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Viet Nam Generation Journal
& Newsletter

V3, N3 (November 1991)

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The Speed of Darkness and "Crazed Vets on the Doorstep" Drama

By David J. DeRose, Theater Studies, Yale University

The brief appearance of Steve Tesich's play The Speed of Darkness on Broadway last Spring started me thinking back upon one of my favorite (sic) sub-genres of Vietnam War Drama: the "Disturbed (Crazed) Vet on the Doorstep" play. Tesich's play is about the unexpected reunion of Joe and Lou, two Vietnam veterans who have not seen each other in eighteen years. Joe is a family man and successful businessman, a construction contractor who has just been named South Dakota's Man of the Year. Lou is a vagrantone of the "Missing In America" as he likes to call himself; he has been following the touring replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial from city to city across the nation. When "Son of Wall" arrives in Sioux Falls, Lou arrives with it, materializing unexpectedly on Joe's doorstep.

Since David Rabe's startling Sticks and Bones in 1969, Vietnam veterans have been appearing on doorsteps with some regularity in American drama. Rabe's play is one of two early examples of this sub-genre to appear in 1969: the other is Lyle Kessler's regrettable The Watering Place . While Rabe's Sticks and Bones shoved an ugly war in our faces, The Watering Place was just plain interested in shoving ugly at whomever's expense.

Critically acclaimed at the time of its first production, but since forgotten, Kessler's play is a carefully crafted vehicle of commercial exploitation. Like rape flicks which glamorize sexual violence while claiming to condemn it, The Watering Place paints a seductive and irresponsible image of evil in the guise of a traumatized Vietnam veteran. The play is set in an American family home. Several months have passed since the family's only son, Ronald, has died in a Vietnamese POW camp, leaving his pregnant widow, Janet, to live with his parents. Enter "Sonny," a recently -returned veteran who shared a prison hutch with Ronald and witnessed his death.

Appearing out of nowhere and for no identifiable reason other than to victimize his ex-buddy's family, Sonny does his very best to drag every skeleton out of the family closet. He discovers that Janet is not, in fact, pregnant: she lost the child in a miscarriage on the day she learned of Ronald's death. She has been wearing a pillow under her clothes for six months to spare Ronald's mother the pain of losing both son and grandson. The older woman has been on the verge of a nervous breakdown since news of her son's death. Ronald's father is a veteran of two world wars who takes great pride in being supreme pater familias: all-knowing, all-powerful, all-protective. He has little respect for soldiers who fight "chinks" in Southeast Asia, rather than "krauts" in the fields of Europe, and recognizes Sonny as an immediate threat to his authority.

Sonny is a creature of motiveless and all-too-convenient evil, who easily seduces Janet with tales of how Ronald kept him alive in the POW camp by sharing intimate fantasies about her. He just as easily emasculates the father by taking control of the women in the household, undermining the older man's authority, and eventually breaking his hand in a challenge of physical strength. Sonny destroys the mother's last tie to sanity by exposing the pillow she took for her future grandson; he then impregnates Janet with his own evil seed. The quintessential crazed vet, Sonny, having accomplished his pure evil, leaves as suddenly as he had appeared.

Similarly psychotic vets appear on the doorsteps of American family homes in Michael Dorn Moody's The Shortchanged Review (1976), and George Szanto's After the Ceremony (1977). In Moody's play, for instance, the father is once again stripped of his authority and masculinity while his new wife is seduced and his step-daughter introduced to heroin. In what the psychotic vet/son assumes is the ultimate act of revenge upon all dirty, peace-loving hippies, he shoots a rock-star to death. All this takes place among long, masturbatory monologues on the horrors of war.

It was not until the late 1970s that the homecoming vet was treated in a responsible manner by three fact-based dramas: Tom Cole's The Medal of Honor Rag (1977), Adrienne Kennedy's An Evening with Dead Essex (1978), and Emily Mann's Still Life (1979). These three plays address issues of marital re-adjustment, survivor's guilt, PTSD, racial discrimination, and substance abuse among recently-returned veterans and their families. Not only do these plays vary from the "crazed vet" syndrome in their attitude toward homecoming veterans, they are also radically different in the theatrical manner in which they choose to represent the stories of those veterans. None of these plays, for instance, utilizes the conventional homecoming motif nor the domestic family setting. Cole's play, while conventionally melodramatic in some ways, takes place away from the home in the psychiatric ward of a VA hospital. Both Mann's play and Kennedy's are documentary in style, taking place in clearly abstracted and theatricalized spaces, using projected images and actors with written sources in hand. Clearly these writers felt that the issues surrounding the readjustment of Vietnam veterans could not be expressed in the stereotypical homecoming format. Other similarities between the three plays also suggest that these are dramatic presentations of clearly different intent than the "crazed vet" plays: for instance, two of the three plays deal with minority veterans; two of the three were written by women; two were based on cases widely publicized in the media; two end with the violent, public self-destruction of the veteran; all three were drawn from real-life incidents and individuals. These are all characteristics unique to these three plays, and totally exclusive of "crazed vet" drama.

In 1983 with Strange Snow, Stephen Metcalfe successfully combined the Vet at the Door motif with a sympathetic and responsible treatment of the self-destructive veteran. Strange Snow is one of three plays by Metcalfe the other two are Sorrows and Sons and Spittin' Image (both 1986)which deal with the death of a young man in Vietnam and the attempts of his family and friends to come to terms with his absence. In Sorrows and Sons a college student and his father fight over the young man's inability to excel in school and sports. Devastated by the death of an older son in Vietnam, the father now resents the younger son's inability to fill his brother's shoes. In Spittin' Image (also performed under the title Jacknife ), that same college student is unexpectedly visited by Megs, an eccentric Vietnam veteran who has served with the student's older brother and who was a witness to his death. Desperately alone, Megs has come to visit the young man because he is the "spittin' image" of his older brother. Megs, like the boy's father, hopes to take some comfort in that similarity.

Strange Snow (adapted for film as Jacknife ) finds Megs once again knocking unexpectedly on someone's door. This time, it is the door of a third Vietnam veteran, Dave, who was with Megs when their mutual friend was killed in battle. As in Sorrows and Sons and Jacknife, the characters in Strange Snow are trying to come to terms with the death of someone dear to them. Their interaction is based on a search for explanations and an attempt to place blame. But there are no explanations, nor can blame be placed, and all three plays must end in an act of forgiveness.

Overlaid on the reunion of Dave and Megs in Strange Snow is a love story between Megs and Dave's sister, Martha. (One might see this love story as a rather benevolent new twist on the violent seductions of wives and daughters perpetrated by intrusive character's like Kessler's Sonny.) The rather conventional dramatic plotting of this nerd -meets-spinster love story exemplifies and draws attention to the manner in which Metcalfe attempts to frame the plight of his Vietnam survivors within such pre-cast dramatic narratives as the traditional love story, the domestic drama, or the classic father-son confrontation. In doing so, Metcalfe creates rather generic instances of mourning which do not so much reflect the specific circumstances of the U.S. war in Vietnam and its displaced U.S. veterans as they do the suffering of all those who have lost friends and family in unexpected tragedy. Strange Snow is a fine play, but it is not, in the final analysis, specifically about the Vietnam war. Perhaps this fact explains its commercial success.

A little-known play which does reflect the specific circumstances of post-Vietnam readjustment is James Duff's Home Front (1985), the only other Vet on the Doorstep play of the 1980s. This unassuming domestic drama about a recently-returned Vietnam veteran living in his parent's home is true to the experience of many vets in that important issues and heart-felt emotions are left mostly unexpressed, while un-aired resentment and misunderstanding between the vet and the other family members breeds tension and violent hostility.

Duff's play serves as an interesting, realistically-drawn counterpoint to Rabe's much earlier, highly stylized Sticks and Bones . The peculiar thing about Home Front is that, written in 1985sixteen years after Rabe's playit is still set during the war, in the immediate aftermath of a young man's tour of duty. Only with Steve Tesich's The Speed of Darkness , first produced at the Goodman Theatre of Chicago in 1989 and restaged at the Belasco Theatre in New York last spring, does an American playwright take on the issue of disturbed veterans who are still showing up on doorsteps twenty years after returning from Vietnam.

Steve Tesich is not usually perceived as a heavyweight in dramatic circles: he is best known for the kind of warm, fuzzy "aw-shucks" American family dialogue which garnered him the Best Screenplay Oscar for Breaking Away. The Speed of Darkness has its fair share of this style of quaint AmericanaJoe, for instance, calls his teen-age daughter Mary by the pet name "Marsee" (as in "Mares eat oats and Does eat oats"?). And yet The Speed of Darkness falls more into the mold of a classical Greek tragedy than Tesich's usual sentimental comedy. With the characters of Joe and Lou, the playwright is working on a dramatic scale which eventually overpowers the sweet and sentimental tone of the family interaction. There is a raw emotional power to Tesich's portrayal of these two men, and a symbolic stature to their shared crime, which supersedes the play's early touches of melodrama and cliche.

Lou's appearance at Joe's door is motivated not just by the arrival of the traveling Wall, but by an article he has read in the local newspaper of a proposed real estate development which would turn a wilderness areaa breath-taking mesa which overlooks the towninto a stylish housing development. Lou knows, as does Joe, that if the development proceeds, their mutual crime, a long-hidden act of hatred, will be uncovered. Only at the very end of the play does Joe reveal the nature of that crime: twenty years earlier, when he and Lou had just returned from Vietnam to a hometown which held them in contempt, the only work they could find was illegally dumping trash and disposing of toxic waste by night. As Joe says when accepting the Man of the Year award, " I'd like to thank all of you now because it was your trash and filth and waste that you wanted taken somewhere, anywhere, and buried out of sight that gave me my fresh start in life." In a bitter act of symbolic vengeance upon the country for which they fought in a war which left them both psychologically scarred and physically sterile, Joe and Lou poured barrel upon barrel of toxic waste into the crevices of the mesa, forever contaminating the land. "It was like dumping death by the barrel," Joe eventually tells his unbelieving family, "...but no matter how much we tried to hate, it still wasn't enough. We wanted to hate more. There was more venom in us than in all those oil drums put together. The kind of hate that desecrates life."

In the years that have passed since these events, Lou has become another statistic of the Vietnam war: one of the urban homeless. Joe, on the other hand, married a woman who had been made pregnant by another man and started a family, burying his hatred deep within himself. He eventually became an upstanding member of the community. As his name suggests, he is seen by all as "a regular Joe."

But, when the secret of the mesa threatens to destroy Joe's carefully constructed life, and when, in an act of self -sacrifice, Lou shoots himself in Joe's living room, accepting responsibility for their crime, the strain of being a "good Joe," of being a respected pillar of the community he once wished to poison, becomes too much for Joe. As he himself comments late in the play, "the thought of having to wake up and having to be 'Joe' again and having to be 'Joe' the whole day is too much for me. I used to be good at it. I could do 'Joe' real good. I just don't feel like doing him anymore." Joe eventually makes a public confession, and while his community applauds his courage, he is not taken into their embrace. He becomes an instant outcast.

Tesich has given both Joe and Lou the kind of detailed, personal moments which make them absolutely real on stage. Lou is best defined by the story of his first visit to the Vietnam Memorial where he is stunned to discover that he is not listed among the casualties of the war. He is arrested when he tries to scratch his name into the Wall with a can opener. The privacy of Joe's pain is expressed in a conversation he has with his teen- age daughter's adoring boyfriend. When the guileless young man casually prods Joe about his Vietnam experience, Joe lashes out with "What's it like to fuck my daughter, Eddie?" When the young man is unable to answer, Joe responds "It's personal. Is that what it is? ... It's more personal than what happened to me in the war? Is that what you're telling me? ... I'm public property[?]"

"Moments like these are as specific and individual to the private experiences of the characters as they could be. And yet, Tesich also gives both Joe and Lou their moment of transcendence, where they take on a mythic stature and speak on behalf of an entire generation. Lou's moment comes at the instant of his death, when he pulls a gun from his knapsack, puts it to his mouth, and calmly tells his friend Joe, "I'll tell you what I'm gonna do for you, buddy. I'm gonna die for your sins. You're free." In this moment, Lou addresses the wishes of a nation which would like to be "free" of the "sins" of Vietnam which are upon us all, a nation which wishes it could locate and destroy a willing scapegoat like Lou. At the play's conclusion, Joe tries to free himself of the past by his public confession. Speaking on behalf of all ostracized Vietnam veterans, he both asks the forgiveness of the townspeople and in turn publicly forgives them. But the American people, it is made clear, are not yet willing to join Joe in an act of mutual healing. They would rather bury him along with Lou.

Finally, the symbolic imagery of Tesich's play makes me once more hearken back to unfortunate plays like The Watering Place. In The Watering Place , we had Janet's unborn baby / pillow, which by the play's conclusion had been replaced by Sonny's evil seed. In The Speed of Darkness, there is again a baby, carried by Joe's daughter Mary, and named after Lou. But, thankfully, there is no suggestion of a seduction, nor any possibility that this baby is Lou's. For the baby is nothing more than a sack of old rags and earth which Mary carries with her as part of a high school assignment in responsible parenthood. The only "seed" which is sown in this play is the poison which Joe and Lou "shot ... into those dark holes" of the mesaa sterile seed of hatred and pain, not of evil. If Mary, or any of her generation, have been impregnated in this play, it is by the experience she now carries with her into adulthood and parent by virtue of having been touched by Lou's life and her father's.

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