The storefronts opposite the Arcola Theatre offer chickenburgers, doner/shish, and Turkish pizza, but, asked if he's tried any of these delicacies, Eric Schlosser smiles and says, "I haven't had a chance." The author of the bestselling Fast Food Nation is in Dalston for rehearsals of Americans, his play about the events that handed Theodore Roosevelt the presidency in 1901. The New York Republicans, alarmed by Roosevelt's reforming zeal, not only "wanted to ruin his career once and for all," says political boss Mark Hanna. "They wanted Teddy to fade into obscurity forever. So they made me make him Vice President." The plan worked, up to the point when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz pulled out a revolver and plugged the president, William McKinley.
Schlosser wrote the play in 1985, long before his report on the venal practices of the junk-food industry shocked Americans. "I became a journalist inadvertently - one thing just led to another. But theatre is my first love. Growing up in New York City, I got bit by the bug. I really wanted to be a playwright." Americans grew out of Schlosser's university studies on the British Empire and his thoughts about "why empires rise and fall, what their consequences are." With the bellicose Thatcher and Reagan in office, he says, it struck him that the drums of empire were being pounded again.
"When I wrote the play and sent it around, I felt a lot of people didn't get it - they didn't see the relevance." After the attack on the World Trade Center two years ago, however, "I got it out and gave it to a few close friends whose response was 'Of course.' What I had to struggle to persuade people of now seemed so close to them." With another shy smile, the soft-spoken author concedes that a play with 26 characters wasn't perhaps the easiest sell for a first-time playwright. At the Arcola, they will be played by a cast of eight. "I think Dominic Dromgoole has been very astute in plotting their comings and goings."
Schlosser has drawn on the real-life characters' own words wherever possible, but he had to invent those of the taciturn loner Czolgosz. At one point, the anarchist denounces his country: "If America chooses to become the big bully of the world, I promise you, America will pay... When the White House is in flames... you'll know why. And you'll know we had it coming to us." Do these opinions - identical to those expressed by many on September 11 - echo Schlosser's own?
"No, they don't. I'm just trying to put up a lot of points of view. I am not anti-American, and I don't intend my writing to be." But such questions, he says, have been asked of him frequently at home, and in tones of suspicion and hostility. "It's not as bad as the McCarthy era yet, but in a few years, who knows? Especially if Bush gets elected again. There's a lot of anxiety and fear being manipulated. The word 'traitor' has been pulled out of the dustbin and used to describe liberals."
Schlosser admires the protests that the British public have made against GM foods, a subject that is scarcely even discussed in America. "One of the things I didn't put in my book was that GM foods were introduced to the US because of a special commission chaired by, of all people, Dan Quayle," He lets this sink in, and now it's my turn to smile. "So the GM potato..." I say. "Right. Was given to us by the man who couldn't spell the word."
'Americans', Arcola Theatre, London E8 (020-7503 1646; www.arcolatheatre.com) to 22 NovemberReuse content