Man Doll and Woman Doll Strike Back - The De-construction of 1960s American Consumer Culture in Jean-Claude von Itallie´s "Motel"
2 Motel in the Context of the America Hurrah trilogy
3 The 1960s between consumer culture and counter culture
4 The motel as icon of American consumer culture
5 Motel and postmodernity
6 Destruction as de-construction
8 Works Cited
It was then that began our extensive travels all over the states. To any other type of tourist accommodation I soon grew to prefer the Functional Motel - clean, neat, safe nooks, ideal places for sleep, argument, reconciliation, insatiable, illicit love. (Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita)
In her very recent dissertation Kerstin Schmidt describes van Itallie's plays as being among the “most innovative theatrical forms to have been developed in the second half of the 20th century” (87). Motel, one of his most aggressive plays, has not lost its significance more than 40 years after its first performance. As in the 1960s, its mixture of violence, political satire and theatrical innovation is still of relevance to present-day audiences. A similar combination of postmodern violence, commodity-fetishism and crisis of identity has for example been adopted by the British “inyerface-theatre” of the 1990s.
As far as literary criticism is concerned, there have been publications by three significant authors on Jean-Claude van Itallie's Motel. The most profound are Gene A. Plunka's writings in which he works out the influence of Jean Artaud's The Theater and its Double on van Itallie's plays and especially on Motel. Another informative contribution have been Herbert Grabes' two essays on the possibilities of social critique and on myth and myth destruction in Motel. Only lately, Kerstin Schmidt, in her dissertation has contributed to a new critical discussion of the America Hurrah-trilogy in the context of postmodern theory. All three authors interpret the two dolls' destructive behavior as impersonations of America's latent aggression and as advent of a “posthumanist culture” (Schmidt, 125) the 1960s.
While Plunka praises Motel for its sharp-wittedness, Grabes questions the ability of the play, to criticize existing social conditions. Especially does he condemn the play for its “Spenglerian Determinism”. Kerstin Schmidt's approach on the other hand opens new aspects on “Motel” with her focus on the representation of the postmodern sense of identity in the play. Altogether however, the authors agree that “Man doll” and “Woman doll” symbolize the self-destructive forces within American society. Hence, they see the two dolls not so much as active agents but as passive victims of postmodern American society. From this perspective, the play must be read as a dark satire on American society, which hardly leaves any hope for social change. What all three authors miss to ask however is, if there might be a possible motive behind the dolls' “vandalism”.
Looking for motives on the other hand brings up an alternative reading of Motel, which is as justified as the earlier approach. For I understand the destruction in Motel more as a deconstruction of consumer culture and traditional American values in the sense of a postmodern iconoclasm. If we look at the two dolls' outburst of violence as a form of protest and not merely as a senseless act of destruction, the whole play gains a far more critical connotation. Therefore, in my essay I will discuss in how far the reaction of Man doll and Woman doll can be considered a form of protest and against what their destructive force is directed.
Another aspect which, quite amazingly, has not been considered in earlier interpretations of the play is the significance of the motel as a cultural institution. Hence I will also examine the motel as an icon of postmodern American consumer culture under specific consideration of the political and social climate in the 1960s. At first it is however necessary to discuss Motel in the context of the America Hurrah trilogy, as the third part of which it is usually performed.
2 Motel in the Context of the America Hurrah trilogy
Originally written in 1962 under the title The Savage God and first performed in 1965 at the LaMama Experimental Theatre Club van Itallie's play was was only later performed as Motel as part of the America Hurrah trilogy (Plunka 1999: 55). Even though the play is often discussed as if it were a single one-act play, this was clearly not the author's intention. Instead, Motel must be seen in context with the two other parts of the trilogy, Interview and TV. Premiered in November 1966 at the New York Pocket Theater (ibid.), America Hurrah is more of a collage of three independent plays than a single play with binding plot (cf. Grabes 1987: 42). Nonetheless the three parts refer to each other in their content and their structure. Like the works of his contemporaries from the fine arts, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, which combine utensils from popular culture and painting, America Hurrah functions as an assemblage of American everyday life, at the same time questioning traditional drama. Therefore it is necessary, before I concentrate on Motel itself, that the interrelation between the three parts is also taken into consideration.
Given the play's highly critical undertone, the title America Hurrah suggests, that it is to be read as a satire on American self-satisfaction and on American society as such. With this play, van Itallie attacks three institutions which have become fundamental to American life in the 20th century: the need to play standardized roles in social interaction, the influence of the mass media on everyday life and the consumer and leisure culture. In the course of the action each of these institutions are lead ad absurdum until they are literally deconstructed and torn to pieces in the final play, Motel.
The fist part, ironically named Interview, deals with miscommunication and “the rigorous norms imposed on speech and action” (Grabes 1987: 43) in social situations, as described by the sociologist Erving Goffmann in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). Interview features four “interviewers” and four “applicants” who are constantly changing their roles and identities in various situations of everyday life; be it an official job interview, riders on a subway train or a conversation at a cocktail party. All communication however is characterized by a formalized questions-and-answers-behavior (Bigsby 106) and by the inability to establish an emotional relationship with one's interlocutor. All the characters appearing in the play do not really listen to one another and mostly say, what they are expected to.
The atmosphere of standardized interaction and impersonality is supported by the formal structure of the play. Originally called Pavane, which is a “formal courtly dance of the 16th century” (Schmidt 99), Interview is arranged according to the rhythm of a dance piece. Bigsby describes the pattern of the play as follows:
... plainly the musical analogy holds. Indeed the play is subtitled ‘A Fugue for Eight Actors’, thus continuing this sense of contrastive complementarity, for a fugue is a contrapuntal piece for two or more instruments constructed around a theme stated first in the tonic, and then in the dominant key a response called the ‘answer’. Other elements are then introduced as counterparts to the answer. Following the exposition other further elements in related keys are then interposed, with ‘episodes’ contrasting with the central subject.
This adjustment of the characters' behavior to their peers was named “other-directedness” by David Riesman. He described it as a basic feature of American life in the second half of the 20th century. A very illustrative sequence for this is the gym class scene, where students try to get into trim like the ‘perfect people' they see in the movies and in advertisements.
GYM INSTRUCTOR. You wanna look like the guys in the movies, don’t you, I said to the fellahs. Keep it up then. You wanna radiate that kinda charm and confidence they have in the movies, don’t you, I said to the girls. Keep it up then, stick ’em out, that’s what you got ’em for. Don’t be ashamed. All of you, tuck in your butts, I said loudly. That’s the ticket, I said, wishing to hell I had a cigarette. You’re selling, selling all the time, that right, miss? Keep on selling, I said. And one and two and three and four and ever see that guy on TV, I said. What’s his name, I asked them. What’s his name? Aw, you know his name, I said, forgetting his name. (Itallie 41f)
Here it is obvious that consumer culture and the mass media have become an important agent in shaping people's personal lives. The gym instructor reminds his students of the necessity to sell themselves in every situation. The characters in Interview are driven by the images of the advertising industry and orientate themselves by unattainable movie idols. The commercialization of the private sphere is a topic which occurs throughout the three parts of America Hurrah in the form of a leitmotif and becomes the central concern in Motel.
The second play, TV, starts with a quotation from Marshall McLuhan's “bible” of media theory, Understanding Media (1964): “The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person ... He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system (Itallie 57).” The absolute mingling of personal life with the mass media is the basic idea behind TV.
With the help of two actions happening parallely onstage, van Itallie contrasts two originally separate spheres, the “control console in a television viewing room” (Itallie 58) and a TV screen. This distinction reminds us of the interviewer/applicant antithesis in Interview. However, as the play proceeds, the five actors portraying what is seen on the screen will slowly take over the rest of the stage. In his directions van Itallie gives a clear idea of how he wants the play to be understood:
As the play progresses, the People On Television will use more and more of the stage. The impression should be that of a slow invasion of the viewing room. Hal, Susan and George [-the three television supervisors-] will simply move around the People On Television when that becomes necessary. Ultimately, the control console itself will be taken over by television characters, so that the distinction between what is on television and what is occurring in the viewing room will be lost completely. The attention of the audience should be focused not on a parody of television, but on the relationship of the life that appears on television to the life that goes on in the viewing room. (Itallie 64f)
Hence the distinction between the two spheres is not only abolished symbolically by van Itallie but it becomes also a more and more difficult task for the spectator to distinguish between “real life” and the TV images on the theater stage. This mingling of “actual life” and media representations anticipates the boom about reality TV we are confronted with in our contemporary TV program. With the help of this simple trick van Itallie points at an increasing inability of postmodern consumers to distinguish between what is their subjective experience and what is created by the media.
What TV gives us to understand with the help of Marshall McLuhan's theory is that postmodern consumers identify themselves with the media messages and commodities without being aware of it. Growing accustomed to these media as “extensions of themselves”, the perception of Hal, Susan and George is altered through the media they consume. For the audience it appears highly cynical when George's almost fanatic longing for a cigarette or Susan's attempt to “look like myself, thin. Very thin.(Itallie 65)” are juxtaposed by the messages of the advertisement industry on the screen:
FAMOUS TV PERSONALITY: Or are you like most of us: busy, busy, busy all day long with home or job so that when evening comes you hardly have time to wash your face, much less transform yourself into the living doll he loves ... Well then, K-F is for you. More than a soap. More than a cream. It’s a soap cream. You apply it in less time than it takes to wash your face and it leaves your face tingling with loveliness. (ibid. 97f)
Just like in Interview, the actions of the three TV supervisors in this play are moulded by external factors. Here it is however not the pressure to conform to socially ascribed behavior patterns, but the programming through the entertainment industry. What seems especially critical in this context is, that the three characters have no chance to escape from the influence of the media and finally are defeated by them:
In “TV”, Hal, Susan, and George finally become mere duplicates and imitations of media images. Consequently, they speak and think like standard situation-comedy characters at the end of the play. In figurative as well as literal terms, they have lost the distance necessary to distinguish themselves from, let alone to deal critically with, the TV programs they scrutinize. (Schmidt 113f)
While the structure of Interview is characterized by the strict rhythm of the fugue-pattern and in TV by two separate spheres which are slowly starting to overlap during the play, the last short piece in the trilogy, Motel, is an aggressive chaos from the very beginning. Motel is the most abstract of the three pieces and, modeled on the Renaissance masque, is quite adequately described by Schmidt as “multi-media show” (115). Van Itallie has replaced the structure of the play by an explosive crescendo of noise, aggression, light and sound.
“The sensory nerves of the audience are not to be spared” (van Itallie 136), is van Itallie's instruction for the director. The characters in Motel not only behave like automatons but are replaced by mechanical dolls. And the Motel-Keeper's voice, which comes from loudspeakers in the theater hall, reels off a holy litany of consumption and materialism.
With its ending, the final destruction of everything that the first two plays have criticized, an increasing commercialization and the loss of subjectivity, it is quite convincing to describe Motel as the climax of the trilogy (cf. Grabes: 1975, 340). But before I can come to a more detailed analysis of the destruction in Motel as a counter reaction to postmodern consumer culture, I will first give an overview over the general social and political climate in 1960s America.
3 The 1960s between consumer culture and counter culture
Motel, as mentioned above, was performed for the first time in 1965. Thus, premiered shortly after the expansion of America's intervention in Vietnam under President Johnson in 1964, van Itallie's play describes quite adequately the contrast between social adjustment and violent protest. Since van Itallie wrote the play already in 1962, it can be called foresighted in its treatment of the symptoms of the “Critical Decade” (Chafe). Looking mainly at the violence happening in Motel, it is understandable that the play is often interpreted as a mere reflection of internal and external American violence of the 1960s through the eyes of van Itallie. The play however goes far deeper in its critique and its main concerns.
When we think of the 1960s in America today, what first comes to mind is the Vietnam War and the peace protests together with the Civil Rights movement. But the main preconditions for the upheavals of the 1960s were established a decade earlier. Heale in his chapter on the “Spirit of the Sixties” argues that the activism so characteristic of the 1960s was actually a product of the prosperous postwar years with its twenty years of economic growth (9).
Already after World War I the consumer industry had proven to be a useful method against postwar depression and also in the 1950s consumer purchasing power was promoted by economists as a “means of sustaining economic growth” (Heale 33). Immediately after the war, Schaller argues, Americans had a deep longing for stability and prosperity. A conservative backlash to the relative unstable war period was the consequence. Traditional family values, suburban housing and rigid gender roles should ensure the middle-class dream of peace and security. And consumerism was a substantial agent in this process.
With money in their pockets, Americans rushed to new homes in suburbia, started having children in record numbers, and went on spree of consumer buying, snapping up home appliances, automobiles, and the newfangled electronic gadgets called televisions.
[...] Especially for the white middle class, confidence in material progress and the perfectibility of American society coexisted alongside a fervent anti-Communist ideology and anxiety about nuclear destruction. [...] In the ideal suburban family, the American mother kept house and raised the children while her husband went off to a white-collar job.The kids grew up with a strong sense of American values. (Schaller 92)
One of the most significant consumer items was the automobile. The automobile had already been a symbol of American mobility and the “democratization of affluence” in the beginnings of Fordism.
 cf. for example Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking and the plays of Sarah Kane.
 Of special interest in this context are Johns’ series with paintings of the American Flag in the late 1950s