Monday, March 31, 2014

US! and The America Play

US! by Chris Bachelder and The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks have very similar overarching themes. Both works revisit historical figures in a modern context and continuously resurrect them in order to comment on the state of America today. Bachelder’s uses the repeated killing and resurrection of Upton Sinclair to explain society’s tendency to repeat the past. Sinclair here represents not himself, but the ideals he stood for and social upheaval. In the same vein, Parks uses the assassinations of the Lincoln impersonator to show that society cyclically brings back and suppresses the ideals of the past; people constantly revive these ideals in order to bring about social change while those opposed to change attempt to remove them from society. Both authors make a point here with their respective caricatures of modern society, that rather than falling prey to this vicious cycle, society can use the past simply as reference for what change is to come. The historical figures and their beliefs are portrayed as victims of societal tension but that may not even be half of the problem. As shown in the results of the video game study, some kids just want to shoot things.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Literature Review

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US! and The America Play (and Bitstrips link)


The books US! by Chris Bachelder and The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks are very similar works with many of the main themes overlapping in both.  For starters, both are satirical pieces that place great historical figures in a sort of modern American context. It is within this modern context that both authors use the main theme of resurrection to make a commentary on the current status of American society.  In US!, Bachelder uses the continuous killing and resurrection of Upton Sinclair to comment on both America's need for someone to help them solve their society's issues and the fact that they don't have any legitimate desire to listen to ideas that could potentially help.  In a very similar way,  Parks continuously assassinates and resurrects Abraham Lincoln by having a game where people can pay to simply walk up and shoot Lincoln just for the fun of it.  In both of these plays, the killing and revival of these figures goes to illuminate the fact that their supporters try to keep their ideals alive, while people who are opposed continuously attempt to kill off the things that these figures stand for.  This is a very cyclical process in society, which is why this occurs continuously in both plays.  On top of this, despite the resurrections, the fact that these great figures, who are regarded by many as heroes, are continuously killed is very melodramatic.  It establishes them as victim-heroes, and they prevail in the end only if their legacies are successfully upheld.  Furthermore, there are two levels of popular amusement in both of the books. We see popular amusement within the books themselves coming in the form of the grave-robbing game or the game of shooting Lincoln.  However, both also have a broader popular amusement as they are satirical pieces that are meant to engage and entertain the audience that is reading them.

US! and The America Play Blog Post

"The America Play" by Suzan Lori Parks and "US!" by Chris Bachelder are two books that are remarkably similar thematically and if not they at least complement each other thematically. To grossly over simplify "The America Play" is about an African American man who impersonates Abraham Lincoln and chrages money to those who want to reenact Lincolns assassination while the "US!" is about Upton Sinclair constantly being assassinated and revived while attempting to expose social ills through muckraking that is increasingly deteriorating in effectiveness after each subsequent assassination. My personal view is that the themes are similar because the real assassinations of the never assassinated Sinclair in conjunction with the staged assassinations of the actually assassinated Lincoln are both metaphors for the relationship between those in favor of social change and those against social change. In addition this elicits a motif for a longing of an unfulfilled past. In "US!" a resurrected Sinclair is a sign of hope for the Socialist change that those who resurrected him wanted. In "The America Play" those who pay to conduct a fake assassination of Lincoln are at least to some degree stuck in the past. To conclude I think the both books have an implicit message about what can happen if people lean to heavily on the past and its icons for guidance with the future. In my opinion consulting history is incredibly important to gain a general frame of reference for what's going on but at the same time it is something to be consulted not emulated.

U.S.! and The America Play

First off, U.S.! and The America Play have obvious similarities in their titles. Both titles play off the theme of American nationalism. The two works touch on themes such as reincarnation, history, and ghosts through their respective main characters. U.S.! uses Upton Sinclair as a symbol that represents change. Even in her death, he is still dangerous because of the ideas he proposed while living. In a sense, his persisting ideas are ghosts that continue to live on. As far as The America Play, Abraham Lincoln also serves as a symbol. In The America Play, the concept of reincarnation is prevalent throughout. Lincoln's continual reincarnation in the play is a more literal version of the rebirth of Sinclair's ideas in U.S.!

While both The America Play and U.S. have clear connection to American history, they also have traditional melodramatic elements. In The America Play, the reenactments of Lincoln's assassination paint a distinct villain and victim. A similar polarization can be seen in U.S.! between those who want to suppress Upton Sinclair's impact and those who aim to revive him, in a sense. Overall, I believe both these stories amused the public because people tend to enjoy participating in controversy, which actually ties into the melodramatic element of "picking a side". 

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Both U.S.! and The America Play take what we know about our history and twist it to melodramatically represent modern day culture. The reader already knows what Upton Sinclair accomplished during his lifetime, and, in the novel, he has constantly been trying to change an aspect of American society. Due to his frequent assassinations by his opposition and resurrections by people hoping he would spur another movement, Sinclair’s assassinations become more famous than his actual achievements. Society becomes enthralled in the process of killing him.

Likewise, in The America Play, the foundling father discovers the public’s enjoyment of personally killing Abraham Lincoln. Anonymous people excitedly walk up to his back left shoulder, point the gun to the foundling father’s head, and shoot. There is no recognition of any of Lincoln’s achievements. After a customer has completed his assassination, the foundling father nods to his Lincoln shaped coin collector, where people pay before they play. By running this business, the foundling father is essentially replaying the part of a melodrama when the victimized hero is unable to save the day. However, he does so because it is what the public wanted.

Why does the public in both US! and The America Play take so much enjoyment in killing the historical figure? The American icon that brought positive changes to the country. It is because, in US!, they know that Sinclair will be resurrected, and, in The America Play, they know that the assassination is faked, and that this Lincoln will miraculously revive himself so that the next customer can get the same enjoyment that he or she did. Both novels resemble the current form of amusement that is popular in society. Action movies that involve the good guys killing the bad guys are almost always successful. The most popular video games involve killing as many people as you can in order to successfully overcome the adversary. We currently live in a world where people want to be the killers. A world where we commonly overlook the achievements accomplished by individuals and focus our attention to the acts of violence. The writing style in US! and The America Play make death seem nonchalant and acceptable, and to much of America, that is the case.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Killing Lincoln... and Sinclair

            The America Play and U.S.! have many striking similarities. Even their titles, like most great works, give a great peak into the nature of their depths and their meanings. Both titles are clever and humor filled. The American Play is a brilliant title because it is a mini “play” that is acted out every time someone pays to assassinate Lincoln, and the exclamation point alone in U.S.!’s title makes me want to befriend mister Bachelder. They both also use a moniker for the United States of America, as both are concerned with America’s culture, history, and future.
            In regard to America’s history, they both clearly take real characters and either literally revive them (continuously) or revive them through an impersonator. By reviving the figure from the past, each narrative is able to comment on America’s past, and its seemingly insatiable need to repeat it in the future. The revival does not simply bring back an individual person, but all that they represent to society—both to those who revile them as well as the epigones. As life and death are two sides to the same coin, each time that Lincoln or Sinclair or revived the authors give the other present day characters the opportunity to kill and suppress not only the person of Lincoln or Sinclair, but all that they represent—change, liberalism, etc.
            This act brings up interesting questions about current forms of popular amusement, and what they say about our future. In The America Play, some patrons choose to use a replica of the weapon that John Wilkes-Booth used for historical accuracy, while others choose cooler, more destructive killing tools for the ‘fun’ of it. Similarly, it becomes a popular practice for many to take part in the assassinating of Sinclair, with the most accomplished killers gaining wide notoriety. Further, in the test results of a video game, it shown that the kids do not want to play as the true, virtuous heroes; they just “want to shoot things.”

The Power of Absence

Back in middle school I was what people would call a dunce or a class clown. Always having a good time zip tying my classmates' bookbags, putting laxatives in my English teacher's coffee, and of course the classic putting a cellphone in the roof and calling it while Taylor Swift plays. In all my years I was abused by detentions, but there was one day where I was too sick to come to school. A day... another... and another... and then a week. In my mono infested bed I pondered, "how are my classmates surviving without me?"The truth is there was a power struggle as the Julius Caesar of jokes was gone. I came back to find that my other classmates had attempted to play pranks, but they failed. They needed me. And we need Upton Sinclair. 
In US the fact that Sinclair was killed off showed the need our society has for a socialist activist that goes against the grain. The assassination of Sinclair was a means of highlighting his radical importance in history and in society because if he died of natural causes or a random gang shooting he would have been buried an icon, not a hero. In his absence a hero was created. A national symbol was created. Upton Sinclair was reborn into importance. In America the reenacting of the assassination it gave me a different vibe, however, almost as if there was another me in class unscrewing table tops. Diluting the individuality of my pranks.            The actual assassination of Lincoln followed by this fake assassination undermines the importance of it to me. But this idea of multiple assassinations and color change brings the idea of reincarnation into a similar light as US because it is the personification of a new life.
As far as popular amusement goes- I was king. But in both these books the second coming of Sinclair and Lincoln was meant to please the audience. There was a need for Sinclair and the audience was amused by Lincoln's new character. Thinking about it- popular amusement seems to be the main reason for their return and my pranks.
History- I went down in history for setting a new record for votes in the Vice Presidential race (29), but these figures are known as historical giants for being radical in their revolutionary fields. This could be the source for the overwhelmingly popular demand to bring them back. Their place in history books is  mocked in both books. Sinclair and Lincoln's coming back seems to be a metaphor for the constant need for social change in our country. Some people like to see me turn off the Smartboard, while others try to stop me- it's cyclical and always supported and opposed, which sounds like melodrama to me.

US and The America Play

At first, the idea of both of these books seems like a joke in an English class taken way too far. For US, a precocious student with too much Sinclair knowledge dreams up the ultimate way to mock Sinclair: use his own style against him. For The America Play, Parks toys with the idea of taking Abraham Lincoln, widely regarded as the hero of the African-American, and focusing on an impersonator who actually is African-American. The key connections between these two works lie in ghosts/reincarnation, history, and popular amusement.
Both works feature the idea of reincarnation heavily. Bachelder has Sinclair assassinated, which he actually was not, and then brought back to life. This symbolically alludes to Bachelder's own reincarnation of Sinclair and his style with the book, a very meta style of referring to his book within his book. Parks reincarnates Lincoln as a black impersonator, deliberately changing the color of his skin in this "second life."
These books also root heavily in actual history. While some liberties are taken with factual accuracy (Sinclair's cause of death, for example) they both involve bringing history into the modern era, either through grave-robbing or a theme park of historical reenactments and parades. They both handle the situation of how historical figures and history as a general discipline are seen contemporarily.
These books both discuss using history for popular amusement. Bachelder includes a fabricated correspondence regarding a role playing video game in which players dig up historical figures who then come back to life. Parks sets her play in the Great Hole of History, a reenactment site popular for honeymooners. In both cases, they implement history into popular culture, and in both, the results are less than spectacular.

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US! and America Play Comparison

Upon reading "The America Play" by Suzan-Lori Parks, it was hard not to think of Chris Bachelder's novel, US!. The themes presented in both of these works are remarkably similar: ghosts, reincarnation, assassination, historical contingencies, melodramatic grammar, the father/son dynamic and a somewhat humorous presentation on a serious topic.
   Both works seem to make heavy commentary on the seriousness of a person's impact on history, and of people's (perhaps subconscious obsession) to forget about it--or "bury it," so to speak. With US!, the historical figure is Upton Sinclair, who was a Socialist sensationalist novelist and political activist. With the America Play, the historical figure is Abraham Lincoln. Both plots make use of cycles of assassination, and coming back to life, so to speak. However, what is intriguing, is that Upton Sinclair was never assassinated, and in the novel, he actually dies and comes back to lie time and time again. But on the other hand, Abraham Lincoln was actually assassinated, which is acted out, rather than actualized, as sort of a meta-play in Parks' work time and time again.  The assassination theme in both seem to comment on a sort of necessity to abolish the radical--to suppress it, or in a melodramatic sense, to combat the overwhelming fear of the unknown in modernity. Along with this, both make use of the general populous as assassins--"the kids don't want to make the world a better place...they want to shoot things"(US! 39); "the public was invited to pay a penny...'and shoot Mr. Lincoln'" (America Play 164)--which again, comments on society as a whole's employment of countermovement to social movement to combat the onslaught of dreaded progress.
   Again, I'd like to comment on the importance however of the continuous reincarnations (or in the America Play's case, the re-acting of the assassination melodrama). It makes one think of the phrase that is the title of a famous Dali work--The Persistence of Memory. It is like the populous is trying to metaphorically stamp out a memory of social change for good. It is no coincidence that the authors of both works chose protagonists (or antagonists depending on how you look at it, for the instigators of this social change are both villains and victims, as V for Vendetta so well explores) who very prominently affected the change of civil rights (Sinclair, workers' rights and Lincoln, African American rights) in the United States. We would naturally think that these changes are for the better, yet injustice persists as a product of the cyclical nature of history.
   The father and son dynamic present in both works serves as a sort of message of hope to this cyclical view of history. Perhaps history is not repeating itself, because to some extent, the people will always want the melodrama to be realized and for the victims to persevere. The difference is in reframing who the victims actually are. The presence of the sons, who are sort of useless, as Albert (US!) is lazy and Brazil is a weepy, poor digger (America Play), still offers a chance for redemption. As long as someone remembers, and as long as someone feels some way about the father (whether it is admiration or despise), there is a chance for the new generation to recover the lost progress perhaps a little better than before, despite the lapse. Despite the void, the echo of [the gunshot] throughout this emptiness draws attention to itself and tugs at a need to fill the void with something greater than what was.