Patriot Acts

Back in New York with a new play and starring in another, Sam Shepard reflects on the dangerous farce of contemporary politics

Every time a president named Bush invades Iraq, Sam Shepard writes a play in response. The first one wasn't exactly a tragedy—the playwright called his 1991 States of Shock 'a vaudeville nightmare"—but when history repeated itself, he was determined to approach it the second time as farce.

The God of Hell opens in familiar Shepard territory, a Wisconsin farmhouse where taciturn Frank (played by Randy Quaid) oils his boots and mutters about feeding the heifers while Emma (J. Smith-Cameron) dithers around the kitchen burning bacon and overwatering her plants. Soon, two cartoonish characters intrude upon this Midwestern idyll—Welch (Tim Roth, making his American stage debut), a vivacious devil disguised as a businessman who barges in with an American-flag cookie as his calling card, and Haynes (Frank Wood), a nerdy scientist hiding out in the basement who emits bolts of light whenever someone touches him. While the action is zany, a steady undertow of disturbing references to torture, beheadings, and contamination accumulates, making the play darker, stranger, and more political than anything Shepard has written in years, possibly ever.

For the restless cowboy of American theater, it's apparently not enough to go out on a limb as a writer. The same night The God of Hell opened this week at the Actors Studio Drama School Theatre in the Westbeth complex, Shepard began previews at New York Theatre Workshop in Caryl Churchill's A Number—the first time he's acted onstage since he and Patti Smith co-wrote and performed Cowboy Mouth in 1971. On the occasion of this West Village/East Village double whammy, Shepard agrees to an interview at the Jane Street Tavern after a preview of The God of Hell. Just a few days after his 61st birthday, he shows up sporting a sleek, grown-out buzz cut.

"I really wanted to write a black farce," says Shepard, "so I went back and studied Joe Orton. Nobody wrote better farce than him, and he was very dark. Not being as witty and clever as Joe Orton, I used Entertaining Mr. Sloane as a jumping-off place. I started with three characters, the couple and the stranger who comes to stay with them. The notion of somebody coming from out of nowhere and disturbing the peace. It fit perfectly with the Republican invasion. The whole storm that built up after 9-11. The Welch character came in last. I wanted him to be like something out of Brecht's clown plays. Tim plays him with the perfect tone: the demon clown."

Shepard's working title for The God of Hell was Pax Americana, an ironic hint at the play's theme of toxic patriotism. When Welch appears out of the blue, he pointedly asks Emma why her living room lacks "symbols of loyalty" and tries to sell her patriotic paraphernalia, which she declines. The minute she steps away, he whips out a staple gun and proceeds to cover the inside of her house with strings of little flags. A typically Shepardian theatrical device, this proliferation of objects is both comic and creepy, like the artichokes in Curse of the Starving Class, the vegetables in Buried Child, and the toasters in True West. But it also unmistakably refers to the blanketing of red-white-and-blue that turned the country's outpouring of post–9-11 grief into something bullying and coercive.

"We're being sold a brand-new idea of patriotism," Shepard says darkly. "It never occurred to me that patriotism had to be advertised. Patriotism is something you deeply felt. You didn't have to wear it on your lapel or show it in your window or on a bumper sticker. That kind of patriotism doesn't appeal to me at all."

What is that show-your-colors mentality about? "Fear," he says. "The sides are being divided now. It's very obvious. So if you're on the other side of the fence, you're suddenly anti-American. It's breeding fear of being on the wrong side. Democracy's a very fragile thing. You have to take care of democracy. As soon as you stop being responsible to it and allow it to turn into scare tactics, it's no longer democracy, is it? It's something else. It may be an inch away from totalitarianism."

Wary of being drawn into a political discussion, Shepard insists, "I don't want to become a spokesman for a point of view. I really want the play to speak for itself." He chose to write a comedy specifically to keep things ambiguous. An image of torture simultaneously evokes Abu Ghraib and Waiting for Godot. Haynes's bug-zapper handshake is a metaphor for radioactive contamination, but it's also a silly, fun theatrical effect. ("I get that static shock thing in the winter whenever I walk across a rug and touch something, which I hate, and I've always wanted to put it in a play.") Offstage events that sound apocalyptic or paranoid have real-life counterparts, such as the fire that began at Los Alamos in 2000 and burned out of control for three months, and the plutonium leaking into ground water from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility in Colorado. "I want it to be that way," Shepard says. "It's mysterious, yet at the same time something is going on."

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