I went to the Young Vic theatre on Saturday to see Vernon God Little, an adaptation of the eponymous book. I had a reaction to it that’s becoming a familiar one after going to the theatre in Britain. That is, after going to see plays about America at the theatre in Britain. This reaction comes in a four stages: first, I laugh knowingly at the play’s/actor’s depiction of American culture; second, I feel uncomfortable about everyone else’s knowing laugh; third, I feel angry at the audience for assuming they know anything about America; and fourth, I feel angry at the director/writer/actors/audience for their depictions of/reactions to what are perceived to be typical American anti-intellectual cultural traits. (The exception to this was last year’s version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which I enjoyed immensely. I think the reason for this was because the director used an all black cast, which helped to uproot and universalize the story from its white southern context.)
So, for example, last year I saw Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic, which starred Kevin Spacey and was generally hailed as awesome. I saw it with 5 English friends. They really enjoyed it. I started out enjoying it (Summer for the Gods,which we had to read as undergrads, was my favourite ever history book for the longest time, so it’s a story I really enjoy); but at some point I began to interpret the audience’s laughter at the small-town Bible-bangers as rude and condescending. “They don’t really know what America’s like! They just like the feeling of being superior to these people!” And I was even more incensed because I felt like Kevin Spacey ought to know better. Fine, depicting the anti-evolution Tennesseans as frustrating and as persecuting a bright outsider works in America. But in England, doesn’t it just give them what they want (i.e. another example of British intellectual and cultural superiority?) Shouldn’t this kind of theatre experience challenge the audience’s preconceived notions, not reinforce them? One easy way of doing this would have been for Spacey (the internationally recognised headliner) to play William Jennings Bryan’s character, rather than Clarence Darrow’s. I explained this to my friends and they told me that I was crazy.
Then on Saturday, I had this same feeling. This was probably exacerbated by the fact that the author of Vernon God Little, ‘DBC Pierre’ is not American and has never really lived in America. His depiction of a typical working class Texas town and its small-town mentality was not too different from The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, or any movie about beauty pageants. Again, I started out laughing. But then the laughter seemed cheap and the laughers mean. They weren’t laughing at an aspect of their own culture, they were laughing at America’s faults. In particular, they laughed at Vernon’s gullible, dim, normality-seeking and celebrity-obsessed mother and her kind-of-evil TV host boyfriend. Once again, my English friends (different group) thought I was misinterpreting the audience.
The truth is, I probably am. And I’m probably just as complicit in laughing at anti-intellectualism in American culture, rather than trying to understand it, particularly when I’m back in the States. But being an American abroad, I know about British schadenfreude at American cultural ‘failings’ (The Guardian, for instance is always digging up new ‘outrageous’ stories about American politics and culture. I am better informed about the Tea Party here than about French or Irish politics…). I can’t help but feel outraged at these perfectly harmless (and mostly justifiable) shots at America. And then I suppose that must be what it’s like to be from the even more localized place that’s being laughed about (Tennessee, Texas), regardless of whether it’s the Philadelphia suburbs that are laughing, or the British.