“This century will be American. American thought will dominate it. American deeds will give it direction.”
When these words were first published in John Dos Passos’ seminal trilogy of novels collectively titled U.S.A. (1930 – 1938), they were undoubtedly intended to arouse feelings of patriotism, pride and optimism. Today this sentiment has a much more menacing tone than when it was written. FAILED EPIC seeks to embrace the menace implied in Dos Passos’ nationalistic nostalgia by taking a forgotten mainstay of the American Literary Canon and deconstructing it in a contemporary “news show” context.
In the performance, apocalyptic headlines from the beginning of the 20th century are reported in real time, only to be interrupted with live interviews, pre-recorded human interest pieces, on-location reporting, talking-head analysis and other layers of media within media. As the overabundance of fictional and historical narratives start to accumulate, we begin to see a timely portrait of a nation on the verge of collapse, as ideological divisions, economic inequality, and impending war threaten to destroy it.
Following an international cast of performers, we walk through a global landscape of characters whose lives are determined by massive, unseen forces–economics, disease, addiction, precarious working conditions, prejudice and accidental death. In the face of injustice, these people dream of revolution. Anarchists, Marxists, Wobblies, Capitalists, Socialists, Feminists–all are waiting to witness the death of the status quo. In these untragic lives, we see our own, with a bluntness that shifts the focus from the details of the individual stories to the universal dissatisfaction experienced in all of them.
Not only is this picture of a world divided into ideological and economic tribes a contemporary one, but–like today’s amateur online pundits–the people in this dystopia do not suffer in silence. Media serves to aggravate divisions among already splintered populations, as everyone sources their talking points from the political movement of their choice. Likewise, the success or failure of these movements seems to hang entirely on the oratory abilities of their leaders, who hold wild, Trump-like rallies aimed at “stirring up” followers, who will serve as foot soldiers in a bloody war of ideas.
Dos Passos’ own role in this conflict is still unresolved, as many contemporary critics characterize U.S.A. as “a failed epic by a writer out of his depth.” The goal of this performance is not to restore the author’s reputation, but rather to use his novels as a way of engaging with the Pre-War zeitgeist. Unlike his contemporaries Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Dos Passos’ prose does not need to be unpacked or even admired. Instead, it simply needs to unfold like a Twitter feed or scrolling news crawl, as a seemingly endless series of shocking, strange, mundane, and compelling events accumulate, coalescing into a complex portrait of a democracy at a crossroads, with no clear consensus on which way to go next.
Followed by a post-performance discussion