Letters

Letters


Spring 2010, Vol. 18, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Representing the United States: A Transatlantic Journey

Edward H. Friedman

If all goes according to schedule, I will spend the spring semester of 2010 in Madrid, where I will conduct research and teach in the department of English Philology at the University of Madrid. My focus will be on twentieth- century American literature and culture. Planning the course and some lectures in conjunction with my stay, I have had to consider a perspective that is somewhat new to me: describing the United States to Spaniards. I have decided to work with the concept of culture from the margins. What follows is part of one manifestation of this project, selections from a paper entitled “The Margin as Center in U.S. Theater: A View from Left Field,” for a Madrid audience.

If specialists in theater were requested to name the masterworks produced in the United States in the twentieth century, it is highly likely that Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman would be at the top of the list, along with—or followed closely by—Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Edward Albee’sWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? These are particularly “American” plays, each offering a distinct view of family life and a unique and powerful dramatic discourse. Their underlying themes are universal, but their idiom—in a multiple sense of the term—has a national inflection. Theater depends on conflict, of course, and the default position, as it were, of the great American plays is the dysfunctional family, as the characters deal with alcoholism, drug addiction, career failure, infidelity, and deception, to consider the Tyrones and the Lomans alone. The blending of Dubois and Kowalski blood in Streetcar pairs Southern aristocracy with peasant stock, a decaying feeling of entitlement with the Napoleonic code, the source of Stanley’s paean to democracy. Albee names his characters George and Martha, evoking President and Mrs. Washington. Analogously, the protagonists of Sticks and Bones, David Rabe’s shattering drama about a blinded veteran of the Vietnam War, are named Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky, after the Nelsons, one of the first families of television situation comedy. A significant number of plays about strongly dysfunctional American families, including, for example, Sam Shepard’s Buried Child of 1978 and Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County of 2007, have won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Playwrights such as Lorraine Hansberry, Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, Beth Henley, August Wilson, Donald Margulies, and David Lindsay-Abaire, among many others and in radically different contexts, have shown families in various degrees of crisis and essentially have redefined or deconstructed the myth of familial bonds. Ironically, perhaps, a predecessor to all these plays—and, arguably, the American play most read in U.S. schools—is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, first produced in 1938, which takes place in the wholesome, if not excessively idealized, setting of middle America. The close-knit and stable Webb and Gibbs families live, die, and teach the audience lessons about the beauty and the precariousness of existence. Their moderation is frequently “undone” by their successors.

One could trace, then, a history of dysfunctional families at the core of American drama. What I want to look at here is another phenomenon that affects the creation of theater in the United States: plays that move away from the traditional family to reflect an alternate dynamics, outside of marriage. One object of this transfer is the gay community, wherein familial relations are replaced by something like—yet unlike—the intimacies and the dissensions of earlier plays. Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, of 1968, brings together—for a birthday celebration—a representative group, or what some might call a rogue’s gallery, of homosexual men. The work is daring in its content and in its language, and it helps to open the space of U.S. theater at a time in which the subject of alterity, in its countless manifestations, holds enormous interest to scholars of culture. That momentous shift is an offshoot of the repeal of laws in which “sex perversion,” of which homosexuality was regarded to be a part, could not be portrayed on stage. Sadly, one must distinguish between pre- AIDS and post-AIDS drama, with plays such as Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy and William Finn and James Lapine’s musical Falsettos in the first category, and William Hoffman’s As Is and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart at the forefront of the second. If I were asked to name the single most outstanding play of the last forty years, my choice would be Tony Kushner’s two-part Angels in America, which, to my mind, captures the spirit of the United States as it approached the new millennium, in a way that is remarkably comprehensive and idiosyncratic, that both fits with a brand of poststructuralist decentering and recognizes old values with new, as it posits the authority of government, religion, law, the medical establishment, and, last but hardly least, the family.

Angels in America is a virtual roadmap of American society. Two key characters—one on the far left and the other on the far right—suffer from AIDS. Protestants, including Mormons, merge with Jews, closeted gays with those who are “out” and proud. A major player—the clearest antagonist, and the embodiment of hypocrisy—is a historical figure, the lawyer Roy Cohn, associate of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee and a prosecutor of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for treason. (Ethel Rosenberg appears in Part II: Perestroika.) At the other end are a caring and confused mother from the state of Utah and an angel who juxtaposes the events onstage with the beyond. Seemingly disparate lives and circumstances intersect and produce change. The protagonist is Prior Walter, brought down by AIDS and by the rejection of his partner Louis Ironson, who cannot deal with the effects of the illness. It is Prior who sees the angel and who fights on. Angels in America has substance in every facet. The panoramic vision encompasses the temperament of the nation from the vantage point of the margins. The guiding sensibility is a conscious “deviation” from the mainstream, but as the title of Part I suggests, the Millennium Approaches for all. Kushner mixes the dire consequences of the epidemic with an emphasis on something more than justice and something less than poetic justice, and with humor as ingenious as it is dark. In the plays—like Don Quixote, two texts often thought of as one—the life force battles death and wins.

The operating premise of looking at culture from the margins, borrowed from poststructuralism and appropriated by theory in the aftermath of poststructuralism, is that (1) distance allows for an invigorated perspectivism and for the inclusion of those perspectives that have, whether consciously or unconsciously, been elided from the public record; (2) elaboration of the underlying rhetoric of any phenomenon displays its constructedness, its internal and inevitable ideological base; and (3) analysis permits one to note the dialectical exchange between a stable text and shifting, or unstable, interpretations. Texts such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Angels in America—unequivocally revisionist texts—present a whole through a redistribution of the parts. They depict America. Discrimination, distorted judgments, and disease may have been omitted from—or underestimated in—a majority of historical and literary documents, but they are fundamental to a complete history of the United States, and writers such as Morrison and Kushner recognize the importance of the graft, the supplement.

The plays that I chose for my courses have clearly American settings and focal points. To give several examples: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun revolves around an African- American family’s version of an American dream—to buy a home in the suburbs—when the prospective neighbors fear that their property values and the “complexion” of the area will suffer. Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy puts forward another, more intimate portrait of race relations between an elderly Southern Jewish lady and her paid chauffeur, a black man of wisdom and quiet dignity. The title character of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles is an independent professional woman caught in the glory, the anguish, and the skirmishes of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning into Butter takes place on a college campus and interrogates the program of Affirmative Action. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt examines the Catholic Church’s attitude toward priests accused of child-molesting. These plays are aesthetic objects, to be sure, and worthy of study as such, but in the age of Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Sonia Sotomayor, economic woes, continued setbacks for minorities, the swine flu, etc., etc., they are, by all means, relevant as cultural artifacts.

I would like to focus on two plays that I believe are exceptional works for the stage, shining examples of U.S. culture “from the margins” (which, of course, must be deemed margins transformed into centers), and, I would submit, fitting heirs to Angels in America and to the playwrights who influenced Tony Kushner. They are The Laramie Project, of 2001, credited to Moisés Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project, and Take Me Out, of 2002, by Richard Greenberg.

The Laramie Project is a drama based on a real event, the slaying of Matthew Shepard, a twenty-one-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie by two men who offered him a ride in their vehicle after meeting him in a bar. They beat him, tied him to a fence, and abandoned him. He was discovered the next day and rushed to a hospital, where he died a few days later. Moisés Kaufman, who was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela and has lived in the United States since 1987, traveled with members of the Tectonic Theater Project to Laramie—starting in November of 1998, one month after the incident—to interview people and to attend the trial of the men accused of the kidnapping, the attack, and the death of the young victim. They spent well over a year on the task. The murder—obviously a hate crime— received a tremendous amount of attention in the national media. The situation placed the quiet and modestly populated city of Laramie under scrutiny and led to self-examination and accusations. It must be noted that, despite a considerable outcry against the perpetrators, public sympathy was not exclusively on the side of Matthew Shepard. There will always be those who want to blame the queer, the “faggot” who cannot keep his sexual preferences to himself, who likely provoked two heterosexuals to do violence to him. There is even a name for this: gay panic. Kaufman and his colleagues entered into this terrain, literally and figuratively speaking, to cover the story from its diverse angles.

Not only is this a crucial and intriguing story—a story of several margins, geographical and political, and of margins within margins— but it unites dramatic invention with the gathering of data, reporting, giving voice to individuals who are not usually newsmakers, and the mixing of residents of Laramie with— and I use the term in a generic or metonymical way—“New Yorkers,” with all the implications thereof. The interconnected narrators and narratives are highlighted and supporting actors, linked by and to Matthew Shepard the man, the symbol, the absence, the presence. The speakers are townspeople, students, teachers, members of the clergy, medical personnel, officers of the law, friends of Matthew Shepard and friends of his attackers, gay, lesbian, straight, pro-gay, antigay, open-minded, closed-minded, and Matthew Shepard’s father Dennis, who in the play’s climax reads an eloquent statement at the sentencing against capital punishment for Aaron McKinney, who was found guilty of firstdegree felony murder. The dramatis personae of The Laramie Project also include Moisés Kaufman and his collaborators, so that the finished product joins stark realism and unmediated discourse with a technique that accentuates process, the making of the play. The writers shape—or reshape—the story events, through a practice that the historian Hayden White designates as emplotment (83). The raw material (from over two-hundred interviews, journals, and other sources) is converted into dramatic form, developed into a plot that is simultaneously true and fabricated, documentable and artistically premeditated, with a theater audience in mind. There is astonishing depth to the play, which takes into account a range of viewpoints and demonstrates that the periphery can contain invaluable clues to the heart of America and that very little in life is unpolemical.

Built to coincide with railroad stops, the towns in Wyoming generally are far apart, so within a given locale there is a certain familiarity. As the home of the University of Wyoming, Laramie has a combination of ranchers, workers, students, faculty, and staff. The population of the city is, at present, between 27,000 and 28,000, and the university has about 12,000 full-time and part-time students. Long-term residents cross with faculty who come from a variety of backgrounds and with students who are, by the nature of their stay, transient. Laramie is, by no means, a hub of diversity, but it is not homogeneous, and the interviewees address the questions raised from liberal to reactionary extremes, and from an array of points inbetween. Some are clearly pro-gay, some are gays and lesbians, others adhere to a policy of “live and let live,” still others seem to prefer to be kept in the dark about homosexuality, and there are those who argue that religious doctrine condemns such sinful practices, an argument that at times genuinely stems from theology and at times employs theology to condone hatred. The play underscores the motif—and the convention— of associations, strongly felt in the United States. One can have a large set of affiliations, classified by ethnicity, religion, age, gender, place of birth, region, sexual orientation, political party, and positions on social matters, as well as by sports, hobbies, schools or colleges, or even tastes in music and the arts. The Laramie Project is about identity, real and perceived, about the justice system, and about how people react when pushed out their comfort zone. Some respond actively, heroically; others, as cowards. Dennis Shepard proclaims his son to be a hero, a “winner,” and it is because of Matthew’s character that he seeks mercy for the killer. Kaufman and his team guide the spectator through the events, as gentle and committed intruders in a city that ceases to lie in the margins.

One of the many extraordinarily striking anecdotes of The Laramie Project is the account of the student Jedadiah Schultz, a life-long resident of Wyoming. Schultz wanted to study theater, but his parents could not afford to finance his college education without a scholarship. He decided to enter a competition, and he needed what he describes as a “killer scene.” He consulted with a professor, who recommended a scene from Angels in America. When Jedadiah— who is not gay—gave his parents the details of the competition, they refused to sanction his choice, and stayed away. His performance received a standing ovation, and he won the scholarship. At the conclusion of the play, it is revealed that one of the interviewees, a drama professor at the University of Wyoming, would be producing Angels in America, and, in the epilogue, that Jedadiah Schultz was cast in the role of Prior Walter. Some of the team members saw the play on their last trip to Laramie. This convergence of life and art becomes a microcosm of the play as a whole, as things come full circle but do not end.

Tony Kushner subtitles Angels in America “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” The Laramie Project and Take Me Out explore national themes, as well, but each is a different story altogether. Richard Greenberg sets Take Me Out in an all- American territory, that of baseball, known as the national pastime. Baseball players are national heroes: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken, Jr., Derek Jeter, and on, and on. Football and basketball have dimmed some of the special light of baseball, but the sport still has its fans, its “fanatics,” and much of its former luster. Baseball is a manly sport. Women and girls play softball; men play hardball. The playing field and the locker room are sites of exclusivity, of companionship, of male bonding. Baseball is a favorite subject of fiction and nonfiction. There are a good many films about baseball, from biographies to dramas and comedies. Kevin Costner alone stars in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, Robert De Niro in Bang the Drum Slowly, and Robert Redford in The Natural, to name but a few. Baseball is far less prevalent in the theater. Perhaps the most famous Broadway treatment of baseball in the twentieth century is the musical comedy Damn Yankees (by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross), from 1955, a retelling of the Faust legend set in the realm of major league baseball and the World Series. Incredible, but true. You might be familiar with the most famous song from the show, “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets.” Greenberg has in mind another song, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” a classic from 1908, with lyrics by Jack Norworth and music by Albert Von Tilzer. The title Take Me Out evokes the song, and out, as in “out of the closet,” alludes to the decision to no longer hide one’s sexual orientation. That “contamination” is the starting point of Greenberg’s play, which places the sanctity of the American ideal against, euphemistically stated, a major-league distraction. As its title implies, Take Me Out derives strength from mixed metaphors (or maybe mixed metonyms). Like Angels in America and The Laramie Project, Take Me Out scrutinizes the myths of America through a course of demystification. To his credit, Greenberg—whose concept may have been inspired, in part, by Finn’s Falsettos—does not pamper his audience, nor does he tender ready-made answers to the questions that he poses, questions that seem to strive to keep one off-balance.

The protagonist of Take Me Out is Darren Lemming, a star center fielder for the fictional New York Empires. Not only does the position relate him to stars such as Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Earle Combs, Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays, but center field is emblematic of Lemming’s heroic status, the adoration that greets him, and the ease with which he achieves greatness. He has a white father and a black mother, a middle-class background, and a résumé that does not include the suffering of African American players who preceded him. He is handsome, virile, triumphant, eminently confident, and, ultimately, over-confident. The play is about the consequences of a decentering statement, Darren Lemming’s comment to the press that he is gay, a comment that sets into motion a string of events that affect him and those around him. The manly sport is disrupted by the intrusion of the unmanly; the legacy of original sin enters the locker room, and the center fielder, to his surprise, finds himself in the margins. Lemming is so secure in his celebrity and in his fans’ devotion—his air of invincibility—that he cannot fathom a decline in his popularity. He feels safe to say whatever he chooses. As the play opens, he has just committed the public relations error, and the three acts treat reactions on all sides. A fellow ballplayer, Kippy Sunderstrom, a Stanford graduate known as the smartest man in baseball, becomes a choral presence, delivering exposition and commentary on what he repeatedly calls “the mess,” and interacting with Lemming. Sunderstrom ponders the irony of the dilemma: Lemming was under no threat; he “wasn’t on the verge of being outed” (Take Me Out 20), but—ignoring the fundamental law of superstardom—he somehow feels that he should be able to keep his public and private lives separate, that he should be able to “just play ball” (9).

That is not going to happen, however. Jealousy rears its ugly head. So does heterosexual anxiety. Players are naked in the locker room, and they now fear the predatory nature of the homosexual. They are made vulnerable, their own sexuality jeopardized. Although Lemming at first appears to be unphased by the commotion, his miscalculation has a domino effect that begets tragedy. His hubris is evident from beginning to end. He simply does not know when to shut up, and, yet, one may wonder, why should he have to remain silent? (There are echoes of the U.S. military’s rule of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in the play.)

Darren Lemming’s weapon of choice is a sharp tongue, and he is more than willing to annoy, provoke, and alienate his teammates. When the champions begin to lose games, the Empires call up a pitcher named Shane Mungitt from the minor leagues. A highly gifted athlete, Mungitt is conspicuously inarticulate, but when a television reporter asks him about his fellow players, words do not fail him: “A pretty funny buncha guys. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind the colored people—the gooks an’ the spics and’ the coons an’ like that. But every night to have to take a shower with a faggot? Do ya know what I’m sayin’? Do ya get me?” (45). Everyone gets him, and the problem of damage control intensifies to the maximum. Mungitt is suspended for a time, but when the team begins to lose again, he is reinstated. As we know, money speaks. Mungitt proffers a letter of apology in which he accepts full responsibility, but it turns out that he has had a ghostwriter.

Darren Lemming has a close friend, Davey Battle, an African American player on another team, a married man with three children. One week before Lemming’s announcement, Battle tries to convince him to love, to go beyond his “charm” in order to know his “true nature.” The dialogue is ambiguous, replete with sexual tension, or perhaps not, but it seems to have an impact on Lemming. The first time Lemming and Battle speak after “the thing” is in the Empires’ locker room before a game—a violation of protocol—and they are seen by the other players. This is the same day that Mungitt’s suspension is over, and he will be pitching. Lemming gets Mungitt alone in the shower, baits him, “embraces him from behind,” kisses him, and calls the episode “our little secret” (78). The first batter that Mungitt faces is Davey Battle. The first pitch hits Battle, who never gets up. Mungitt—banished forever from baseball— lands in jail for another offense, and the Empires win the World Series for the third year in a row, in what fans lovingly call a “three-peat.”

Greenberg introduces another prominent character in Take Me Out, notable because he has no ties with baseball: the accountant Mason Marzac, who becomes Darren Lemming’s money manager. Marzac—a gay man—initially has little knowledge of the sport, but he is delighted to have a superstar as a client and, little by little, he becomes a fan. Marzac allows the audience to see another side of Lemming, who is both at ease and ready with a quip as the two enter into dialogue. Marzac himself entertains through his growing enthusiasm for the science, statistics, and suspense of baseball, which he begins to think about on metaphysical, theological, and existential planes. Baseball becomes, improbably, his obsession, his essence. He declares, “Baseball is … unrelentingly meaningful” (68). The play opened on Broadway in February of 2003 to critical acclaim. The actors were praised, individually and collectively, but the lion’s share of tributes (and a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor) went to Denis O’Hare in the role of Mason Marzac, who comes to fit indelibly into the fiber of the play. (Daniel Sunjata, as Darren Lemming, was also nominated for the featured actor award. Additionally, Take Me Out won Tony Awards for Best Play and for Best Director, Joe Mantello, who played Louis Ironson on Broadway and in the world premieres of the two parts of Angels in America.)

Take Me Out gained a bit of notoriety for the male frontal nudity of its shower scenes. Greenberg and Mantello may have had “a gay fantasia on national themes” in the back of their minds. Still, it is the verbal rather than the visual aspect of the play that stands out. The lead characters are accomplished and clever—often overly clever—wordsmiths. Words are, alternately, signs of mental dexterity and defense mechanisms. Lemming resorts to irony, sarcasm, and verbal pyrotechnics to guard his true feelings, which he never quite discloses. Sonderstrom fancies himself as the resident intellectual, whose commentary can take detours in the following mode: “So here we start the Kafkaesque portion of the evening. Well, Kafka lite, anyway … Dekaf-ka” (95). Marzac likewise relies on a protective shield to screen his innermost thoughts. And, in his exploration of identity, the playwright himself teases the audience, not only with exposed body parts but with the calculated manipulation of time and with ambiguous and confusing statements.

Baseball is more than a backdrop or motif in Take Me Out. The team becomes a substitute for the dysfunctional families of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams: an allmale environment in which manhood itself is under investigation. In this setting, homosexuality can signify the tarnishing of an American ideal or the disputation or deconstruction—be it positive or negative—of that ideal. Can it be determined, by fair criteria, that Darren Lemming is wrong to publicize his homosexuality? Is his flaw the flaunting of his “queerness” to his colleagues and the unwanted advances toward an acknowledged bigot? One can imagine a defense lawyer naming Shane Mungitt’s attitude toward Davey Battle a transference of gay panic, but Mungitt is banned from baseball, not from society, for his some ambivalence, but life and baseball will move on. Baseball players and other professional athletes have, in fact, come out, but more frequently after retirement than during their active years, when fan bases, team owners, and lucrative endorsement deals must be factored into decisions. In Take Me Out, Richard Greenberg throws a lot at the audience, and where the pieces fall depends on directorial decisions, on the disposition of the individual theatergoer, and on the mutability wrought by time.

The United States is a “melting pot,” but all ingredients do not have equal weight, equal validity, in the scheme of things. The associations by which people define and categorize themselves, and others, are hierarchical in scope. The democratic spirit—which can never be absolute—has changed over time, as perceptions and civil rights have changed. Women and minorities enjoy greater freedom now than in the past, but the struggle is and will be ongoing. The best plays of the American theater have historically tackled social issues through family dramas, but as society refashions the family, playwrights regularly have turned to improvised, adhoc, or de facto “families,” such as enclaves of friends, support groups, partnerships among gays and lesbians, sports teams, and other sources of camaraderie. There is an expression “as American as motherhood and apple pie.” Sometimes “baseball” is added to the list. And I would like to think that a commitment to justice and a conception of the arts as a forum for debate always will be identified with what is truly, and positively, American.

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