CONTENT WARNING: This article contains frequent references to intimate partner violence/partner manipulation, colonialism and imperialism, and governmental acts of terror.
It’s an age old question, pondered by everyone from Meat Loaf in his song “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” to a smitten Sandy in the musical ‘Grease (Live!)’ which currently languishes inside my DVR waiting to be watched. I digress. The question is: what are you willing to do for love? Who would you leave behind; who would you betray? Would you kill someone to prove your love? Would you start a war?
The 2006 debut London production of Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, features two characters, portrayed, in keeping with Churchill’s vision, by two white men. In the pages preceding the allegorical political play, the characters are succinctly introduced as ‘Sam, a country,’ and ‘Guy, a man’. At the outset of the show, the audience discovers that the two men are entangled in a relationship that vacillates seamlessly between violent and romantic, personal and political. Guy, we learn, has left his wife, children, and job to pursue this dangerous, passionate game with Sam.
In the original production, and subsequent Broadway staging, Sam and Guy are the only characters on stage, foregrounding intimacy between the two men. They sit on a simple couch, albeit one that levitates higher and higher as these ‘masters of all they survey’ hatch increasingly more diabolical and explicit plans to slash, burn, and torture the world into submission. The men speak primarily in sentence fragments, commencing the play with discussion of their new romance:
GUY: drunk enough to say I love you?
SAM: never say
GUY: not that I don’t still love my wife and children but
SAM: who doesn’t want to be loved? but
From the outset, it’s clear that Sam occupies the dominant power position in this relationship, with Guy appearing more sentimental and submissive. Guy, after all, is fresh off abandoning his former life and all ties to the ‘real world,’ to cater to Sam’s increasingly disturbing demands. Their conversation rapidly turns from personal interest to national interest, as a discussion of music transitions into Sam’s rapid fire espousal of increasingly disturbing nationalist ideology. Sam’s idyllic if disjointed ode to America in the beginning of scene two (Mountains like you’ve never…sea to shining…Ellis Island…pursuit of happiness) becomes something far scarier as the men begin an open discussion of tactics used to rig elections overseas, and governments and world leaders they want gone (Chavez…Hamas…we need to prevent some elections…overthrow only as last resort).
In Churchill’s version of the show, the two men exist alone in their speculative empire, spewing nationalist rhetoric and commands, revealing their sordid plans for invasions, occupations, even assassinations. But…what would the show look like if Sam and Guy weren’t two white men in an empty room? What if the multimedia format of the show gave us a sense of the content’s urgency? Luckily, Artists’ Theater of Boston’s production of DETSILY? is helmed by director Tom King, a Professor of English, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Sexuality and Queer Studies at Brandeis. Tom brings a whole new level of complexity to DETSILY? by writing in two more Guys, three more Sams, and a couple of intrepid dancers whose original work demonstrates the physical, visceral impact of the evil working its will through the bodies of Sam and Guy. This brilliant (and Caryl Churchill-approved!) character multiplication allows the viewer to re-envision this destructive power expressing itself through the bodies of those other than the Original Conquerors, white men. Late in the play, we hear the same diabolical descriptions of torture from Sam #1 (Tony Rios) and Sam #3 (Paola Ferrer), but the characters’ (and actors’) unique gender, nationality, and identity politics imbues the same words with disparate meaning.
I’ve read on the internets that Caryl Churchill’s original vision for the play was a scathing critique of the symbiotic (but power imbalanced) Imperialist relationship between the United States and Britain. That is to say, Sam is Uncle Sam, and Guy is That British Guy You Know (just kidding, the character was originally named Jack, like, Union Jack, but I guess she decided it was too obvious). To that analysis, though, I say: Pish posh, Caryl! Absolute pish posh! I could write a whole ‘nother DETSILY about all the colonizing Britain got into on its own without any help from U.S. Like, y’all colonized the U.S. before they even colonized anyone other than the Native Americans they stole this land from in the first place.
An alternate analysis, thanks to Tom’s unique vision and the collaborative process of the performers, recognizes our varying levels of complicity in the violence and colonization enacted in our name as American citizens. It interrogates the often statically perceived concepts of ‘power’ and ‘consent’. Sure, Sam looks like he’s in control when he’s barking orders, but is that really how the bombs get dropped? Does the banality of evil exist in the souls of select individuals, the Sams of the world, or does it come about through collective greed and misplaced desire? Yes, we’re unknowing accomplices to state-sanctioned violence through acts of citizenship and consumption that we perform every day. But in what ways do we consent to that complicity? Is it a conscious choice that we make once and put out of our minds, or an everyday struggle we’re too scared to opt out of, just like an abusive relationship?
Many of us in the DETSILY company are immigrants or children of immigrants. Speaking only for myself, I know I have a better life here than I would had my Mom and Dad stayed in the former USSR. I’m interested in the paradox inherent in displaying gratitude for the unique privilege of our situation here in the ‘New World’ while recognizing the atrocities she commits in our name. Can one exist without the other? Is this the sacrifice we make for our citizenship? Is resistance a form of gratitude? If all these questions sound too complicated, let’s boil it down to this:
What would you do for love?