The Dream in one dimension
America-bashing makes for bad shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Visions of America at the Edinburgh Fringe ranged from classics such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), to David Mamet’s Water Engine (1976), to new work responding to the America of the ‘war on terror’.
Many of these Fringe plays explore the attraction and repulsion of the American Way. As the foremost Western capitalist nation, America displays the excitement and liberating power of modernity alongside its bitter pitfalls and limitations. America offers the dream of freedom and prosperity, yet many citizens live unrecognised and impoverished lives. America preaches the self-determination of nations, yet sets up puppet dictators the world over.
Some plays written today, however, have no such ambivalence towards America. For them, America only repels: it is a selfish, controlling power, whose promises of liberty and progress are mere fig-leafs for oppression and exploitation.
One play shows English reporters making a documentary about a US corporate-owned town, Happiness. Happiness is the stereotypical chocolate-box town, where ‘everyone is a winner’, and where people live safe, orderly and contented lives. This image of ‘extra-perfect’ perfection is exposed, however, when the team discover the racist and violent reality that lies beneath.
This motif has been used several times before, by Lynch and many others, to great effect. But because the idealised vision of America was fake from the beginning in Happiness, there was no drama in its exposure. The only tension comes from the slow wits of the journalists, who fail to pick up on the clues suggesting that darkness lurks within Happiness. When they do finally realise that the sham town is a sham, we get lectures: after seeing gun-toting grannies hitting targets imagining them to be ‘Arabs, single mothers and people on welfare’, one journalist concludes that this ‘sums the place up’ (wink, wink).
Harry is Always Right features evil corporate figures pursuing a war in search of ‘business opportunities’. We know they are evil because of their arched eyebrows, loud cackling and callous calculations. But when they give broadcasts to the public they call to ‘defend our freedoms’, play patriotic music and kiss babies. ‘Cut!’ gives the signal that they can stop kissing the baby doll and start cackling again. Here, American values are shown as being cover for the Elected Supreme’s pursuit of profit.
This one-dimensional view of America makes for poor theatre. We are shown stereotypes rather than characters, and there is little tension between the idealised veneer and the underlying reality.
Fringe plays that explored the attractions as well as the pitfalls of the American Dream tended to be more compelling. Death of a Salesman features an all-American family torn apart by disappointment and disillusionment. Willy had devoted his life to being a salesman, travelling to ‘beautiful towns’ full of ‘fine, upstanding people’. He hoped his sons would become rugged, enterprising businessmen. But Willy began to fail at his job and the company screwed him over – and his sons saw little attraction in The Dream. Hap found the life of a businessman uninspiring – ‘Everybody around me is so false. I don’t know what I’m doing it for’. Biff wandered from one temporary job to another – ‘I’m lost’, he said, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to want’.
Here the American Dream was not just a phoney façade – it was something that the characters had tried to live their lives by. As a result, their discovery of the soulless character of business life has tension and emotional power.
Charles Lang, the main character in The Water Engine, finds himself in similar straits. He invents an engine that will run on water – but is pursued by business interests, who try to steal the invention and kidnap him and his sister. Like the American pioneer, Lang uses his wits and perseverance to transform nature’s raw materials. He believes in ‘the contract’, giving a lawyer a dollar so that they would ‘have a deal’ to patent his invention. Watching this American Adam having his dreams dashed by the system – which he then fights back against – is much more interesting than seeing a cliché exposed.
A new play that looks at the spoilation of American values is Line in the Sand, a one-woman piece of reportage based on interviews with people in the small town where the Columbine massacre occurred.
The town, as one of the characters says, was seen as ‘a postcard’, a safe, friendly place to bring up families. The interviews showed people trying to confront whatever it was that led the boys to ‘more rage, more rage’, and to vow: ‘I will shoot to kill.’
We see people’s painful self-interrogation, covering everything from moral decay, to the declining authority of parents, to the propensity to jump traffic lights. ‘[The killers] believed in nothing’, observed the pastor, ‘we look somewhere to know what’s right’. Others lamented that children ‘can do anything they want and get away with it’; and called for parents ‘to take their parenthood back’.
Here the violence of small-town America is shown up, not by self-satisfied European journalists as it was in Happiness, but by its own agonising experience and self-analysis. The result is much more effective as drama.
It is also more damning as a critique. Happiness sets up the American Dream as a phoney myth, rather than something to be taken seriously. As a result, we never perceive its shortfalls – because we never expected anything of it in the first place. If neither the characters nor the audience believe that Happiness is a place of prosperity and harmony, then doesn’t seem like such a problem when friction appears.
In fact, the concern in Happiness seems to be less with the dynamics of the American experience, than it is with setting up a cliché against which European liberals can flatteringly define themselves.
Similarly, Death of a Salesman and The Water Engine expose the amorality of American business far more effectively than does Harry is Always Right. This is not just because they are classics – though that is part of it. It is also the case that, because the characters expected business to be a moral way of life, they become so strongly aware that it is not. The salesman lived his life for the business, but it chewed him up and spat him out. Had he gone through the years sneering at the selfishness of executives and the soulessness of the cash nexus, the play would not have been nearly so damning. Only those gripped by the attractions of the American Dream are able to show us its limitations.
The trite exposés of America showing at this year’s Fringe are related to a broader climate of anti-Americanism, which is based on lazy cynicism rather than critical engagement. These sentiments grew in the wake of 11 September, when everybody from newspaper columnists to the newsagent detailed all the reasons why They Deserved It. The assumption that America is all bad, that is merely an oppressive, racist, controlling power has become mainstream.
This view blocks our eyes to the genuinely inspiring and creative potential of American society – the energy that still draws thousands of people each year to its shores. It also prevents us from really perceiving the country’s limitations and pitfalls.
Smug American-bashing makes for bad theatre and bad politics – and could do with being consigned to the fringes of society.
Josie Appleton spoke at ‘Visions of America’, an Institute of Ideas Round Table Rumble at the Edinburgh Festival. This article is also published on Culture Wars, the reviews website of the Institute of Ideas.
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