By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
A full-blown stage re-imagining of Dos Passos’ novels outside of Shyre’s adaptation is sometimes discussed but seldom, if ever, attempted. The technical reasons are obvious: U.S.A.’s enormous length and cast of characters, combined with the jagged jump-cutting of period media make this one daunting enterprise. It would take a Peter Brook, perhaps, to attempt to present the trilogy’s ideas, and a Trevor Nunn to make them palatable to a large audience.
U.S.A.’s absence from film and television probably has less to do with AV equipment than with political will, which is just not present in today’s climate of suspicion and political languor. Dos Passos’ books were written in the throes of the Great Depression, and they noisily announced the author’s left-wing bias at the time, threaded as their pages are by snippets of The Communist Manifesto and “The Internationale.” But Dos Passos was far too worldly an observer of his times to succumb to the agitprop fantasies of his partisan comrades — even those on the masthead of The New Masses, on which he served. His novels were not billboards for socialism or avant-garde art, which is why they have not become quaint relics of Modernism but continue to fascinate to this day.
The viewer should be reminded and warned that as critical as Shyre’s retelling of U.S.A. is of American materialism, the play is, after all, a version that received Dos Passos’ approval — long after the author had moved considerably starboard from his early leftist views to become, in effect, the Whittaker Chambers of literature. And while the stage production does not disavow Dos Passos’ core humanism, it does pull some punches. Gone are the biographies of radicals Haywood, Joe Hill and Robert La Follette; gone, too, are the references from the anthology’s famous 1938 prologue (with which Shyre concludes the show) to those “dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins” and the “bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts.” Likewise, the dedication of the Unknown Soldier appears in somewhat bowdlerized form onstage, which is to say, when the question is asked, “How did they pick John Doe?” the answer is minus Nineteen Nineteen’s helpful imperative, “Make sure he ain’t a dinge, boys. Make sure he ain’t a guinea or a kike.” More important, Shyre chooses to build his theater version upon the story of the ad exec and his protégé, as opposed to Fainy McCreary and his proletarian odyssey into radical labor politics.
Yet even this softening of U.S.A.’s angular political profile does not dim its power onstage, as the MET’s production demonstrates. We still behold two generations of fatally idealistic Americans as they dream of empire and blindly grope toward an unknown destiny that would include the Great Depression and WWII, and end with an appointment in suburbia. There is one last difference between novel and play that jumps out at the viewer, and it is Shyre’s critical word substitution at the very end, when Dos Passos’ swirling definition of America concluded with “But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” Onstage it becomes “But mostly U.S.A. is the lives of its people.”
It’s as though Shyre, with the nodding approval of a now-conservative Dos Passos, had, at the twilight of the Eisenhower years, felt that the original was too subversive, too incendiary —or, perhaps, simply too dated. Today, the phrase would probably be amended to say that U.S.A. is mostly the lifestyles of its consumers, or something else that further stresses the detachment of citizens from the idea of nation, something not as declarative as the novelist’s words, which, in any case, would today only raise deep suspicions.U.S.A.: A Dramatic Revue | By PAUL SHYRE & JOHN DOS PASSOS | At the MET THEATER | 1089 N. Oxford St., Hollywood | Through April 1