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“THE PURPOSE OF SATIRE, it has been rightly said,” humorist Michael Flanders observed, “is to strip away the veneer of comfortable illusion and cozy half-truth. And our job, as I see it, it to put it back again!”
I’m also reminded of Tom Lehrer’s line: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize.”
And, while quoting folks, I add Gore Vidal observing, “If satire is to be effective, the audience must be aware of the thing satirized.” A perfect example of this is his play Visit to a Small Planet.
By the way, don’t confuse the play with the Jerry Lewis 1960 movie of the same name, a mishmash of the original possibly amusing to those admiring this comic.
Gore Vidal’s Visit to a Small Planet, A Comedy Akin to a Vaudeville was first presented on the Goodyear Television Playhouse on May 8, 1955. In 1957 Vidal reworked it for the stage; it opened on Broadway on February 7, 1957, and ran for 388 performances.
Characters and the Plot. Kreton is a time- and galaxy-tripping alien who arrives in the rose garden of the Spelding family in 1958 Virginia. He comes dressed in 1860s garb with hopes of witnessing the U.S. Civil War.
“Something went wrong with the machine,” he says, but decides to stay: “You are my hobby,” he tells the Speldings, “and I am going native.”
Roger Spelding is a television news commentator who denies the existence of UFOs—until Kreton arrives. Then Roger readily swaps beliefs, primarily in the interest of his show’s ratings.
Ellen is the Spelding daughter, a bored college kid who aspires to do “something important” like “save the world.” She’s also in love with Conrad, a local farmer of whom her father disapproves.
Conrad Maybery is a mild-mannered pacifist. His beliefs are challenged by Kreton, who arrived eager to witness our Civil War, though eventually Kreton encourages the romance.
Roger’s wife Reba is a flitting lightweight whose main concern is Kreton’s spacecraft having landed on her rose garden.
Roger’s friend General Tom Powers is charged with investigating Kreton’s arrival. He talks in military/governmental double-speak, Com Air Int, Inter-Serv-Strat-Tac, and would rather return to Laundry Project, his previous responsibility of overseeing the washing and drying of the military’s uniforms.
Powers believes Kreton has been sent by a “foreign power.” Think: “Red Scare Madness—The Fifties.”
Delton 4, from Kreton’s home planet, doesn’t appear until late in Act III when he’s summoned by Ellen. This other alien explains that Kreton “was able to escape from his nursery.” Delton 4 apologizes for Kreton’s actions and takes him home.
In the play’s portrayal of twenty-four hours, evening to evening, the characters interact with the wit, charm, and satire, occasionally biting, of Gore Vidal.
Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll examine Vidal’s play, unique among my theater collection in having extensive—and I mean extensive—details of production. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022