If a visitor from another galaxy happened to land on earth to observe the United States firsthand, what kind of impression would the country make on a complete stranger to the human race? This is the question posed in Gore Vidal's Visit to a Small Planet, a comedy subtitled as A Comedy Akin to a Vaudeville. Originally presented as a television play in 1957 (it had a New York City stage premiere in the same year), the satirical play follows the exploits of Kreton, an alien who lands on Earth, hoping to catch a glimpse of the American Civil War only to find that "something went wrong with the machine"; he has landed in the Manassas, Virginia, of the mid-twentieth century, outside of the Spelding family's home. Upon learning that it is not 1861, Kreton nevertheless decides to stay and observe human behavior. "You are my hobby,'' he tells the Speldings, "and I am going native."
Unlike film aliens such as E.T. or the creatures in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Kreton is no lovable Martian. Arrogant, selfish, and patronizing, he is determined to make his stay memorable by starting a full-scale war between the United States and the Soviet Union (the setting being the days of the Cold War, when trust between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. was distinctly lacking). "I admit to leaping into this on the spur of the moment,'' he admits at the end of Act I, "but we're going to have such good times!"
Vidal's play pokes fun at the post-World War II fear of Communism and the "Red-baiting" (Senator Joseph McCarthy's house hearings on Un-American Activities) common in the late 1950s, as well as military paranoia and the rising importance of television in American life. Using Kreton as the satiric personification of America's ugly underbelly, Vidal's play employs a common science-fiction scenario to explore not alien but American life.