9/11: The Satire
I don't know if it's some childhood image left over from Victory at
Sea or from a book of pictures my uncle brought back from the
service, but when I think about the war in the Pacific, I see pink
cumulus clouds piled high, one upon another, on the decks of aircraft
carriers. It's not the iconic image of violent battle that usually represents the war, but my imagination seems to be
telling me that the iconic images aren't the whole story, that serenity
and beauty coexisted alongside the bloodshed and were a large part of
the day-to-day reality of the war.
It's for similar reasons that I think the nitty-gritty details of life
near Ground Zero as presented in one of the first theatrical responses
to 9/11, comic monologist Reno's Rebel Without a Pause, appeal to
me so. They provide relief from the media's iconic packaging, which has
been beamed at us ever since the attack on the Trade Towers and the
(rarely mentioned) Pentagon attack.
With a deluge of energy, Reno, who lived near the towers from 1981,
relates what it was like in lower Manhattan "that gorgeous day." She
recreates the clicking sound, like the noise an old machine gun would
make, that was the sound of the floors collapsing into one another. She
exhibits dismay at the total absence of Conelrad and the Emergency
Defense System. ("Maybe this wasn't enough of an emergency.") She
tells a story about finding her ATM emptied out at 9 am and the bank
refusing to open its doors so customers could get their money.
But mostly it's the human reactions to catastrophe that are so
wonderful, so wildly hilarious. The rumors that the terrorists are holed
up with machetes in a macrobiotic restaurant on Prince Street; people
rushing home to have their televisions validate what they'd just seen
with their own eyes; and what Reno calls the "hierarchical bragging
rights of pain and knowledge"--New Yorkers one-upping each other over
what they knew and what they'd suffered.
Reno's warnings about changes in constitutional protections make for a
very disturbing second half of her monologue, though she herself doesn't
seem to fear the new spy agency powers: She gives voice to her every
political thought, no matter how out there it is. She points out how
cheaply reporters have been won over by chummy Don Rumsfeld, and she
contemplates Henry Kissinger being arrested for war crimes. Reno even
suggests that Florida be allowed to float down to Uruguay, "where all
the other fascists are."
She also reveals some interesting facts, like ones you find in this
magazine but not in the major media. For instance, Hamid Karzai, the new
president of Afghanistan, used to work for Unocal. And this from Frank
Lindh, who saw the show the night before I did: FBI agents treated his
son kindly because even they knew "he was a hapless kid."
After a while, I began feeling the tingle of what I hope was just my own
paranoia (although as I learned the last time--when Watergate lanced the
Nixonian pustule--paranoia can be a very accurate predictor of reality).
Reno talks about what is being done to our civil liberties in the
context of Christian fundamentalist influence on this Administration. At
342 pages, the USA Patriot Act, she suggests, wasn't written in the days
after 9/11, and the Padilla case has clearly crossed the line of
innocent until proven guilty. She builds a picture of how really
extremist the Bush people are and how far to the right the President has
taken the country. So far, in fact, that Colin Powell is the "Communist
of this Administration."
Such points may be made with laughter, but Reno brings a fierceness to
her criticisms and an urgency to her concerns about the current
Administration that we are only beginning to see in the big world, and
then over financial wheeler-dealering and privilege, not civil liberties
and constitutional guarantees.
You will walk away from Reno with a clear sense that the changes aren't
minor, and they won't fall only on bad guys and enemies. It's a real
turning point: Democracy is up for grabs.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe's free summer show, Mr. Smith Goes to
Obscuristan, likewise treats the aftermath of 9/11. In it,
Condoleezza Rice (Velina Brown) and Dick Cheney (Cheney lookalike Ed
Holmes) seek to sell the Bush presidency as an Administration that cares
about democracy, not profits, and so devise a plan to send 9/11
firefighter Jeff Smith (the always wonderful Michael Gene Sullivan) to
oversee the first free election in the Central Asian, formerly Soviet,
republic of Obscuristan. The winner of this contest is certain to be
warlord and privatizer Automaht Regurgitov (Victor Toman), since he is
the only candidate. That is, until the oppositionist Ralif Nadir (Amos
Glick) throws his hat into the ring, arguing that "people should vote
their hearts, not their fears." (Of course, had one or two percent of
Florida's Nader voters forsworn that advice, the Mime Troupe wouldn't
have a Bush Administration to satirize.)
(Or would they?)
Smith, who has been kept ignorant by outfits like SNN, the Selective
News Network, believes America wants freedom for everyone. He is,
however, disillusioned when it becomes clear that there is oil in
Obscuristan and that the Administration's real interest is that
Regurgitov win, since he will insure the atmosphere necessary for US
investment. Smith then sets out to prove that the ordinary American
doesn't want to screw Obscuristan over, and by the end of the day
rescues Nadir, who was kidnapped and branded a terrorist. He also helps
bring an SNN reporter and the US ambassador over to the side of a fair
shake for Obscuristan.
The Mime Troupe hits many of the right points: that energy sources are a
major factor in our involvement in Central Asia, for instance, and that
much of the weaponry in the area was originally supplied by the CIA. And
they raise questions about just how free our own elections are. Given
that, I was left pondering why Mr. Smith seemed so tepid and not
particularly funny compared with Rebel Without a Pause. It's
doubly strange given that the Mime Troupe brought in the usually very
funny monologist, independent filmmaker and former Nation intern
Josh Kornbluth (Red Diaper Baby and Haiku Tunnel) to help
write the script.
The difference is, I think, that Reno articulates things you hadn't
thought about, or says things you may have thought a lot about, but in
ways that create the old shock of recognition. As when she says, "The
people of Missouri were so worried about Ashcroft making decisions, they
voted for the dead guy."
There are moments like that in Mr. Smith. Barbara Bush (Ed Holmes
again, this time in a gray wig and pearls) explains the rules of the oil
game to George W., and the whole facade of her Betty Crockerdom smacks
right up against her tough capitalist intelligence. This is a Barbara
Bush who says, "Never send a member of the working class to do an
aristocrat's job." But such moments are rare. For the most part, the
Mime Troupe's most incisive statements, such as "Only an American would
confuse a fixed election with a real one" or "Welcome to democratic
nations like Saudi Arabia who protect human rights," simply restate our
perceptions or are so bitterly ironic that a lot of the laughter I heard
Given that the source of the satire is Capra's populist classic, Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington, I think the Mime Troupe missed a real
opportunity to have us question ourselves by asking, Who is Mr. Smith
and what is he about? In the mythos of Mime Troupe plays, the ordinary
American is decent and fair, and in every respect there's a lot of
daylight between him and the ruling class, and therefore between us and
what our government does in our name. The Mime Troupe believes that like
Jeff Smith, the ordinary American has been kept in ignorance by the
media, and that if he only knew what was really going on, he would rise
up and change things.
That conveniently ignores the fact that ordinary Americans are of many
minds, and that many of us do understand that our comfort is based on
the deprivation (and worse) of people in other parts of the world. So
then, you have to ask whether we feel we can't do anything about it or
whether we don't want to. How much is the ordinary American willing to
give up to see people elsewhere get a larger slice of the pie?
And what is the usefulness of a mythos of unquestioned fairness and
decency, and in this play, as in other Mime Troupe efforts, of a sellout
who regains her soul and of a decisive victory over the people's
enemies? It's positive, but does it send us out of the park feeling
hopeful and intent on action? Or do we feel that a lot of what we
witnessed was too simple and fantastic?
The appeal in Mr. Smith is ultimately to idealism, to looking out
for the other guy and doing the right thing. Reno, on the other hand,
talks about self-interest: that we are losing our rights and that some
of us were slaughtered. "The [US] government," she says, "created the
mujahedeen that came to my town and killed us." That seems a much
stronger motive for action.
Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan will be performed through Labor Day
in various Northern California locales (415-285-1717 or www.sfmt.org).
Rebel Without a Pause played a week at the Brava Theater Center
in San Francisco in June and went on to an extended run at the Lion
Theater on 42nd Street in New York City.