David J. DeRose
No, this is not an editorial on William Kennedy Smith or any of the other Kennedy kids. I have shamelessly stolen the title of this essay from Robert Patrick's mediocre little play of 1976 in which five customers in a New York bar reminisce about the Sixties and about the downward spiral of their lives since those bygone days of youthful idealism. The "Kennedy's Children" of Patrick's play are the offspring of the Camelot years and of the subsequent Viet Nam era, speaking from the disillusionment of the postwar, post-Watergate Seventies.
The "Kennedy's Children" I wish to discuss here are likewise offspring of that generation, but they are also the progeny of another Kennedy, young American playwright Kerry Kennedy, whose new play Amnestia was staged at the Yale School of Drama in April of 1992.
If ever a play portended to be a metaphysical treatise on the Viet Nam generation, Amnestia is it. Amnestia (the Latin root of both amnesty and amnesia) pursues the children of the Viet Nam generation--now little more than forgotten ghosts--catching up with them somewhere in the desert wastelands of the American Southwest. The time is now, and the action concerns Henry Simpson, a thoroughly average Midwestern businessman of around sixty, who has made a desperate pilgrimage to the desert in search of the son he has not seen in twenty years. That son, Stanton, ran away from home to avoid the draft and to escape his father's threats of brutal reprisal. But rather than flee to Canada as he told his parents he would, Stanton pursued a self-exploratory trek across the United States, stopping, among other places, in Berkeley and the Rockies, and finally disappearing into the Mojave Desert. Henry's wife (Stanton's mother) is now dying of cancer; her final request is to see her son once more before she passes away. In the desert, Henry encounters a recluse who could very well be his son. But the man Henry finds suffers from amnesia. Before either he or Henry can uncover his true identity, they must make a journey together into the past.
The recluse--credited in the program only as "the man in the desert"--has been living on the desert for more than a dozen years in order to escape, he claims, the shame of a horrible deed he committed in the past but which he can no longer remember. Henry and this younger man spend a long, wakeful night, camped on the open ground near the skeletal wreckage of an abandoned car, attempting to determine if they may, in fact, be father and son. Henry has brought with him a suitcase full of memorabilia--artifacts of the happy childhood he would like to believe his son enjoyed. The recluse has his own memorabilia of sorts, a pair of well-worn Army boots. He tells Henry that he carries these boots, not as a souvenir of happier times, but as a reminder of his horrible crime. In spite of the boots, he has lost all memory of that crime and of the events which originally brought him to the desert.
Henry's personal past and that of his newfound companion are interwoven with the lives of four other figures who, while not present "in the flesh" at this encounter, nevertheless share the stage throughout the play. Dominant among these figures is Henry's wife, Etty, who occupies a downstage alcove just out of the main playing space. Surrounded by furnishings which clearly place her at home in Kansas, she is waiting for Henry to return with her son. In her spatial isolation from the rest of the play, she serves as a narrative and visual framing devise of sorts. She is a witness to the events of the play, either through Henry's memory or somehow clairvoyantly in her own mind's eye. Her wandering thoughts, spoken aloud, add both interpretive comment to the on-stage action and exposition to the family's past.
Also on stage throughout the play, watching Henry and the recluse--even speaking to and occasionally taunting them--are three ghostlike companions. Unseen by Henry and the recluse (except in a shared nightmare), these figures are former acquaintances of Henry's son, Stanton, all of whom Henry has met in his travels. They are also traumatized ghosts, archetypes of the Viet Nam generation. One is a homeless black veteran who shot off his own hand to escape from Viet Nam, and who returned to the States only to be brutally beaten during race riots. The other two are women, both former lovers of Stanton's: an aging acid queen who accidentally killed her baby (Stanton's child) when, high on LSD, she tried to teach the infant to fly; and a former debutante, now a channeler for the dead, who is possessed by images of the war era, and who has been subjected to repeated shock treatment to try to stop her traumatic visions. One of those visions is of a young man in Berkeley--perhaps Stanton--who set himself ablaze in imitation of Buddhist monks he saw on television.
These three figures serve as a representative chorus of those who are trying to forget, or who have forgotten, or who have been forgotten. They continuously offer bits and pieces of their own lives to compliment the experiences of Henry and the recluse. Like the recluse--lost in the dark, living alone on the desert--they are the ghostly symbolic inhabitants of traumatized America, roaming the wasteland. The stories they tell are as different from each other as they could be, but their personal sense of devastating loss is strikingly similar.
Henry's desire to locate his son represents a refreshing new twist to the old "vet on the doorstep" play. For once, we have a member of the older generation actively taking responsibility for reconciling events from the Viet Nam war era. But, Amnestia only maintains our interest as long as it remains obvious that Henry's conciliatory journey is primarily symbolic: that Henry is representative of a generation which really needs to find "a" lost son and that what the recluse needs is to "come home" to a memory of a place that no longer exists. When the play maintains a balance between, on the one hand, the lives and details of these specific individuals and, on the other hand, their symbolic stature as representatives of an entire generation, the playwright harnesses great dramatic power. But, once these two men are allowed their conventional moments of cathartic (read melodramatic) self-revelation, their mythic stature disappears under the magnifying glass of thoroughly domestic factual exposition.
Kennedy is, nevertheless, to be praised for resisting the kind of easy pathos which would lead to a melodramatic conclusion in which father and son are happily reunited. The man in the desert is not Henry's son. By the end of the play, he regains his memory and, much to his own dismay as well as Henry's, must refuse Henry's offer to "go home again." During the one sequence in the play where the two men are momentarily convinced they are father and son, sharing memories of Stanton's childhood years, Kennedy does an excellent job of raising them to archetypal stature by filling Henry's suitcase and his memories with images recognizable to any child of the late Fifties or Camelot era. For instance, when Henry describes Stanton's childhood home on a small town street with a white picket fence, it is easy to understand how the recluse thinks he recognizes it. Whether he actually lived in such a house or not, this home is one we would all remember. Obie Taylor lived in it, so did "the Beaver." As Henry and the recluse discuss the house, their three ghostly companions fill in their own details, their own slight variations on an image common to all their lives.
But not all of the play's archetypal American images work. In particular, Kennedy's imagery turns stereo- rather than archetypal when the recluse suddenly remembers that he is a Viet Nam veteran. His personal trauma is much more interesting--and works far better as a symbolic embodiment of the national trauma of his generation--as long as it remains unnamed. But his status as a veteran is a predictable and convenient way of explaining his self-induced amnesia. I mean, don't all Viet Nam veterans want to forget "the horror" of the atrocities they surely all committed? This cliche is a bit too easily employed. Only for one instant does the recluse as Viet Nam veteran make archetypal sense when he shouts at Henry: "I did everything my country asked of me. I even forgot who I was." For that moment, he is raised again to the stature of spokesperson for the Viet Nam generation, doing his best to accommodate the American public by pretending he never existed. But this stature is short-lived, and the man's vague reference to "killing a whole bunch of people" in Viet Nam quickly reduces him again to a cliche. (This sudden self-revelation is matched by Henry's equally sudden confession that he should have driven his son to Canada: a confession he seems desperate to make to somebody, though it has not been asked for.)
If all of this sounds a bit too much like a Sam Shepard play to those of you who read my last column on States of Shock, you are absolutely right. Kennedy's indebtedness to Shepard is great, even if indirect. The search for personal origins and the symbolic father-son reunion appear in too many Shepard plays to mention, although the little-known The Holy Ghostly (1968), set around a desert campfire complete with ghostly apparitions, comes to mind. The Southwest American desert as stand-in for a post-apocalyptic wasteland is reminiscent of Operation Sidewinder (1970) and Shepard's film collaboration with Antonioni, Zabriski Point (1970). The skeletal car as emblem of consumer-obsolescent America and as refuge for the homeless is straight out of The Unseen Hand (1969). The multiple planes of reality suggest, among many other works, Suicide in b-flat (1976). And the spectral presence of the absent parent is too obviously Fool for Love (1983). These similarities prove, if nothing else, that Kennedy recognizes Shepard's dramaturgy as ideally suited to the theatrical representation of postmodern, post-Viet Nam America.
Amnestia will likely draw a fair amount of attention. It has all the qualities of a profound work of art without really being one. Take, for instance, the catch phrase from the second act which served as the center piece of the play's publicity: "Memory forgets what time remembers." Like the play, this phrase seems profound as hell when you first hear it uttered by Etty. It has the appearance of profundity by virtue of its obscurity. But the more you repeat it, the more you realize there is nothing there. This ponderous but pointless obscurity is both the quality which makes Kennedy's play ultimately frustrating, and the quality which is likely to bring its author credibility as a "powerful new voice in American theatre."
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