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States of Shock
David J. DeRose, Theater Studies, St. Mary's College
When it was announced a little over a year ago that a new Sam Shepard play, States of Shock, would be opening at New York City's American Place Theatre, critical circles began to buzz in anticipation. Shepard, while appearing as a leading man in several feature films over the last half dozen years, had not opened a new play since 1985. Anticipation grew even greater when it was announced that States of Shock would star John Malkovich, who first came to national attention playing the desert drifter, Lee, in Shepard's 1980 stage comedy, True West.
When States of Shock did open in May of 1991, critical and popular response was mixed. The play was not what audiences or reviewers anticipated from the Pulitzer prize winning playwright who had authored a string of five powerful family dramas between 1976 and 1985. The overwhelming consensus among critics and theatergoers was that the play seemed like a regression on Shepard's part, a throwback to his slap-dash experimentalism of the late 1960s. Even more perplexing to the public was the fact that the play was clearly written as a bitter outcry against America's involvement in the Persian Gulf. New York Times critic Frank Rich voiced the cynical, pseudo-cosmopolitan reaction of many New Yorkers when he patronizingly suggested that the play was written "with the earnest--one might even say quaint--conviction that the stage is still an effective platform for political dissent and mobilizing public opinion." Rich further suggested that Shepard must have been "hibernating since...the Vietnam era."
In one respect, Rich is right: States of Shock is undoubtedly a Viet Nam era play. But, perhaps if Rich had chosen to explore the "Viet Nam era" qualities of the play a bit further, rather than quickly criticize them as inappropriate to the chic and skeptical 1990s, he might have expressed the matter in a less narrow-minded, more precise fashion: States of Shock is an anti-war play written by a member of the Viet Nam generation from the cultural perspective of the Viet Nam war era. The style and politics of the play--rather than an unintentional regression on Shepard's part--seem quite consciously reminiscent of the drama of the Viet Nam era, as if to ask the obvious question that the media during the Gulf War either refused to ask or was not allowed to ask: namely, doesn't anybody here remember Viet Nam? Didn't we learn anything twenty years ago?
States of Shock condemns both the American government's military invasion of Iraq in February of 1991 and, more notably, the compliant and complacent reaction of the American public to that invasion and to the manner in which it was mass-marketed by our leaders. States of Shock is a play written in the style of the Viet Nam era as a wake-up call to the Viet Nam generation which seemed so appallingly silent during the invasion of Iraq.
But States of Shock is more than an angry political tract; it is a fluid, dreamlike event of hypnotic, archetypal images, as full of visual poetry as it is of current politics. Reminiscent of Shepard's hallucinatory plays from the late 1960s, States of Shock is more concerned with expressing a highly personalized state of traumatized consciousness--what Shepard calls a "shock state"--than with telling a story. And the "shock state" Shepard chooses to express in States of Shock ties it even more closely to the Viet Nam generation and to the legacy of the post-Viet Nam era in America.
But, first let me backtrack a bit. Early in 1991, Sam Shepard was in New York City working with Joseph Chaikin on The War in Heaven (Angel's Monologue), a poetic monologue about an angel who dies on the day he is born and who, drifting aimlessly in the afterlife, has lost all sense of personal order and destiny. The quality of existence the angel recounts is best described in a letter Shepard wrote to Chaikin in October of 1983. In that letter, Shepard told Chaikin that he had been pondering the idea of being "lost," of "one's identity being shattered under severe personal circumstances--in a state of crisis where everything that I've previously identified with in myself suddenly falls away." Shepard suggested that one might call this traumatized condition a "shock state." He further proposed to focus not on the shock itself, but on the "resulting emptiness or aloneness"; that is, not on the trauma, but on the post-traumatic condition.
When Shepard and Chaikin joined forces in 1991 to rework The War in Heaven for its New York premiere, the political climate in the United States had added a new dimension to their collaboration. With American troops massed in the Persian Gulf, about to invade Iraq, the angel's voice took on a new political tone for both Chaikin and Shepard. The sense of personal loss and of emptiness was no longer a purely spiritual or metaphysical state, but one which spoke as well for all of postmodern, post-Viet Nam America, suddenly at war again. The result was not only a newly inspired reading of The War in Heaven on Chaikin's part, but a new play on Shepard's part, States of Shock, which opened only weeks after Chaikin's performances ended.
States of Shock is, on its most obvious level, a confrontation between a father-figure and a disinherited son. The father, played by John Malkovich and known only as the Colonel, is costumed in bits and pieces of historical uniforms, military decorations, and combat gear from various American wars. He is an amalgam of the archetypal military man: a firm believer in the noble myths of war which men like himself have served to perpetuate. Bored with peace, he is eager to see an America always at war; he regularly raises his glass in a toast to the enemy who has made the present (unnamed) war possible. "Without the enemy," he frequently proclaims, "we're nothing." The Colonel's companion, Stubbs, is the disabled veteran of that unnamed war. He is a Christ-like figure of frail martyrdom, unimposing and unheroic, who has been technologically resurrected after surviving a direct artillery hit. Their confrontation, enacted before symbolic representatives of the American public, suggests a battle between those fathers who make war and those sons who must do battle; between the patriarchal, pre-Viet Nam myths of a righteous American military and the shattered, post-Viet Nam realities of young men killed and traumatized in a costly and paranoid war of expansionism. The gas masks and sirens which appear late in the play also make it clear that these two men represent George Bush's America, attempting to flex its global muscle in the Persian Gulf, and the unquestioning soldiers who participated in that lop-sided war of rampant destruction. Fathers (and the governments they support and represent), Shepard seems to be saying, will always be struggling to perpetuate their own patriarchal myths; sons will always be called, unwittingly or unwillingly, to serve their fathers' unwholesome ends.
In States of Shock, the Colonel publicly claims that Stubbs is a war hero, a valiant soldier who attempted to save the life of the Colonel's son by putting his own body between that son and an incoming enemy missile. As the Colonel tells it, the missile went straight through Stubbs and killed his unfortunate son anyway. Stubbs, "the lucky one," has lived to tell the tale. The Colonel is particularly obsessed with having Stubbs recount for him the precise circumstances leading to the death of his son. He uses toy soldiers, plastic tanks and planes, as well as silverware and condiments from the restaurant booth at which he and Stubbs sit, to recreate the exact sequence of events. There is, in his intensity, an obsessive need to both objectify and validate his son's death, to set forth the facts in precise military terms which will clear his son of any wrong-doing by heroicizing Stubbs's battlefield gallantry and ignoring his ongoing tragedy.
Stubbs's recollection of events is somewhat different from the Colonel's attempted recreation. He is not interested in the events leading up to his life-altering trauma; he wants to discuss the trauma itself and the horrendous aftermath--the pain, the emotions, the personal ramifications, and the subsequent dissolution of the world as he once knew it. Partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, Stubbs cautiously suggests that he is, in fact, the Colonel's son, and that he was running from battle, screaming his father's name, when he was struck down by friendly fire. In the words of the angel from The War in Heaven, Stubbs once felt he "had a mission," that he was "part of something." But all that disappeared in battle. Betrayed by the patriarchal myths which led him to war, fired upon and abandoned by his countrymen, Stubbs is ultimately denied his own identity by a father who will no longer acknowledge his kinship. "The best way," screams Stubbs in bitter irony, "is to kill all the sons!" --suggesting that from the onset of history fathers have fertilized the land with the blood of their sons.
Stubbs's war experience has left him, in his own words, "eighty per cent mutilated," dead and rotting from the inside out. He has also been left spiritually, emotionally and, quite literally, impotent. "My thing hangs like dead meat!" he screams repeatedly during the play, as if to overcome his father's desire (and the American public's) to silence him. Stubbs's physical and emotional mutilation is graphically manifest in a wound which he regularly reveals to the audience and to the other characters on stage. If, as Shepard has said of his earliest plays, he started with a single image and created his play around that image, then States of Shock was undoubtedly created around the image of Stubbs, slumped sideways in his wheelchair, tugging his sweatshirt up around his neck to reveal a bulbous red scar, the size of a softball, through the middle of his chest. This startling image, usually accompanied in the play by a shrill blast on the whistle Stubbs wears around his neck, speaks simply and eloquently of the physical devastation and emotional havoc wreaked upon those who go to war, those who die, and those who return "mutilated" to the families which sent them off to fight. Stubbs is the image of inglorious war and its brutal aftermath, known to Shepard's generation--the Viet Nam generation--but carefully avoided by the media coverage of the Persian Gulf War. As if to remedy that myopic media coverage and to remind Americans of the physical and emotional reality behind the masculine myths of war, Stubbs frequently wheels himself to the front edge of the stage, pulls up his shirt, blasts on his whistle, and thrusts his wound in our faces.
Stubbs's wound is a classic Shepard manifestation of the postmodern condition, of the self unfixed from the world: it represents Stubbs's life, suddenly gutted of everything from which he gathered meaning and a sense of self. The trauma and betrayal of his war experience have torn through him like a missile, stripping him not just of his name, but of the very core of his being. As Shepard wrote in his 1983 letter to Chaikin, he explores a character in whom "everything which [he's] previously identified with [him]self suddenly falls away." Like the angel in The War in Heaven, adrift in the afterlife--and like so many members of the Viet Nam generation, whether traumatized veterans or disenfranchised patriots like Shepard--Stubbs finds himself adrift in an America that no longer exists for him.
The existence of Stubbs's America--that is, of the personal and cultural mythology of an America which Stubbs carried to war in his heart and mind--is an issue which surfaces several times in the play. Early in the action, Stubbs recounts how in battle he wanted to have a "feeling for home," for the familiar faces, objects, and places which held his life together. But, according to Stubbs, that "America had disappeared." Flashing back to the moment before the missile pierced his body, Stubbs tells himself to fix a picture of home in his mind; he attempts to fill his head with images of station wagons, cotton candy, Little Richard, the Mississippi River. "Don't slip into doubt," he yells aloud. But Stubbs obviously has slipped into doubt: America, home, and the personal mythological images he previously identified with himself and with the "imaginary homeland" have been literally and figuratively ripped from his being.
While a powerful and pertinent response to the Persian Gulf war, States of Shock obviously transcends the specific facts of that war, reaching a personal metaphysical plane, closer in poetic tone to the spiritual world of The War in Heaven than to a "political" play in any conventional sense. The images, like those of Shepard's best work, are both simple and at the same time startling in their ability to carry profound meaning. The scenic elements, for instance, are minimal: the set is supposedly a "family restaurant" (as we are reminded repeatedly during the play), but it is more like the dreamscape of such a restaurant, consisting of a few isolated properties placed on a bare stage in front of a large white cyclorama. During moments of intense emotion, or extended descriptions of battle, that cyclorama is illuminated from behind with bursts of light, color, and the stylized images of war. Beyond the cyclorama, two percussionists underscore such moments with intense rhythmic drumming and the stylized sounds of a battle in progress.
One of the most singular visual images of the play is the presence on stage throughout the action of an elderly, seemingly affluent couple dressed from head to foot in white. They sit at a table, also white, waiting for a long overdue order of clam chowder. Detached and unaffected, they are anemic white America, watching unmoved as father and son debate the terrible cost of war. More a symbolic scenic element than actual customers in a restaurant, they are occasionally annoyed at the minor inconvenience which the war and its aftermath have caused them. They seem to take more interest in their missing clam chowder or in the shopping they could be doing than in the issues at hand. Only when the Colonel savagely beats Stubbs do they reveal shades of the desperate impotence and bitterness buried beneath their postures of indifference: as the beating progresses, the white man masturbates under a napkin while the white woman encourages the Colonel to act like a proper parent and strike again.
The only other character in the play is a black waitress named Glory Bee. Treated in a highly symbolic fashion, her name reflects her belief in America as the land of promise, while her status as a member of the serving class, as a woman, and as a person of color, all confirm the subservient role which such marginalized groups must play in the power games of authoritarian white men like the Colonel. It is Glory Bee, image of America's powerless majority, who must wait on the Colonel and Stubbs, who must clean up when they make their boyish messes, and who must become the sexual object for whom and over whom they eventually fight.
In spite of its often heavy-handed political symbolism and its uneven tone and tempo, States of Shock's striking imagery and theatrical energy suggest not so much a regression on Shepard's part as a rejuvenation of the impassioned (and sometimes reckless) theatrical genius who, in the 1960s, projected his inner emotional landscapes onto the stages of off-off-Broadway. And Shepard's inner landscapes are the landscapes of postmodern, post-Viet Nam America. To my immediate recollection, the phrase "Viet Nam war" has never appeared in one of Shepard's plays. Yet, Shepard does not have to write about the Viet Nam war in order to articulate the traumatic state of personal and national crisis which is the legacy of the Viet Nam era and which we now call postmodern America. When the war veteran Stubbs wheels himself to the edge of the stage, pulling his sweatshirt up around his neck to expose his gutted and empty self to us, all of Shepard's various traumatized heroes from the 1960s and 1970s, in their various manifestations of personal crisis, are immediately recognizable as members of the Viet Nam generation.
I am not suggesting that States of Shock is a great play, or even a particularly good play. But I find it refreshing that Shepard, who seemed to be entombing himself in family dramas and naturalism, had the guts to take a risk, to use the theater as a political forum and write what one of his early critics once called "a disposable play" instead of another family masterpiece. Even if Frank Rich thinks it quaint, Shepard was one of the few members of the American theater community to take a stance on the Persian Gulf war. His reward was to be treated with absolutely no comprehension by the New York press.
Portions of this essay appear in David DeRose's book, Sam Shepard (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), and are used with the permission of the publisher. DeRose is a Contributing Editor to Viet Nam Generation.