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The Rebirth of Political Theater

It is a truth universally acknowledged that as a nation's politics grow more regressive, its arts tend to become more rambunctious. This is especially true in the theater. At the same time that the newly re-elected Bush administration is eliminating all traces of opposition from its Cabinet and its agencies, the volume of dissent is being turned up again on the American stage. Let us savor this precious privilege. An administration so eager for conformity in its inner circles will eventually try to impose it on the culture and the citizenry at large. Watch out for the increasing invocation of mantras like "loyalty," "patriotism," and "moral values."

Actually, since Vietnam thirty-five years ago, our stage has been permitted an unusual degree of freedom in questioning the conduct of our wars. Shedding the docility that characterized plays and movies during World War II and Korea, American playwrights--in the tradition of Aristophanes satirizing his own Peloponnesian wars--have had the unprecedented luxury of questioning overseas conflicts at the moment they are being waged.

Today, as a result of what many believe to be a misguided and deepening morass in Iraq, our theater is becoming political again. This season alone New York stages have featured Guantanamo, a British play about the rights abuses of Muslim detainees in Cuba; Nine Parts of Desire, Heather Raffo's intermittently powerful one-woman show about the plight of a variety of Iraqi women during the American occupation; Dirty Tricks, another one-woman show written by John Jeter about Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of Nixon's smarmy attorney general; Trying, Joanna McClelland Glass's recollection of her experience as secretary to Roosevelt's former attorney general, the aging Francis Biddle (portrayed with admirable crankiness by Fritz Weaver); and Doubt, John Patrick Shanley's shaded study of an Irish-Catholic priest who is suspected, perhaps falsely, of sexually abusing a young African American student, and relentlessly pursued by a tightly wimpled, tightly wound-up nun (Cherry Jones in a commanding performance meticulously directed by Doug Hughes). Still to arrive is David Hare's Stuff Happens, reportedly a seething indictment of our swaggering president and self-satisfied secretary of defense.

Not all of these plays are about Iraq, but almost all of them are about abuses of power. And Sam Shepard's THE GOD OF HELL, which opened recently for a brief run under the auspices of the Actors Studio Drama School at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater, is the first strong account of the rightward drift of our country under George W. Bush. Shepard, preoccupied of late with family dramas such as Buried Child, The Curse of the Starving Class, and his most recent work, The Late Henry Moss, has been galvanized by current events to write his most overtly political play since States of Shock (1991).

Like States of Shock, an implicit attack on the first Bush administration during the Persian Gulf war, The God of Hell is a metaphor for a whole nation on the cusp of cultural implosion. Shepard seems to be taking our temperature at the very hour that we are developing a fever. Indeed, The God of War is not only of the moment, it is the moment. It seems to have been written, in a white heat, the day before yesterday. That timeliness accounts for the play's strengths and its deficiencies. At best, which is to say throughout most of its length, The God of Hell is an extremely potent piece of surrealist paranoia about a nation dominated by moralism, patriotism, and secrecy. At its most hurried, which is to say as the action moves toward its climax, an imaginative metaphor degenerates into a familiar photograph, and what was implicit and suggestive becomes explicit and manifest. Despite this failing, I believe The God of Hell to be one of Shepard's most effective plays in years, and, thanks to a very gifted cast working under the unobtrusive direction of Lou Jacob, one of his best-acted.

The action is located in the heartland state of Wisconsin, the dairy capital of America. The setting is one of those Midwestern farmhouses familiar to us from True West and A Fool for Love, with its obligatory industrial shades, calico curtains, and shabby muslin drapes barely covering unwashed windows. Oiling his shoes by the wood stove and the flowerpots is Frank (Randy Quaid), a behemoth of a farmer, who breeds heifers. Bustling in the kitchen is his wife, Emma (J. Cameron-Smith), over-frying the bacon and over-watering the plants while she probes her husband about the unidentified friend of his who is staying in the basement. This mystery man turns out to be Haynes (Frank Wood), a frightened, vaguely lobotomized Milquetoast who is soon revealed to be an employee on the run from some initialized government agency ("DMDS ... SSCI ... something like that"). Eventually Haynes admits to having been contaminated by plutonium in a nuclear accident (hence the title, after Pluto, the Roman god of Hell), and proves it by leaving a luminous trail and emitting blue electric fizzes whenever he is touched. Haynes describes his condition as "static shock, " which has left him dazed, panicked, and electrified, a walking open socket.

The catalyst of the drama is Welch (Tim Roth), a sinister figure with teeth like a shark and a smile that bites, who enters the house wearing a black suit and red, white, and blue lapel pin, carrying an attach case. He is pretending to be a salesman peddling patriotic tchotchkes, including Pat Boone's recording of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and cookies cut and decorated in the image of the American flag. Before long, having revealed his identity as a federal agent in pursuit of Haynes, whom he identifies as a "left-leaning" fugitive from a nuclear lab in Rocky Buttes, Welch is stapling plastic American flags over every surface in the house. Countering Haynes's assertions that Colorado is about "to be blown off the map," he concedes only "some minor leakage," adding, "We're in absolute command now. We don't have to answer to a soul."

The way Welch takes over the house, turning it into what he calls a "Think Tank" for the government, is the spine of the play. He drags Haynes up from the cellar by an electrical cord tied to his penis like Pozzo yanking Lucky around by a rope in Waiting for Godot, a black hood covering Haynes's face. Frank, having already undergone his own penile torture, reappears in the same black suit and lapel pin worn by Welch. Before long all three are in identical clothes, knocking over plants as they march out the door in unison, while Emma, a poignant figure of despair against a background of fizzing static shocks, desperately rings the cowbell to summon her husband back. And to summon us to share her alarm.

The play would have been more allusive without those obvious references to Abu Ghraib, and some of its language ("You didn't think you were going to get a free ride on the back of democracy forever, did you?") sounds excessively declarative. But Shepard is apparently willing to sacrifice the perfection of his art for the immediacy of his parable, and The God of Hell provides a genuine catharsis at a time when we can really use one. Dramatically, the sense of resident evil lurking in this Wisconsin house is worthy of the best of Pinter. And the Chaplinesque performance of Tim Roth--ominously cheerful, menacingly unctuous, every element of his body in slithering, rubbery motion-- is a major lesson in the art of the stage. Let us pray the play is not an accurate prophecy of what is lurking in the wings.

If The God of Hell was written by a dramatic poet, DEMOCRACY (now playing at the Brooks Atkinson) is the work of a very accomplished journalist. Sam Shepard's play is a deep well; Michael Frayn's is a wide crater. Frayn's title suggests his ambition, which is to chronicle the tribulations of German democracy between 1969 and 1974 under the charismatic Socialist chancellor Willy Brandt. As Frayn proved earlier with Noises Off (a farce timed as perfectly as a Tiffany watch), he can be a master craftsman; as he proved later with Copenhagen (an extended dialogue between the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg), he has a gift for staging what would at first appear to be essentially undramatic material.

The price he pays in Democracy for cutting such a wide swath of history is a certain clunkiness. Characters are identified like trains coming into the station. ("Dr. Reinhard Wilke. My immediate superior. The dragon guarding Willy's door." "Genscher, Minister of the Interior. He's the one who's got to control the demonstrations.") And the play's "announcer," Gnter Guillaume, a Communist sleeper in Brandt's government, is continually swiveling his head between his colleagues in Bonn and his espionage contact in East Germany, as if he were broadcasting a game of tennis instead of keeping his eye on the political ball. As befits such an overtly public play, Frayn creates a highly official atmosphere in which the various politicians spend most of the time facing the audience and delivering speeches in a telegraphic style. There are no women around to open up their private side, just a number of invisible female admirers who service Willy during his train trips. For a man who adapted Chekhov, Frayn has put surprisingly little emotional subtext into his script, at least in the first act. Nor does he show much interest in human motivation.

Still, the playwright has managed to draw at least two compelling characters: the endearing Willy Brandt, whose Ostpolitik policy of reconciling West and East Germany alternates with his Don Juanish efforts to swell Leperello's list; and the deceptive Gnter Guillaume, who rose to become Brandt's personal assistant at the same time that he was betraying him to the East German Ministry of State Security (Stasi). Guillaume is Frayn's most complicated creation, a man who genuinely admired Brandt and had no desire to bring him down. Unlike Brandt, whom Frayn sees as an occasionally withdrawn, intermittently depressed man with a true social mission, Guillaume is split by conflicting motives and seems to have no dominating ideology. He is a little like Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi, a functionary who causes serious damage to another through spying and informing, but who is not above feeling pity for his victim.

Frayn has written a lengthy postscript to the published play. (Writing prefaces and postscripts is a habit that he learned from one of his models, Bernard Shaw. From his other model, Friedrich Schiller, he learned how to write history plays.) In it, the playwright speaks of Brandt as a complex individual, both strong and weak, friendly and aloof, modest and vain. His layered character is explained by the fact that he assumed a number of identities before turning to politics, "Willy Brandt" being only one of his pseudonyms (he was born Herbert Ernst Frahm). Imagine what Pirandello would have done with that! But while Brandt talks about his several skins, we never see him wearing them. Such personal complexities do not seem to interest Frayn as much as his hero's public persona. Brandt's most memorable moments in the play are his silent kneel at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial and his success at achieving the rapprochement he envisioned with the East German government.

Frayn is very deft at depicting the various intrigues driving Brandt's coalition government, often dependent for its survival on Christian Democrats and Liberals with entirely different political agendas. And his play works both as a spy thriller in the tradition of John le Carr, with the net closing on Guillaume, and as a history lesson based on prodigious research. Perhaps it is the historical aspect that makes Democracy sometimes sound like a well-written public lecture delivered by shop-window mannequins all wearing the same dark suits. Or perhaps it is Michael Blakemore's current Broadway production.

On a striking set by Peter J. Davison, consisting of two levels of white squares decorated with a variegated array of colored files, Blakemore has assembled a gifted group of American actors who somehow rarely break through the crust into areas of authenticity or surprise. Some of the supporting actors, notably Richard Masur as Horst Ehmke and Robert Prosky as Herbert Wehner, contribute adroit characterizations of world-weary politicians. But Richard Thomas as Guillaume, his tenor delivery largely unmodulated, has not quite shed his old role as John Boy in The Waltons. And James Naughton, who brought such galvanic charm to the materialistic lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago, is a little too hamstrung by his leading-man looks, nimble grace, and mellifluous voice to enter fully the rumpled, chunky figure of Willy Brandt. He makes an honest try, though, and he has some effective moments, particularly in repose, when the full force of his depression becomes manifest.

Toward the end of the play, after Brandt's government has fallen and Guillaume has been imprisoned, with both men fatally ill, Frayn poignantly suggests the inseparability of the two characters. (Guillaume: "And wherever he goes, my shadow goes with him. Together still.") It is the best-written and most touching moment in a play that remains mostly on the surface of public events. But the director almost manages to ruin even this tender scene with a clumsy coup de thtre as all the colored files fall out of their cabinets onto the floor.

Democracy, despite these cavils, is a substantial piece of work that is well worth a visit, if only to remind us of a time when political leaders were driven by humanitarian concerns rather than military and religious obsessions; and when the left was energized by the courage of its convictions. That time, like the events of this play, is history.