I have already tried to answer this question twice in this space, once three years ago, and again just last July. But the defeat of Kerry at the polls and the ascension of Bush to his throne bring it to the fore again: in a time of political peril, of what use are the playwright's talents?
On November 3, I took refuge, as many compatriots did, in sarcasm. (For example, see http://www.fuckthesouth.com This opens a new window.) I received from a friend of mine a piece rounding through cyberspace, "American Coastopia," in which all of us latte-loving, pro-gay marriage-ites make our own land. It begins thusly:
Ladies and gentlemen, you needn't fret anymore. We have decided that we can't live in the United States anymore, because so many of you in the "heartland" are so full of shit. We were all going to move to various other countries, but then we thought - why should WE move?
We are tired of rednecks in Oklahoma picking the leader who will determine if it is safe for us to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. We are sick of homophobic knuckle-draggers in Wyoming contributing to the national debate on our gay marriages. So we have done the only thing we could.
May I present to you: AMERICAN COASTOPIA.
If you're interested in the whole text, you can find it at http://www.xtcian.com/arch/002057.php. (This opens a new window.) I didn't entirely agree with the snarky tone of it, but at the moment, such a secession seemed like a necessity, if not necessarily a good idea. Where, in fact, was there a place for those on the losing side?
I got quite a few emails back taking me to task for writing the piece (which I didn't) and, in writing the piece (which I didn't), expressing the same intolerance and blinderedness as those red-staters who believed, as Michael Feingold recently wrote in the Village Voice, that the greatest moral effort of our age, in a time of war, pestilence, disease, and famine, was to force women to have babies and to keep two men from having a marriage license.
In my responses to these emails (and in my defense), I said this:
I actually did not write the piece -- I don't know who wrote it. I just distributed it because I don't disagree with it. I may, in fact, be guilty of the very intolerance and prejudice of which you accuse me -- in fact, I know I am -- but in part it comes from just being tired of having intolerance and prejudice lathered over me for being an artist, for living on the East Coast, for daring to trust to reason rather than superstition, for believing that love and affection trump gender every time, for distrusting theocratic pretenders to the throne, for thinking that a gun permit ought to be at least as tough to get as a driving license, for wanting a real democracy rather than a participatory fascism, for advocating that women shouldn't have the government govern their bodies, for knowing that a fertilized ovum is not a child, for knowing that capitalism sucks -- but enough. I am willing to leave all them alone if they will leave me alone -- I will "open up my heart and mind" that far, but I don't want to sit around their kitchen tables and I don't want to listen to their sermons because I know, in their own hearts and minds, they would just as soon move me and "my kind" off the reservation and are not open to being convinced of anything but what they are already convinced of.
But they won't leave me alone because now so many of their own are in power, ready to privatize and baptize everything not nailed down. All American Coastopia says is, Let them do it, just not to us. Let them have their pinched kingdom of a pinched God on earth -- we just don't want to be there. We will be very happy being, as Irving Kristof slanders away in his New York Times Op/Ed piece of November 6, 2004, "bicoastal, tree-hugging, gun-banning, French-speaking, Bordeau-sipping, Times-toting liberals." He forgot the latte, but that's all right -- we won't.
Don't get me wrong -- being in Coastopia does not mean, at least for me, an abdication of this country. I will use whatever meager talents I have over the next four years to bring this country back to its senses, wake it up from the nightmare of conservatism, make it again liberal and liberated. But for now, I just want to be left alone by the "folk" -- I need to rest up for the fight.
But having said all that, what, then, is "the fight"? At the moment, the stages around here have no shortage of plays political, such as Guantánamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom, 9 Parts of Desire, and Pugilist Specialist, to name a few. And there will be more, no doubt. But these pieces seem too "on point": like any art "ripped from the headlines," they can end up becoming past tense as soon as the headlines turn. And too often they become indictments not of the audience but of the non-audience, who are not there to defend themselves (or be executed, depending upon one's level of rage), or appeal to an amorphous "humanitarian sentiment," exhorting us to better ourselves.
I have looked, as I often do, to Shakespeare. His explorations of power and corruption are not by any means "contemporary" (aside from the fact that it would have been politically stupid and dangerous to rip his plays from his age's headlines), yet to re-read Julius Caesar or Macbeth is to read again a scathing probe of the corruptions of power and ambition that bear immediately on the White House, the U.N., and the owner of the company that makes the Diebold touch-screen voting machines. In other words, historical distance and rhetorical imagination make the contemporary more contemporary than scripts pulled from transcripts and actors impersonating living politicians.
So, for me, the plays I want to produce over the next four years have less to do with writing a theatre appropriate for American Coastopia than it is about sifting our past with a fine comb to, first, examine how we got here and, second, to remember that our American history, as skullduggerous as it is, also boasts of large spirits and broad humanities that we can salvage and enlist as we try to restore "America" to that version (Version 1.0?) that had dedicated itself, rhetorically as well as through action, to unalienable rights and inclusive liberties. (Remember a time when religion, through the Social Gospel, actually preached a righteous crusade against corruption, poverty, and capitalistic greed?) Americans know so little of their own history, and their ignorance puts them at the mercy of the ideologue revisionists and political raptors.
But I don't just want to create historical dramatizations, a higher level of the costumed interpreters at Williamsburg. I also want audiences to understand their own part in their own bamboozlement, their complicity in their own amnesia. Unless they feel some sense that they have made choices that they can also unmake (another way to think of "redemption"), then they cannot participate in recovering their own history.
I would not recommend that American theatre go this route entirely -- apparently, somebody out there still needs a diet of dysfunctional family dramas, one-person coming-out confessionals, and "buddy" plays that trace the inevitable declines of growing up after college, and no reason exists why they should not get fed. But doing this makes sense for me -- a useful writing that tries not to didact people but instead get them, as the mantra goes for surviving a fire, to stop, drop, and roll. I hope it is enough.