraught entanglement of this unresolved Western debate with the much bloodier civil war going on in Muslim societies. But we’ll leave it to future plays to dramatize the internecine struggles among Allawi, Chalabi, and Sistani, for instance, and the ways their machinations reflect and refract our own internal debates.

I just won’t expect such searching dramas from American theatremakers.

FOOTNOTE: Compare Shepard's awkward obviousness with the insinuating brilliance of Tracy Letts' harrowing Bug, an authentically paranoid play about a man who may be on the run from a secret government project, or may simply be an escaped mental patient. Like Frayn's work, it's open to interpretation and fairly crackling with suspense about what's really going on, and what's going to happen--something that's markedly absent from plays that wear their politics on their sleeve like, well, an armband.

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