A local play critiquing US-influenced media – Analysis by Carolyn Skelton.
The Great American Scream, recently at Te Pou Theatre (the new Auckland home for Māori theatre in New Lynn) was thoroughly engaging. I had a lingering impact with some scenes etched in my memory. The play exposes fault lines in US-influenced media that began early in the 20th century, gradually evolving into the current local and international crisis in mainstream news media.
This play is a period piece with a contemporary resonance. Written by Albert Belz (Ngāti Porou, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Pōkai), it is set on the night that a US radio station broadcast “War of the Worlds”, directed and narrated by Orson Welles. The broadcast was on Halloween night, October 30, in 1938.
At the time there were (over-exaggerated) claims that there had been mass panic by large numbers of people. Some people had apparently missed the announcements during Welles’ broadcast, stating that the murderous alien invasion was part of a fictional drama. [Full broadcast on youtube]
Belz’s play uses this media event as the centre-piece of his play. It is set in the household of a family, living not far from the site of the (fictional) Martian invasion. The family hear parts of the broadcast, and believe the invasion to be real.
As we entered the auditorium, we see the stage is set up as a 1930s living room. It is described well by Tamati Patuwai in his review:
It feels very much like the audience is inside the room and at times claustrophobically so. Reminiscent of the lush Broadway style stage typical of American theatrical standards, …
The radio is always on the set, and is the centre-piece of the performance, along with periodic playing of radio broadcasts. Reading the programme while I waited, with the swing and big band music popular in the 1930s filling the auditorium, the scene is also set for me with this whakaaro from the play’s author:
“The Great American Scream is this writer’s reaction to modern ‘journalism’ and global pack-mentality’; as a witness daily in modern broadcasting and print on issues such as immigration, ISIS and the Ebola Virus.
It is my reaction to fear-mongering in a capitalist society where journalism is driven purely for profit, where the only narrative in global reportage is one of fear designed to increase sales and advertising margins; where ultimately the world is made a little bit ‘stupider’ every day.”
The play begins with expectations that the eldest daughter in the family will receive a marriage proposal at the evening’s Halloween dance. The family becomes transfixed by the snippets they hear of Orson Welles’ reports of the Martian invasion. In their responses to the anticipated end of life as they know it at the hands of the frightening aliens, the family spill some of their secrets: thwarted desires as they attempt to live up to the dominant values of their times. In the process, they make some small steps forwards on gender and racial issues.
The play’s critique is delivered with a light touch. The characters remain likeable and sympathetic, even as they are fooled by the radio drama. The families’ panic includes a hilarious nod to the US’s love of guns and to private militias, as the characters scrambles to protect their home territory.
The Martians are not the only outsiders that play on the families’ fears. First there’s the intrusion into their domestic space of the sounds from the black man (Ezra) hammering on their roof. In the course of the play Ezra’s demeanour changes from cowed submission, to walking tall, with confidence.
2 vagabonds, Slim and Lennie, are another disruptive intrusion into the domestic scene. When they knock on the door, asking for work, the mother politely directs them to the neighbouring farm. When they ask for food, she unhelpfully invites them to church. They, especially Lennie, perform a role similar to that of one kind of Shakespearean fool: commoners or poor people, often comic, socially disruptive characters who provide a critique of society and those with power.
Later Slim and Lennie walk into the empty living room. They ask, what will happen if we have nothing left to lose? And Lennie asks, what will happen if they no longer have anything to fear? They note that they never go to the kinds of dances that the family attends. Dancing together to the radio music, they create a shared fantasy of dancing with a beautiful woman, until a quizzical Ezra interrupts them.
In the chaos of the night, the vagabonds gain control: a feared and disturbing presence as they speak of carrying out a misogynistic form of revenge. The social order is restored after Slim and Lennie are scared into submission by a simple Halloween trick. The tramps remain potential figures of disruption and fear – like the homeless, beneficiaries, and unemployed today, so often unfairly demonised by our media.
The last word of the play comes from the voice of Orson Welles, at the end of the “War of the Worlds’” broadcast:
“… and remember, please, for the next day or so, the terribly lesson you learned tonight: That grinning glowing globular invader, of your living room, is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there – that was no Martian. It’s Halloween.”
The NZ news media today
Last week on Radio New Zealand National’s Panel, Dita di Boni spoke about the recent axing of journalists from mainstream NZ media. She said that it’s partly political. In keeping with Belz’s views above, di Boni was critical of marketing people interfering in the news room and exerting too much power.
In the 21st century, in a reversal of the fictional War of the Worlds’ simulated news story, news media borrow from fictional, fear-inspiring dramas in their pursuit of profit and audiences. The “grinning glowing globular invader” in today’s living spaces, is the corporate-dominated news media, focused more on infotainment than informing the public of important
Albert Belz – writer/Kaituhi
Tainui Tukiwhaho – Director/Kaitohu
Ascia Maybury – set designer
Johnny Givins – GrandPapa
Mike Drew – Slim
Ayse Tezel – Mother
Jatinder Singh – Ezra
Briar Collard – Rosie (daughter)
Ben Van Lier – Mr Crompton
Josh Harriman – Lennie
Francis Mountjoy – Father
Abigail O’Flynn – Kate (younger daughter)
Reon Gell – George (young son).