The Lebanese University
Faculty of letters and Human Sciences, Branch 5, Sidon
The Loss of National Identity in Sam Shepard’s The God of Hell
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for M1 Course (Editing)
Mohammad Ali Nahle (43813)
Dr. Luna Bassam
June 1, 2018
Everyone has his own national identity, and none can live without his national identity, living without it will create crisis. National identity means belonging to home, land, roots, customs, belonging to traditions and the way of living. A Relation between one and his nation, once his relation is destroyed he will be lost. Sam Shepard has written his play The God of Hell (2004) in order to deride and criticize The War on Terror that has been launched by the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The play displays how the government, symbolized by Welsh, is trying to force a new national identity on the American citizens. Frank and Emma, an aged traditional couple who live a peaceful farm life, are ruined after their national identity is usurped.
The Western American desert it’s the American West. It is opposite to the American modernity. It represents the traditional American land where every American citizen is lived freely in his own land. This place has preserved morals, ethics, free mind and true American identity. All the scenes took place in the American West; we have intruders who give us an image of Modern America. Modernity is invading, abolishing the west (Welch represents this modernity) and by moving to the west he is threatening every aspect. We have an act of transformation, rural places are invaded by the death of the American West, and the American dream will die.
Emma and frank were living the dream in real life; they were living peacefully in a democratic land where love and justice prevailed. Yet, Sheppard wanted to show modern American Citizen that their government wanted to abolish this dream and kill it. Therefore, the presence of Welch meant the presence and exploitation of the government.
The words ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ appear as a mask that the United Stated uses to conceal the truth of its actions since all the wars have been launched for the sake of freedom and democracy; however, their outcome are the total opposite. The War on Terror splits the new world and considers every nation that does not support the United States as a supporter of the ‘terrorists’; this is what Bush has claimed by saying: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” (Woodward, 96).
Sam Shepard’s vision of the American policy and the wars launched by America show his opposition to such acts, which are cruel and violent. Shepard considers that the American nation rules the world through violence; he aims at satirizing the policy of the United States in general and George Bush in particular: “if you’re on the other side of the fence, you’re suddenly anti-American. It is breeding fear of being on the wrong side. Democracy is a very fragile thing. You have to take care of democracy. As soon as you stop being responsible to it and allow it to turn into scare tactics, it’s no longer democracy” (Sam Shepard, Sam Website).
The Loss of National Identity: A Political view
The God of Hell presents an elderly couple, Frank and Emma, who live in a “very simple Midwestern farmhouse” at Wisconsin. The incidents of the play take place in the kitchen that is a common setting for many of Shepard’s plays. Inside the kitchen are “appliances, cupboards, and sink-all dating from the fifties”. Emma, wearing a blue terry-cloth bathrobe and slippers, appears watering her plants. Shepard includes the green plants at the beginning of the play to show the presence of life; however, by the end of the play, the plants die revealing the death of the values in the American nation. Frank has just returned from the field; ‘his life is his heifers’ says his wife. Frank’s connection with his land and the simple and peaceful life he lives with his wife is that of the traditional cowboy that is rare in modern America.
Welsh are the symbol of the American government; he tries to force Emma to buy American made cookies. They are on the shape of American flag, and by accepting the cookies means accepting the government which forcing people to obey and follow its policy. Emma is stubborn; she refused the cookie so she is free in her will. She is rebellious, refuses to be subdued to the government. Cookies use to give a fake image of Welch and to hide his identity. His knowledge about Emma, her husband, her house, shows American authority is controlling the American people. Dominant authority that has the ability to penetrate every house, people, means that individual freedom does not exist. The government witnesses you; you are not free.
Welsh pretend that his flag is an indication of loyalty and pride: “You’d think there would be a flag up or something to that effect. Some sign. Some indication of loyalty and pride” (God of Hell, 8), but Shepard wants to mock the American flag that is used to hide the sins of his nation. Welsh inform Emma that he is traveling “from west to east” (God of Hell, 9) to sell American cookies; his journey represents the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Shepard wants to mock the invasions that launched in the name of spreading peace and democracy into these countries while facts, such as the incidents of Abu Graib, show the irony embedded in these invasions.
Emma states that she and her husband are ‘dairy people’ who carry out “simple traditional farm chores” (God of Hell, 10). Welsh is trying to attack the house of those traditional citizens; as if Shepard wants to show that the new American nation wants to control all types of citizens through forcing them to follow the government whether convinced by its acts or not. Indeed, the new American nation wants to force a new American identity on all the citizens.
While Frank is still convinced of the peaceful life he lives, Haynes seems aware of the consequences that will follow Welsh’s visit. Haynes himself infected, for when his hand touches Emma, a blue flash of light emanates causing Emma to be further terrified. Haynes’ situation is that of his country since the new American nation is contaminated. In Shepard’s opinion, the new American nation is paying money for destruction rather than peace through the search for plutonium and other radioactive elements, which lead to mutation and total destruction. Shepard calls plutonium “The God of Hell” because it will be the main cause of destruction not only of America but of also the whole world. Plutonium is the symbol of the destruction and the violence unleashed by the United States, which will turn upon itself and destroy its own. Not only Frank’s heifers will be affect but also everything around him; in this way, the old American identity represented by Frank will disappear.
The second scene in the play starts with Emma watering her plants once again in the presence of Haynes. Plants are life to Emma, and he is trying to change her mind and wash her brain. As if, the American government is trying to penetrate in everything in humans life, and make them live the way the government wants. In this way, the American citizens are controlled and lack their freedom; this is dictatorship rather than democracy. Wisconsin, then, is a peaceful place; however, the government is trying to destroy it by preventing its people from living their traditional life:
Haynes: Don’t you have some neighbors?
Emma: They never come out. It’s too cold.
Haynes: How ’bout summer?
Emma: Summer they stay in the air conditioning.
Haynes: Don’t they farm too?
Emma: Nobody farms anymore. Government pays them not to. We’re the only one’s left.
Haynes: How come you and Frank do it? Emma: Frank loves his heifers. (God of Hell, 25)
The American identity has transformed into a new one; traditional people, such as Frank and his wife, are rare because the government is forcing a new American identity on its citizens. The traditional American values, as well as the traditional American identity, have become flimsy and incapable of surviving in a world where power dominates and rules everything: “I’ll do everything in my power…Everything humanly possible” says Welsh. Shepard wants to ridicule the American power through which torture and cruelty dominate while, at the same time, America pretends to be acting humanely.
The third scene of the play presents how the peaceful life of Frank and Emma comes to blow up, for they have lost their true American identity and forced to accept a new one. Frank transformed; his identity was changed. He sold his heifers (his life), and changed his customs.
He accepted transforming, so the picture, which appears, is that Frank sold the heifers to get money.
Emma: What’s happened to you?
What’s the matter?
Frank: I’ve sold the heifers.
Emma: What? Frank: I’ve sold the heifers. Money’s in here.
Emma: Why’d you do that, Frank? Those were your replacement heifers.
Frank: Got a good price.
Emma: What’re you doing in that ridiculous suit?
Frank: Mr. Welsh gave it to me. (God of Hell, 34)
Welsh, then, was able to transform Frank from a traditional cowboy wearing boots and working on the ranch into a new American man with a suit and a tie; by selling his heifers, Frank had accepted to change his national identity .Emma is still preservative, she mocks her husband and his weakness. She has her own ethics and believes money to her is nothing. She is a true American citizen who has identity and ethics. She is brave, wise, and she understands the game. She seeks stability. She rejected such changes and warned her husband not only from Welsh, but also from the whole government:
Emma: This guy is taking over our house! He’s taking over our whole life! Stringing up flags! Forcing cookies on me! Who is this guy? We don’t know him from Adam!
Frank: He’s from the government, Emma.
Emma: What government?
Frank: Our government.
Emma: I don’t know what our government is anymore. Do you? What does that mean “our government”? (God of Hell, 35)
Innocent people, such as Frank, are misguided by the new American identity, for Welsh is able to convince him that the government is more knowledgeable than they are.
Frank: That means he knows more than us. He’s smarter than us. He knows the big picture, Emma. He’s got a plan.
Emma: What big picture is that?
Frank: The Enemy. He knows who the Enemy is. (God of Hell, 35)
Shepard is launching a fierce attack on Bush’s War on Terror through which the government is trying to convince people that they are fighting the enemy. Shepard mocks the presence of an enemy and considers this war as a reason for the destruction of the American nation itself. This becomes clear when Welsh, in the name of democracy, starts to torture Haynes:
Emma: You’re not torturing him, are you? What are you doing?
Welsh: Torturing? Torturing! We’re not in a Third World nation here, Emma. This isn’t some dark corner of the Congo. Frank, haven’t you told her about our new platform? Our design for the new century? (God of Hell, 38)
Electric shocks torture Haynes; his state resembles that of the prisoners in Abu Graib in Iraq (Third world nation) thus, colonization linked by torture. Sheprad voice as if he assures that American government has a tool and this tool used in the third world nations “Our design for the new century.” Sheprad mocking the American dream. Welch describes Haynes as the torture used by the American government. Sheprad wants to show the truth of the new American identity that denies the terror it launches upon others.
Frank’s heifers are a part of his identity, and losing them means losing his relation with his land. In the past, Frank’s life was rich with happiness, but Welsh transformed it into a horrible one through depriving him of his true American identity. At the end of the play, Emma’s plants are infected and the death of the plants is the death of Emma by which plants resemble life so, her life become poisoned life.
Sheppard criticized the usage of plutonium; according to him, all nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of his nation. He is criticizing his government for spending too much money to invent such material. In fact, America was using it in its wars so, American government is spending money on destruction rather than construction.
This play wrote after September 11, because the American government decided to change its policy after these incidents by claiming that the government role to protect citizens from terrorists by abolishing terror. Sam Shepard wanted to raise the American awareness and to show them that their government was spreading a fake message and he was against terror.
Shepard message is that the American policy use terror to stop terror and then they are transforming the American identity. Thus, they are destroying America. Moreover, Emma hint as shepard’s voice that American government is torturing Americans and others but, as true loyal citizens once should preserve national identity and show a real image of patriotism not only by words but also by actions.
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“God of Hell – The Sam Shepard Web Site.” Sam as Playwright – The Sam Shepard Web Site. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 May 2018.
Murphy, John M. “OUR MISSION AND OUR MOMENT”: GEORGE W. BUSH AND SEPTEMBER 11TH.” Project Muse 1094-8392 6.4 (2003): 607-32. Uky. Michigan State University Press, 12 Aug. 2011. Web. 30 May 2018.