The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 791

America Hurrah consists of three autonomous one-act plays: Interview, TV, and Motel. The set for Interview consists of subway stairs upstage and eight gray blocks that function as set pieces. In the first half of the play, four interviewers for an employment agency interview four job seekers; there are two men and two women in each group. The Interviewers wear clear plastic face masks. At the start of the action, the First Interviewer, a woman, greets the First Applicant. As she solicits information from the First Applicant, three other Applicants enter, so that the Interviewer has to speak with all four Applicants simultaneously. She is joined successively by three other Interviewers, all of whom address the assembled applicants simultaneously. Once all four Applicants and all four Interviewers are onstage, the pace of the action accelerates, occasionally to the accompaniment of dance music. Applicants and Interviewers speak simultaneously or in rounds, and engage in a square dance. At the end of the interview, the Applicants jump up on the Interviewers’ backs, jump off, and then leapfrog over the Interviewers.

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Following the interview sequence, each character performs a soliloquy, while the other seven impersonate elements of the background of the scene. The Fourth Applicant, for example, becomes a woman lost in New York City trying to find Fourteenth Street, while the others become passersby jostling her and refusing to acknowledge her requests for assistance. In each soliloquy, the character describes a disturbing experience while referring to himself or herself in the first person. In the last moments of the play, these characters seek assistance from a politician running for office, but they threaten to assault him when he offers them only evasions and platitudes in response to their pleas for help. The scene dissolves into chaos, as the characters “lurch about the stage,” speaking their characteristic lines. The play ends when one of the Interviewers arranges the characters into a line. Marching in place, they repeat the lines “My fault.” “Excuse me.” “Can you help me?” “Next.”

The second play, TV, is set in a white, antiseptic office, where Hal, Susan, and George, employees of a television ratings firm, work before a television viewing console. As the play begins, Hal is asking Susan whether she will go with him to a film; she is unwilling to give a definite answer. After George enters, the three make small talk while watching the television and taking notes on what they see. As the scene progresses, information about the interrelations of these characters emerges. George and Susan are having an affair; when George gets the impression that Susan would rather be with Hal, he cancels their assignation for that night.

The actions of the television raters are juxtaposed to those of characters on the television, represented by actors dressed in gray costumes and made up to look like black-and-white television images. In the first television story, a man claims to have invented something that will mean that “nobody in the world will be hungry for love.” His invention turns him into a monster; his wife is rescued by Wonderboy. In a Western show, two men compete for a woman. Other typical programs appear, interspersed with news programs referring to events in Vietnam. In the course of the action, the television characters emerge from the area representing the screen and move out into the office space, displacing the raters. As the raters watch a situation comedy, they begin to behave like its characters; eventually, their actions are accompanied by the same canned laughter that punctuates the program. The romantic triangle dilemma gets a situation-comedy resolution: After George tries to insinuate himself into Hal and Susan’s date, Susan decides to go home, leaving the two men to have dinner with each other.

The third play, Motel, subtitled A Masque for Three Dolls, takes place in an “anonymously modern” motel room. The only speaking character is the Motel-Keeper, represented by a grotesque, larger-than-life-size doll containing an actor. As the Motel-Keeper talks about the amenities she offers in her rooms, the “homey” touches she has added to them, and the consumer goods offered in numerous catalogs, a Man and a Woman enter the room. They, too, are represented by large dolls. As the Motel-Keeper speaks, they undress, use the bathroom, make love, dance, and destroy the room, writing obscene words and images on the walls. To the accompaniment of the television set and loud rock music, they smash the television and rip down the curtains. Finally, they attack the Motel-Keeper herself, ripping her arms and head off, silencing her monologue. At the end of the play, bright headlights shine directly at the audience through the open motel-room door, as the Man and Woman exit through the theater’s aisles.

Dramatic Devices

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America Hurrah is a play in which physical images created by the performers carry the weight of meaning more than plot or diction. Jean-Claude van Itallie uses such physical imagery to make clear that his play is to be seen as social allegory rather than a study of characters’ actions and motivations.

In the first part of Interview, the gymnastics and dance routines performed by the characters underline the degree to which the action represents a general social routine or ritual rather than a specific occasion. During the second part, the crowd scenes created by the actors during one another’s monologues create contexts that emphasize the impersonality of the world the characters inhabit. In TV, the encroachment of television on the characters’ thought and behavior is represented primarily in the way the television characters progressively take over the space occupied by the television raters, until “real” and “mediatized” people are literally sitting in one another’s laps. The use of giant puppets rather than real people in Motel abstracts the action, making that play, like Interview, clearly metaphoric rather than a depiction of a specific set of events. Van Itallie uses these devices to persuade the audience to regard the play’s characters and situations as allegorical rather than psychological; thus he focuses the audience’s attention on his social themes.

Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

Bigsby, C. W. E. “The Open Theatre.” In Beyond Broadway. Vol. 3 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Brustein, Robert. “Three Views of America.” In The Third Theater. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Dasgupta, Gautam. “Jean-Claude van Itallie.” In American Playwrights: A Critical Survey, edited by Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981.

Gaisner, Rhea. “Jean-Claude van Itallie, Playwright of the Ensemble: The Open Theatre.” The Serif 9 (Winter, 1972): 14-17.

Kolin, Philip, ed. Speaking on Stage. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Plunka, Gene A. “Jean-Claude van Itallie.” In The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Playwrights. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Van Itallie, Jean-Claude. The Playwright’s Workbook. New York: Applause, 1997.

Wagner, Phyllis Jane. “Jean-Claude van Itallie: Political Playwright.” The Serif 9 (Winter, 1972): 19-74.

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