Gun Violence in America: an American Song

Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith explains how she came to write a play about about gun violence for an American theatre company, two thirds of whose audience owned guns and one of whose theatre management was a local NRA official.

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In 2014, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre contacted my New York agent to say they wanted to commission me to write a play. I was in Los Angeles at the time, with a play on at the Geffen Playhouse. Excited, I pitched an idea to Milwaukee but they didn’t like it. We agreed that I would find a play idea that would appeal to us both. As I put down the phone, feeling slightly defeated, I retrieved the receiver at the last second.

What would you want me to write about if you could dictate the subject matter? I asked the artistic director, Mark Clements, a clever boisterous Brit.

Guns in America, he responded. What else?

Naturally, I demurred. I’m Australian, I reminded him, I don’t know anything about guns. Added to that, while all my plays are political (as all plays are), I don’t write plays that wear their politics on their sleeve. I don’t like polemical drama and how could this be anything but? And even for the most adept writer in the world – which I most evidently am not – how can you tell such a vast story on a stage without resorting to symbolism, to ‘archetypes’ of Left and Right, rednecks and liberals?

The following day I went to see the great American actor Ed Harris perform Wrecks, a one-man Neil LaBute play in the tiny space beside the theatre my show was rehearsing in. Despite the distasteful subject matter of Labute’s play, the experience was electrifying. I was reminded, in the most visceral way, that great theatre requires engaging words and a great actor and not much else, and in harnessing the potentially powerful connection between an audience and a player, you could tell pretty much any story.

The America of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass is forever gone.

I called Mark Clements back.

I can write you a play about guns in America. I can write you a play about a subject that even with a casual mental glance involves the legal system, the medical system, the political system, the constitution, mental health, national identity and faith. And I can do it with one voice.

Such is the humility of the writer.

Overtly political plays always seem to me to be contemptuous of the audience. They  usually avoid the fundamental ingredient of good story-telling: surprise. Having been born to parents who had spent a large part of their life in the Communist Party and then having seen the error of their ways, I was more than distrustful of hard-line ideologies – I was deeply contemptuous of them. My siblings and I had been raised in the church of the imagination, grown inside the rapture of words and stories. Henry Lawson. Christina Stead. Patrick White. These were the saints who lined the walls of our house. We were schooled in the complexity of human-beings whose fictitious incarnations filled wall to ceiling bookshelves. They were funnier, more intriguing and more unruly than ideological mouthpieces under the ideological thumb of their creator.

My biggest fear was writing a play that wore its political heart on its sleeve, that proclaimed its allegiances and set the audience on alert. Regardless of my view on guns, I didn’t want to box myself in to an anti-gun identity as a writer, or allow cultural commentators to declare my allegiances in responding to the play.

The country that perhaps better than any other expressed freedom and conscience – is a quaint ghost that haunts the present with its semi-automatics and its crass comedians and its grotesque profiteers.

I would write a single character – an ordinary man called Andy, who tells his story to us as he builds a dry stone wall in a country field – the very kind of fence Robert Frost insisted made good neighbours. Andy’s story is the same story as a good part of the audience, remembering the life markers of falling in love, of marriage and child-having, of making his way up the corporate ladder, of small moral failings and self-indulgences, of regular anxieties and ambitions. But as he moves through those chapters, humorously analysing his own parenting skills, his relationship with his father in law, his moral wobbles, he leads us into a heart of darkness, perhaps the heart of darkness in contemporary America: guns.

Andy’s very ordinary life has intersected with an act of unspeakable horror and his survival is forever punctuated by a question he cannot banish: Did I get the life I deserved?

In wondering what actions or accidents lead to a young man’s psychopathic spree, Andy contemplates the social failings we grab onto to make sense of what, in the end, remains elusive. Violent popular culture, dysfunctional families, the absence of spiritual community, extremist ideologies, the explosion of technology, drugs, distracted working parents and ultimately, the proliferation of guns.

My long, complicated love affair with America is in this play, although I didn’t intend it – the full gamut of ardour: adulation, shame, grief.

But Andy does not know if the answer lies there or in the mystifying reaches of the human brain, of corrupted DNA. Is the role of chance more terrifying than calculated intent or is it a relief to believe that catastrophe bypasses rationality?

One thing he knows – as I do – is that the America of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass is forever gone.

The carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the ploughman, the woodcutter, the mother… the honest artisans of a nation, whose separate songs join to form a communal song of nationhood:

Each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong…

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else…

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs…

For Andy, his catastrophe awakens him to a new grief: this America is gone, the voices of its people are now indecipherable, silenced by noise, the competing din of ego and selfishness and isolation and greed. This great nation has lost its way and its narrative, like Andy’s own, is inevitably destined for tragedy.

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James DeVita in the American production of ‘American Song’

The Melbourne production of the play has its first preview the night after the Las Vegas massacre and my media encounters revolve around this timing. The real horror, I suspect, is that there will never be a production of American Song that doesn’t coincide with a mass shooting. The air in the room at previews crackles with sensitivity to the themes of the play and the audience feels as if it is holding its breath for eighty minutes.

My long, complicated love affair with America is in this play, although I didn’t intend it – the full gamut of ardour: adulation, shame, grief. The America in which one brave lawyer asked Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no decency?”. The America of Hemingway and Steinbeck. The America I grew up with from a distance – of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and Studs Terkel, James Baldwin, Billie Holliday – the country that perhaps better than any other expressed freedom and conscience – is a quaint ghost that haunts the present with its semi-automatics and its crass comedians and its grotesque profiteers. Even the White House has been infiltrated, its majestic in-house orators replaced by the taunts of school-yard bullies. For kids growing up with this norm, the search for a country’s beauty and truth and compassion and meaning must happen in pitch darkness. The lights have gone out.

Night after night, a social patchwork assembled around the play, a worn-out blanket of stoicism, ideology and pain.

In Milwaukee, I urged the company to strenuously suggest edits as I did not want to preach to the converted. The brilliant company dramaturg, Brent Hazleton, laughed.

Our audience aren’t ‘the converted’! Two thirds will own guns.

The head of the company – a charming guy called Chad who couldn’t have been more welcoming, was a bigwig in the local NRA. On my way to rehearsals, I was involved in a gun incident on the streets of Chicago on a cold winter’s night. Wisconsin news rarely avoided a gun death. The play had found its feet –the terrain it had landed on was riven with the fault-lines of an insidious civil war: Americans killing Americans.

Each performance in its American premiere had a post-script. The company had asked individual members of the community, whose lives routinely intersected with guns, to speak for five minutes after each show. A prosecutor, a defence lawyer, a doctor, a  paramedic, a clergyman, a school principal, an NRA member and on it went, show after show. Night after night, a social patchwork assembled around the play, a worn-out blanket of stoicism, ideology and pain.

Surprisingly, audiences responded to the play at least as much on an existential level. At  the epicentre of the play is the question of the role of parents in the actions of  perpetrators – particularly the young men like those of Columbine and Sandy Hook. How do we parents resolve that we are the makers of our children, but not their conscience? What role do we play in the destinies of our children, what obligation do we have to notice and can we judge how well they are making their way into themselves?

After Milwaukee, I wondered if any of the Australian  mainstages would have the vision or courage to stage American Song, probably the best thing I’ve written, however small-scale. It is notoriously difficult  to sell a one man show and we do not – thankfully – have guns to make it hyper-relevant.

Yet who, this week, has not felt the ramifications of Las Vegas? Who doesn’t in a momentary fantasy put themselves or their gap-year kids on  that bloody boulevard? Or in Marseille? London? The Bataclan?

Ella Caldwell at Red Stitch read the play and knew, as I did, that the intimate stage of that lovely theatre was a perfect fit. Joe Petruzzi, a talented, amiable member of the company was passionate about the play and I could see in him the twin requirements of the part: an ability to seduce an audience with his twinkle-eyed geniality and an unwavering emotional vulnerability to where the play leads. Tom Healey drove him mad with a ferociously detailed rehearsal process where every moment had to feel alive, driven, vital to Andy’s story because his story was, in the end, the story of a country in mourning not just a man.

It started with one actor in a tiny space in LA  — an idea that flickered into life watching  Ed Harris at arm’s length. I sit in the preview audience at Red Stitch and watch Joe step into the world of the play, a world I waded into to write it. Night after night he will have to bring his softly spoken humanity to fill out Andy’s edges, a job that should come with danger money. The unlikely compensation is the silence of the audience when it ends. I think to myself – how did I get here? In this instance, a million miles from Milwaukee physically and metaphorically. Or is it?

American Song is at Red Stitch, Melbourne until November 5 

Joe Petruzzi in Red Stitch’s production of American Song. Photo by Teresa Noble.

2 responses to “Gun Violence in America: an American Song

  1. In Spain until Christmas, I have not and will not get to see the production. I am struck by the quality of the writing of this short piece and the ability of the writer to weave together what is personal, what is societal and what is the human condition. I am excited to see or read the play.

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