I’ve decided to take up again a project that looks at American drama since 9/11, which I first wrote about a few years ago, but in order to do so systematically I will need to establish a historical and critical context for these plays: they did not emerge from a blank background, but from a historical situation unique in American history. Even though I’m aware that every play, in a fashion, emerges and is shaped by the culture and history in which it is composed, to impressionistically assume and describe this culture and history to one’s self, from a sheerly personal and individual perspective, risks the squeezing of these plays into a Procrustean bed of my own personality and opinions.
It is hard for anybody born after 1980 — I was born in 1962 — to imagine what it was like to grow up in a world dominated by a single ideological enemy (the Soviet Union) and a single existential and Existential threat (nuclear annihilation). These fears led to a variety of pop-culture artifacts. In comedy there were the satires of Dr. Strangelove, songs by Tom Lehrer, and the tongue-in-cheek compilation film The Atomic Cafe; in dramatic film, Fail-Safe; on television, in the 1980s, The Day After and Special Bulletin. The examples are endless. The culture that led to these artifacts also led to American plays which very rarely dealt with these issues explicitly (Arthur Kopit’s End of the World with Symposium to Follow and Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods are rare examples), but dramas like those of Sam Shepard’s in the late 1970s were infused with a consciousness of this anxiety; the off-off-Broadway theatre of the 1960s explored this anxiety with far more perspicacity than that of the large regionals, the off-Broadway theatre, and especially Broadway.
But it is different now — having no convenient, single ideological enemy, the enemy is perceived as being everywhere; and we fear not only the mushroom cloud but any passenger airplane that seems to us to be flying awfully close to the ground. In the post-9/11 era we are encouraged to believe that even a subway ride is not safe, not when policeman are assigned to subway stations to go through the bags and belongings of riders chosen at random and we are encouraged, when we “see something” suspicious, to “say something.”
It is not too early to see this effect on American drama. I started this blog in 2003, and I here wrote about a play by James Comtois that I saw way off-off-Broadway in 2006, The Adventures of Nervous-Boy. However modest the play and Comtois’ claims for it, I thought it deserved a wider audience. But what I want to point out here is a passage from Comtois’ notes to the play, which, it seems to me, is a not inaccurate description of the unique miasma that possesses the post-9/11 American consciousness:
We’re living in very sad and alienating times. Very few of us deal with real tragedy on a day-by-day basis … . Living in the wealthiest country in the world — and for us New Yorkers, in one of the wealthiest and most expensive cities in the country — very few (if any) in this theatre right now are toiling or befallen with catastrophe. This is, I suspect, a rule of the game when everything is automated and everything is provided for us.
Yet still … a number of people I know have this free-floating dread and anxiety, that feeling that Something Is Wrong. We can’t put our finger on it, but we feel it: that feeling that we’re obsolete, that we don’t matter, never have mattered, and never will matter to anyone or anything.
So, sometimes people create drama for themselves: make their lives more chaotic and problematic than they really are, thereby giving themselves and their situations a (false) depth of meaning. …
The Adventures of Nervous-Boy is a play for anyone who has felt a constant and steady fear of dread, who’s felt that the water is up to his or her eyeballs and rising. A play for anyone who’s felt at times that they’re always in the wrong place doing the wrong thing; who’s felt alienated and isolated despite being surrounded by people all the time. A play for people who have had their heart broken and have never been able to mend it properly and move on; who have wanted to go on a rampage after a week from hell.
This is a play for anyone who has wondered if we are indeed in hell.
How we got from 9/11 to the consideration of whether or not we “are indeed in hell” is as much the province of American drama as any other art form. I’ll look forward to reading and writing about these dramas (and comedies — from Christopher Durang to Reverend Billy) as the next few months go past. But first I’ll be stacking the bedside table with a few books to put all this into perspective. They will include:
- Christopher Hedges, The Death of the Liberal Class (2010) and War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002)
- Jonathan Schell, The Seventh Decade (2007)
- Ben Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly (2004)
- Naomi Klein, No Logo (10th anniversary edition, 2009) and The Shock Doctrine (2007)
Other suggestions for this list are welcome. I’ll be checking back in with notes on Jonathan Schell’s The Seventh Decade soon.