Amlin Gray Essay - Critical Essays

Gray, Amlin


Amlin Gray 1946–

American dramatist.

Gray, playwright-in-residence at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, achieved national recognition for his play How I Got That Story, which won an Obie Award in 1981. The play presents a bleak, nihilistic vision of American involvement in a fictionalized Vietnam. To represent the complexity of Vietnam, Gray created a tour-de-force multicharacter role which he called The Historical Event. This character is a foil to a naive American reporter, who is the only other character in the play.

Richard Corliss

The setting: a virtually naked stage. The cast: two men. The subject: Viet Nam. That again? Artists and con artists have spent the past decade replaying and reworking "the Viet Nam experience," reporting it and satirizing it, sending it up an apocalyptic river, holding it to our conscience like The Deer Hunter's revolver. It's over, already. We've heard that song, memorized it, sung it in our sleep, are sick unto bloody death of it.

So here [comes Amlin Gray's How I Got That Story]…. And lo, Viet Nam lives in Gray's nightmarishly funny vaudeville. A Buddhist monk sets himself ablaze; an Army lieutenant is shot in the back by his troops; a B-52 crashes in enemy territory; a Viet Nam village falls to guerrillas; Saigon orphans cry out in blind despair—and the effect is bracingly therapeutic. Talent does that, when it gels as it does here, when it infects all the participants on both sides of the footlights. How I Got That Story makes splendid use of that precious theatrical asset, the playgoer's imagination….

The beleaguered nation of Amboland welcomes a new recruit in the first years of its civil war: an innocent young reporter from Dubuque…. This Candide in khaki enters the war as a neutral observer. He believes that "if I just keep my eyes open, I can understand the whole world." He soon enough does, to his sorrow, and with the help of a dozen soldiers and civilians he meets along the Via...

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Frank Rich

Mr. Gray's harrowing black comedy about Vietnam, ["How I Got That Story," asks that one actor, called The Historical Event,]… play an entire war-torn society all by himself. Not only must the actor impersonate more than 20 characters—characters of 2 sexes, 2 nationalities and all social strata—but he also must provide the sounds of Vietnam's gunfire, its bombing runs, its incessant background rock music….

As we watch [this actor] define the essences of both societies, his everchanging face becomes an emblematic map of the cultural clash that was doomed to bring tragedy to them both…. "How I Got That Story" contains one additional character—a naïve reporter … who has come to Amboland (as the playwright fictionalizes his setting) to cover the war. In a series of pithy, ever-more-upsetting scenes, the reporter, like the audience, is constantly torn among the various Vietnams embodied by [the actor who plays The Historical Event]…. And, by the end, this forlorn pilgrim's progress becomes a paradigm of his country's own experience in those nightmarish years. Instead of winning his battle to cover the war, the reporter is destroyed by it—to the point that he loses both his innocence and his mind….

Mr. Gray has an uncommonly sharp ear for idiosyncratic speech—whether foul-mouthed G.I. slang, bargirl pidgin English or journalistic shoptalk—and many of his scenes make both chilling and funny use of language. In the best, he captures the missed connections as the reporter and his subjects carry on extended conversations in which neither party ever quite understands what the other is saying.

Frank Rich, "Theater: Gunton Back in 'How I Got That Story'," in The New York Times (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 18, 1982, p. C15.

Ron Cohen

As drama … ["How I Got That Story"] falls short. Full-fledged conflicts between the two characters are rarely realized, as scenes with the potential for power are truncated as the script moves on in episodic, revue-like fashion. But perhaps most disheartening for the remaining few of us who still believe theater can be in the forefront of contemporary thought, Gray's insights into the Vietnam experience, almost a decade after the fact, seem like thin, belated echoes of what has already been explored with considerably more passion by Hollywood—as in "Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter."

Ron Cohen, in a review of "How I Got That Story," in Women's Wear Daily (copyright 1982, Fairchild Publications), February 18, 1982 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXIII, No. 3, February 1, 1982, p. 350).

John Beaufort

Amlin Gray's "How I Got That Story" achieves a multiple exposure in more than theatrical terms. The two-man, 22 character satire … is at once the mocking tale of a naive newsman and a bitter caricature of American military adventurism in Southeast Asia. Its bark is worse than its intellectual bite. But Mr. Gray's writing is sword-edged.

Form and expression conjoin in this tale of The Reporter … transplanted from the western part of East Dubuque to the TransPanGlobal wire service bureau in the capital of Ambo-Land (read Vietnam). The Reporter is Simple Simon with a press card, Candide as war correspondent. Armed with pad, pencil, tape recorder, and gullibility the middle-American innocent plunges into his perilous and mind-bending adventure.

As The Reporter embarks on his assignment, Mr. Gray introduces an omnibus character dubbed The Historical Event…. (pp. 349-50)

Through all of his encounters, The Reporter doggedly pursues his credo of seeing things straight and reporting them honestly. Scrape after scrape increases his bewilderment until he realizes that, instead of covering the country, the country is covering him. At last, having resigned as a reporter, he comes to inhabit a self-deluding fantasy that Ambo-Land is his real home…. In the end, The Reporter is reduced to the status of demented derelict, just one more human-interest subject for the battered photographer.

"How I Got That Story" is protest play in terms of bleak black comedy. Moral outrage over the underlying causes of an Ambo-Land debacle lies at the heart of the playwright's sardonic view. There is no attempt at objectivity or impartial comment. This is a fiercely felt polemic. (pp. 349-50)

John Beaufort, in a review of "How I Got That Story," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1982 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), February 23, 1982 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXIII, No. 3, February 1, 1982, pp. 349-50).

Jack Kroll

"How I Got That Story" reveals an adroit and clever writer with a sharp nose for theatrical effect. But the play, still another one about Vietnam, presents an attitude toward that tragic experience that has just about worn out its welcome.

The play moves in a drumfire of short scenes that range from fierce black comedy to a final bleak bitterness. Most effective is the gallows humor: in one scene [The Historical Event] … plays an Ambonese psychological-warfare officer who demonstrates to villagers the harmless nature of defoliants by using them for everything from facial soap to breakfast food. Later Gunton is an American photographer so juiced up on atrocity pictures that his favorite is his shot of his own arm being blown off. Gray plays no political favorites; his impulse is not so much to see as to see through—everything and everybody. The result is a pervasive nihilism that spins all sides of the "Ambonese" experience into a philosophical and moral black hole, thus pulverizing all possibility of coming to terms with it. (p. 73)

Jack Kroll, "War Torn," in Newsweek (copyright 1982, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XCIX, No. 9, March 1, 1982, pp. 73-4.

Gerald Weales

[How I Got That Story] is set in Amboland, a lightly fictionalized Vietnam which might stand for any place in which the American presence shores up a dictatorial government and the Americans display the combination of corruption and high platitude that such a situation demands. Although there is a deal of pretty obvious satirical comment on such American actions, the title suggests that the real subject is the role of the American press. Not exactly. The reporter, the play's protagonist, arrives in Amboland, alive with naivety and ambition, only to discover that he understands nothing and is continually pained and bewildered by people and events when he feels he should observe with professional objectivity....

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