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The ten plays in Gary Sullivan’s PPL in a Depot attempt to break through literary clichés about how speech sounds, replacing the stilted, argumentative tones of what passes for “realism” in drama with language straight from the internet’s laughing out loud mouth. With the internet, for the first time in history the self-expressive efforts of millions of our fellow citizens are fully searchable and available for convenient copy-paste; in other words, the need for writers to painstakingly approximate “real” speech is finally totally obsolete.
There is no need to imitate and approximate, when we can directly sample other people’s serious, authentic efforts to express themselves. Sullivan’s plays are hilarious compendiums of the authentic absurdities and frightening misconceptions revealed during thousands of more-or-less “real” online conversations; Sullivan mines the most revealing nuggets from this vast record and assembles them into snappy exchanges. Through this method, he shows us passionate irrelevance, sincere stupidity, pompous righteousness, and many other flavors of our cherished freedom of speech, which, more often than not, boils down to the freedom to be a moron.
The best of these plays dramatize the uneasiness beneath our secular idealization of free speech, showing how the openness that is so valued in the abstract is often intolerable in the specific. In “The Separation of Church and State,” an angel takes Thomas Jefferson on a tour of the future, where a variety of outraged American voices are calling for decisive punitive action:
BONUS MILLER: I don’t care what you appreciate! People who chew with their mouths open should be shot. People who lick the ends of their fingers should be forced to lick the ends of OTHER people’s fingers, the very fingers used to squeeze —
COUNSELOR: Ma’am you are way over the line! You should be preparing to face problems on Earth, not in some fairyland called Your Opinion!
WILLA MUNCH: Doppler radar? Give me a fucking break: all weather people should be shot —
VINCENT D. NIPPLE: Well, anyone who creates a web page that blares music at me like that should be shot —
JANG KONGTHONG: People who eat poached eggs need be tied to an ant mound and covered in something ants like eating and then shot —
COUNSELOR: I believe the majority of Americans AND their parents would disagree with you ma’am.
These outraged and outrageous voices depict a public for whom fantasy violence is one of the only cures for a sense of pervading powerlessness. Intolerant rage takes the form of harmless, tolerated self-expression; indeed, the exaggerated brutality of the fantasy punishments is a sign of the powerlessness of the speakers, of their awareness that nothing they say can significantly alter the world around them. Their rage is just for laughs, just for kicks.
The Counselor represents the exasperated stance of liberal hegemony, reminding the voices that what they are saying is not just wrong but unpopular; hers is the voice of a professional tolerator and disapprover. And yet it seems that the Counselor is lying; the litany of violent demands that constitute most of this play suggest that the idea of shooting people is actually very popular and desirable — maybe even all-American. After all, many Americans enjoy entertainments about shooting.
Sullivan’s plays reflect the discursive double-binds of contemporary America, where we are free to speak our minds in order to ensure others that what we believe does not matter. They depict the process by which liberal hegemony represents free speech as an excessive irrelevance outside the accepted rules of discourse. Sullivan’s play “Written in Styrofoam” studies the reception of the recent volume Poems from Guantánamo which collects poems by prisoners at the notorious extra-constitutional Guantánamo jail:
SHIRLEY WOOD: I find the claim that this book shouldn’t be taken seriously, “certainly not as poetry,” to be extraordinary. Why should it not be taken seriously?
BARISTA: Firstly, most of these poems, as I understand the situation, were not written by poets, they were scraped into Styrofoam cups with pebbles. To take them seriously is like a cosmologist taking the Book of Genesis seriously.
SHIRLEY WOOD: “When I heard pigeons cooing in the trees,/ Hot tears covered my face.”
DAVID MOORHEAD: There are times I would really love to hear these poems explode into a different kind of jam, looser and free of the constant drama. [Going back to the table.] I’m not tanking the book over this, I’d just love to hear these poets go NUTS with less of the lamenting.
The Poems from Guantánamo are archetypal free speech, perpetually disqualified by discussions about what genre they are in and how seriously they can be taken. It is absurd to reject the poems because they are not written by professional poets; it is equally absurd to reject them because they do not operate according to the tenets of “slam poetry.” And yet, there are so few channels by which language or other expressive acts can be legitimated; failing to fit the specifications of the legitimate genres, the Poems from Guantánamo can be no more than tolerated.
Sullivan’s plays reveal how our conception of free speech as a preserve of individual expression tends to undermine our democracy, by defining most forms of dissent as irrelevant “protected opinion” rather than “call to action.” They also remind us that the “protected opinions” of many of our fellow Americans are intolerant and frightening, that for some of our fellow citizens a sense of powerlessness might be a desirable trait.
Beyond their poignant political implications, these plays are also howlingly hilarious; in particular, the group orgasm in the play “Ringu” and the discussion of “stacking” and “Stackers” in the title play should make readers grin and theatre audiences chuckle. Sullivan is also an accomplished illustrator (creator of the comics series Elsewhere) and a variety of poppy yet off-kilter images introduce several of the plays. The most poignant of these, depicting a two-headed, double-gendered monster fondling itself in the burning ruins of Tokyo, provides a powerful objective correlative to the anti-war play “Lysistrata.” This goofy yet haunting image (page 28 of the book) encapsulates Sullivan’s ability to locate the tragic dimension in wacky and eclectic materials.
Stan Apps is a poet and essayist living in Los Angeles. His books of poems include soft hands (Ugly Duckling Presse), Princess of the World in Love (Cy Press), Info Ration (Make Now Press) and God’s Livestock Policy (Les Figues Press). A collection of essays is underway from Combo Books. Stan co-curates the Smell Last Sunday reading series (http://thesmellreadingseries.blogspot.com/) and is asst. curator of The Ups and Downs, a short-term art installation series. He blogs at http://nonprovocativeurl.blogspot.com/