April 21, 2008

Lewis and Clark has American foreign policy in its sights

[img id="80503" align="alignleft"] “A promise to bring back the facts…all the facts”—this powerful oath opens the Infamous Commonwealth Theatre’s production of Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates. These opening words exemplify the play’s uncensored, unedited attempt to highlight the gruesome reality of violence and war in United States history.

While traveling through the uncharted area of the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark run into famous figures such as Teddy Roosevelt, Sacagawea, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld. Lewis and Clark’s mission of truthfully documenting the details of their findings provides audience members with an uncut and rather negative account of the United States’s foreign policy. Although there are moments of comic relief, the play’s message is quite heavy and becomes more strident as the play comes to a close: The United States has a serious problem on its hands, a problem of its own making. Playwright Robert Schenkkan explains the play’s themes, saying “I have an axe to grind.” Certainly, the play’s message is a clear call to action, and the theater’s intimate 50-chair setup seems to demand a personal response from each audience member.

The cast is phenomenal—no one character outshines another. The cast acts as a cohesive unit and becomes an instrument in displaying the overall message. The Lewis (Stephen Dunn) and Clark (Craig Thompson) duo is sure to please any audience member, and a shockingly moving performance by Paul Joseph as General Jake Smith is worthy of separate recognition.

This is a smart play on many levels. First, it’s a history buff’s nirvana. With all the wars that span the play and their accompanying historical figures, I sincerely wanted to thank my A.P. U.S. History teacher for my ability to follow such a rigorously historical script. There are also many intricate allusions to speeches and slogans made by political leaders. Although these nuances are not common knowledge, they are sure to leave any quick-witted U of C student satisfied.

There are some recurring elements that are crucial to the play’s theme. First, the lack of communication seems to be the root of every problem Lewis and Clark encounter. Whether they are interacting with the Sioux Indians or with Ngo Dinh Diem, Lewis and Clark cannot successfully communicate their aims or genuine feelings—for lack of a translator or due to vague or antiquated diction. This leads to misunderstanding and conflict; the misconstrued message that the explorers want to educate the people they meet and spread freedom snowballs into threats of torture and genocide. It appears that having the right intentions isn’t enough.

Although the violence is criticized, the power of speech is also disparaged. During their encounter with Native Americans, Lewis and Clark avoid resorting to violence to solve problems. They refer to violence as heathenism, while stressing that words and open discussion are always the answer. The Native Americans mock this mindset and see it as impractical because success in battle legitimizes the authority of leaders in their culture. This difference of opinion leads to their inability to communicate. When Lewis and Clark encounter foreign leaders, it becomes clear that these strongmen use words as a façade to mask the corruption, dishonesty, and self-interest beneath all their dealings.

Throughout the play, Lewis and Clark are thrown into many turbulent situations, leaving them perplexed and unsettled. However, they never reflect on these situations or change their opinions. Therefore, they do not realize that what is going on around them is in no way part of their history, or part of their mission. This leads them to blindly follow any command given and become pawns in dishonest political dealings. In this sense, the play warns that people who get swept up into violence or fraudulent proceedings because they don’t have their facts straight have only themselves to blame.

For strong advocates of the war in Iraq, the confrontational, abrasive social commentary could get tiresome. That said, the play’s main focus is not necessarily the current war situation, but rather the broader issues that nations trying to implement a political ideal must take into account. Schenkkan highlights the crucial impact of communication skills, the avoidance of hypocritical uses of violence and words, and the importance of constantly checking the facts. These issues have large-scale implications—not only is Schenkkan willing to elucidate the many atrocities of the United States, but he also implies that there are rigorous criteria for executing an ideal. Clearly, Schenkkan expects much of the audience and of the American people at large.