Myth, Propaganda and Disaster..., Orange Tree, Richmond

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Philip Roth's recent novel The Plot Against America imagines an alternative history in which the right-wing aviator Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election and the United States reaches a cordial "understanding" with Nazi Germany.

Philip Roth's recent novel The Plot Against America imagines an alternative history in which the right-wing aviator Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election and the United States reaches a cordial "understanding" with Nazi Germany. The "certain cultural similarities" between Germany in the 1930s and post-September 11 US are now tackled head-on in Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America, by the Australian Stephen Sewell.

The title is the name of a study written by its hero, an expatriate Aussie academic at an Ivy League university. The piece blazes with indignation and has a furious verve vividly communicated by Sam Walters's impassioned, powerfully acted production. There are, however, imbalances and implausibilities in the drama.

For example, short of slitting his throat, it's hard to believe how a tenure-seeking political scientist like Talbot Finch (the excellent Jonathan Guy Lewis) could damage his career more than by haranguing a dinner table of his bosses with his views on the out-sourcing of torture interrogations to Jordan and the American "myth of its own righteousness". And given that his shelves are stuffed with the likes of Adorno, Marcuse and Baudrillard, it's bizarre that he appears never to have heard of Kafka's The Trial.

Deeply involving despite these objections, the story teases us with the suspicion that the hero's ordeal is the paranoid delusion of a man succumbing to breakdown, only to confirm it as hideous reality. Talbot receives mysterious visits and pistol-whippings from a sinister heavy who tells him: "You're an Arab. An Arab of the mind." These episodes lead the dodgy dean to suppose that Talbot must be the subject of a secret state security operation. How will the university's commercial sponsors- Price Waterhouse, AOL - react if it becomes known that the institution has been harbouring a potential terrorist? The solution is to destroy Talbot's career with a trumped-up charge of sexual harassment.

The play's overall case would have been stronger had it been able to admit that courageous and rigorous dissent is very far from dead on US campuses. And, apart from Talbot's script-writing liberal wife (Amanda Royle), the play's Americans are kept carefully odious. It seems that Talbot has not a single friend in the university to whom he can turn, having to rely instead on a visiting Aussie who ends up taking over his job. A flawed piece, then, but hugely stimulating.

Comments