At War with John Wayne: Masculinity, Violence, and the Vietnam War in Emily Mann's Still Life

By Morales, Marta Fernandez | American Drama, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

At War with John Wayne: Masculinity, Violence, and the Vietnam War in Emily Mann's Still Life


Morales, Marta Fernandez, American Drama


What, a man? Where's the model? (Matin 70)

The United States has gone through more than one war since the 1970s and is currently involved in a confused "postwar" in Iraq that will undoubtedly call forth its own discussion and literature. Yet, Vietnam seems to have left an everlasting and so far unequaled imprint on the memory of millions of North American citizens. At the time, it meant tens of thousands of deaths, numerous permanent physical injuries, many long-term psychological problems, and many shattered lives and broken homes. The Viemam conflict was perceived as an unjust cause by half of the population and as a shameful loss by the other half. Being such a relevant historical event, this war has found its place in art and engendered novels, films, poetry, autobiographies, essays, and of course, plays. Of the many plays that explore this subject, Emily Mann's Still Life, first produced in 1980, "gets it right by doing it wrong," according to Don Rignalda's analyses. It fails because it was written by a non-veteran, it does not happen "in country," and its focus is definitely not on the Vietnamese rice paddies. Throughout Still Life, Emily Mann reveals that behind the curtain of the armed conflict there was a kind of victim that was not included in the daily body count.

As a writer, Emily Mann developed her career mainly in Documentary Drama. Her plays have been called Theater of Testimony because they reproduce the words of people she interviewed, as well as using sources like recordings, trial transcripts, etc., in the line of work initiated by Erwin Piscator in 1929. (1) My essay centers on the playtext of Still Life, based on the author's encounters with a Vietnam veteran (Mark), his wife (Cheryl), and his friend and lover (Nadine). Mann met them in Minnesota in 1978, and their stories left a profound trace in her memory. When she realized that the way to overcome the pain--her own and the characters'--was to write about it, she devised this peculiar drama piece, structured in three acts and reflecting the protagonists' struggles with their most intimate traumas.

Mann contends the play is her "traumatic memory of hearing their stories during the interview sessions" (qtd. in Betsko & Koenig 281), and she organized the long hours of recorded material in a way that reminds some critics of a fugue. Still Life is basically a collection of juxtaposed monologues in which the characters speak their minds independently, hardly talking to one another, and yet their words are not unconnected. As in a three-voice fugue, there is a "subject," there is an "answer" to it, and there is a "counter-response" to both, which brings about a Brechtian breach of expectations. The spectator is introduced to a line of thought which then breaks into two more, very different voices, and, as it happens to the listener of a fugue, his/her ability to predict what will come next is debilitated (Di Liscia 2). In this kind of musical piece, as in Mann's play, the voices and points of view sometimes overlap. In the text, this is represented in the special layout in some of the editions:

NADINE:                       CHERYL:

I have so much to do          See, I got kids now.
Just to keep going.
                              I can't be looking into
Just to keep my kids going,   myself.
I don't sleep at all.         I've got to be looking
                              out. (53)

Scenes like this one give the audience-hearing the simultaneous voices--or the reader--seeing the typographical layout of the page--an insight into the contrasting versions of the same topic that the characters offer. With this apparent disconnection, and continuing with the line of Brechtian tendencies I have already pointed out, the play demands an active audience, one that will listen in full conscience and decide what the relevant links are within all the talking done on stage. In the play, Cheryl and Nadine describe a reality that has little to do with the image of the Vietnam War shown in mainstream movies or in literature written by male authors (especially by veterans). …

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