Visit to a Small Planet

by Gore Vidal

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What is the background of Gore Vidal's play Visit to a Small Planet?

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In order to understand the background of Visit to a Small Planet, it helps to recall the play's original subtitle, A Comedy Akin to Vaudeville.  Author Gore Vidal's play was intended as a satirical look at American social and political mores as seen through the eyes of an alien, whose intention had been to visit the United States during the Civil War, but who ended up landing during the 1950s, when concerns -- some would say "paranoia" -- about the spread of communism and the threat from the Soviet Union was in high gear.  In a sense, then, the alien, Kreton, can be considered a metaphor for "alien" in the context of American paranoia regarding foreign invasion.  Kreton, however, professes to be solely interested in observing and studying human beings: "You are my hobby and I am going native." Whereas Visit to a Small Planet purports to examine American idiosyncracies through the eyes of a purportedly superior being -- after all, he has traveled from a distant planet -- it is Kreton's idiosyncracies that are more prevalent and important to the plot.  While the character of General Tom Powers represents the greatest manifestation of anti-communist/anti-Soviet paranoia, such as when he suggest that Kreton has been dispatched for less-than-benign reasons -- "[Kreton] has been sent here by another civilization for the express purpose of reconnoitering prior to invasion" -- and, while Vidal's criticism of what he perceived as American militarism run amok lies at the center of his story, one could certainly argue that Kreton validates the general's suspicions by threatening to precipitate a war between the United States and the Soviet Union as sort of a lark ("I admit I'm leaping into this on the spur of the moment, but we're going to have such good times").

A number of fine science fiction works of literature and cinema grew out of the Cold War-era fears of communism and nuclear war, including "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," 1984, "The Day the Earth Stood Still," and "The Thing," to say nothing of classics of the Cold War genre like "Dr. Strangelove," "Seven Days in May," and "Fail Safe," that similarly  observed and commented on what the authors and screenwriters viewed as American psychosis.  Visit to a Small Planet belongs in that discussion insofar as its plot is intended as an indictment of simplistic American perceptions of foreign policy and political systems.  Whether it belongs in that category strictly from a qualitative perspective, however, is open to debate.

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