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  • Revising the Mythology of the American West after 9/11:Sam Shepard's The God of Hell
  • David Río (bio)

Global theater has certainly contributed to the representation and interpretation of the events of September 11, 2001, and the so-called "War on Terror."1 For example, George E. Potter claims that "in the post-9/11 era, over a hundred theatric performances exploring the fallout from the 'war on terror' have been staged in Cairo, London, and New York" (ii). If we focus only on American theatrical responses to September 11 and its aftermath we could argue that bringing the war on terror to the stage was not, at first, a priority for American dramatists. During the years after 9/11 Broadway, for example, often prioritized domestic issues and entertainment, with musicals playing a dominant role. As Robert Brustein claimed, "most American playwrights have been slow to confront directly the repercussions of September 11" (244). According to Brustein, this may be due to nostalgia and escapism. Indeed, he goes so far as to state that the "modern stage is out of touch with the deeper concerns and impulses of the society" (243). American theater's slowness to examine the effects of September 11 and the long-term implications of the war on terror cannot be overemphasized, yet even in 2002 we find two interesting pieces dealing with the 9/11 events: Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat and Anne Nelson's The Guys. A few years later other plays such as Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros's Omnium Gatherum, Yusef El Guindi's Back of the Throat, and Christopher Shinn's Dying City addressed post-9/11 trauma and the fear and paranoia engendered by the "War on Terror." Even Sam Shepard, arguably America's most celebrated contemporary playwright, with more than forty plays to his credit, did not remain indifferent to the impact of 9/11 and the conduct of the Iraq War, as illustrated by the appearance in 2004 of The God of Hell, a black satire denouncing the George W. Bush administration's attacks against civil liberties in the name of patriotism and national safety. Shepard was accused of being "out of step" with other playwrights, particularly during the 1990s, because his plays were "almost exclusively … concerned with the male experience, the European immigrant past, and the heritage of the West," whereas American theater turned increasingly to pluralism, multiculturalism, and [End Page 1] feminism, suggesting that "a paradigm shift away from the loner male in a state of angst on the existential prairie" was taking place (Wade 156, Wade 156, Smith 37). Nevertheless, The God of Hell proved that Shepard was able to engage with new themes, such as personal and national trauma linked to an international crisis and the war on terror, without abandoning his traditional topics, in particular his exploration of the legacy of frontier mythology. In fact, in The God of Hell Shepard exposes the manipulation of the mythology of the American West to justify totalitarianism and the sacrifice of civil liberties in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

The God of Hell is not considered one of Shepard's outstanding plays, and it has been neglected by producers, investors, and scholars of drama. The play premiered off- Broadway at the Actors Studio Drama School at the New School in New York City, and previews began in October 2004, just a few weeks before George W. Bush was re-elected President of the United States. The play's reception was, as Shannon Blake Shelton has remarked, "neither uniformly condemnatory nor congratulatory" (140). Some scholars have emphasized the negative reviews the play received in both New York and London, in which its argument came in for particular criticism, being described as incoherent or too obvious in its criticism of American Republicanism (Weiss 197). Although Shepard himself admitted that the play was "a takeoff on Republican fascism, in a way," several critics argued that the play was written too hastily, to "hit the boards during election season" (qtd. in McKinley; Rooney). Other reviews of the play have been more positive, praising it, for example, as "pungent and poignant") and "a powerful indictment...


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