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America Hurrah

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AT: (1) Pavane; (3) America Hurrah A: Jean-Claude van Itallie Pf: (1 and 2) 1965, New York; (3) 1966, New York Pb: 1967 G: 3 satires in 1 act S: (1) Interview room, street, gymnasium, subway, hospital, etc., USA, 1960s; (2) Television viewing room, USA, 1960s; (3) Motel, USA, 1960s C: (1) 7m, 6f, extras, played by 8 actors; (2) 28m, 24f, played by 8 actors; (3) 1m, 2f(1) Interview. Four applicants, a Housepainter, a Floorwasher, a Banker, and a Lady's Maid, are interviewed by four interviewers. They are asked trivial questions, and their answers are intercut with one another. The scene changes to a bustling street where the Floorwasher is lost, then to a gymnasium. A Telephone Operator falls sick, is operated on, and dies. The Banker, who has lost his job because of panic attacks, visits a psychiatrist, who responds with nothing but ‘blah, blah,…penis, blah, blah,…mother’. The Housepainter confesses to a priest. A Politician utters platitudes and ignores the dying Telephone Operator. The play ends with interviewers and applicants forming the question: ‘Can…you…help…me?’ (2) TV. In a television studio, Hal and George, an older married man, are both trying to date their colleague Susan. Meanwhile, various television programmes are acted out, including commercials and images of dying Vietnamese: ‘Ultimately, the control console itself will be taken over by television characters, so that the distinction between what is on television and what is occurring in the viewing room will be lost completely.’ As President Johnson speaks of fighting a war to maintain peace, Susan responds to a joke with a laughing fit, which stops only when Hal slaps her. While they celebrate Hal's birthday, more programmes and commercials are shown, including interviews with a rock band, an Evangelical preacher, and a decorated soldier from Vietnam who has left the army on conscientious grounds: ‘We're committing mass murder.’ Susan finally agrees to go out with Hal, but when George invites himself along, she says that she will stay at home and that the men can go out together. They all join in the canned laughter of a television situation-comedy. (3) Motel. An outsize doll, the Motel-keeper, proudly speaks of her up-to-date motel and welcomes two dolls, a Man and a Woman. While the Motel-keeper sings the praises of her accommodation, the Man unpacks suitcases and throws clothes round the room, tears pages out of the Bible, and pulls down the curtains. The Woman flings objects from the bathroom, then enters and tears off her bra. Ignored by the Motel-keeper, the two doll-guests begin writing obscene graffiti and drawing images on the bedroom walls, and finally completely destroy the room. Still listing the merits of her motel, the Motel-keeper is finally torn apart to the deafening wails of a siren.As written texts, these three short plays have little to commend them. Their absurdist quality harks back to Ionesco, and the satire is predictably banal compared with the contemporary work of Albee. Van Itallie's significance is that it is one of the earliest examples of improvisational work with actors, in this case with the Open Theatre of New York. The pieces exploit ‘transformation’, the actors' ability without changing set, costume, or props, to create entirely new locations and characters on a bare stage. A technique familiar in much oriental theatre, this freeing of the stage from the limitations of Western realism has become a recurrent feature of fringe theatre over the last 40 years and has allowed live performance to emulate the fluidity of the novel and the cinema.


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