You don't have to look hard for a metaphor in Las Vegas. In June 2010, my theater company, the TEAM, and I went looking as part of our research for a new work we were making (called Mission Drift), in response to the question, "What defines American capitalism specifically?" Las Vegas means "The Meadows" and it indeed used to be a fertile valley. It's now on track to run out of water by mid century. The gambling metaphor is obvious. The all-you-can-eat buffets are obvious. But neither were particularly what we were looking for. Las Vegas was the fastest growing city in America at the turn of the millennium, and by 2010 it had become the epicenter of the housing collapse - Nevada led the nation in housing foreclosures for over 45 straight months. Unemployment stood far beyond the national average - above 14.5% in 2010 vs. 9.6% nationally -- which is unsurprising for a city dependent on tourists who come there specifically to lose money.
We rented two homes for a month, and upon arrival discovered one of them was in foreclosure. It seemed every other house in the gated communities fanning out across the city had the same telltale bank notice on the door. Each morning we went on a field trip to learn about some aspect of the city's history or present-day state, and each afternoon we returned to our rehearsal room at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to generate writing inspired by our encounters. We went to a 60 year-old pig farm (which is Las Vegan for old) that was being sued by homeowners complaining about the stench in the new housing developments that had been built right next door. We got a private tour of the Neon Boneyard, a new museum that had not yet opened its doors, and serves as a repository for old neon signs. We went to the Atomic Testing Museum, and learned about the Miss Atomic beauty pageants celebrating the above-ground nuclear tests taking place just 60-miles north of the city throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.
In this strange American city and across the country, the reach of the recession and the recklessness that led to it seemed to indicate we could no longer go on as we were. The layers of the deception were too profound, and puzzlingly, no one quite knew who had fucked up and how, beyond a simplified feeling that people had transmogrified more money out of less money, that a lot of people had been lied to, and that many people's eyes were bigger than their stomachs. Images of overstuffed buffets and vacant 3000 square-feet homes arise, and we find ourselves back in Las Vegas.
There is the narrative that our government, whether in Republican or Democratic hands, ultimately remains in the grip of multinational corporations. There is the narrative that change comes slowly. There is the narrative of the triumph of capitalism in achieving a stomachable level of contentment amongst the vast majority of Americans, by substituting options for actual freedom. There is the narrative that mass media has so saturated our airspace and brainspace with crap that we can no longer distinguish lurid tabloid fodder from blatant criminality worthy of prosecution. I believe all this is true. Root change is required. And that requires a new narrative.
While researching Mission Drift we spoke with an expert on the mythology of the American frontier named Richard Slotkin. He talked about how societies define themselves through the myths they tell, and that American mythology − since our founding − has returned again and again to the frontier. To defining and redefining the boundary between the "Cowboy" and the "Indian," between civilization and savagery.
So can there be an America without the frontier? How does she find meaning? Why do we suffer this lack? Because of all that damned space? All that open space. Sustainability is somehow anathema to us. To live with just enough, to live moderately... it's not what we've been promised. From the start our "Founding Fathers" promised we would be "a shining city upon a hill." And now we find ourselves in an existential crisis. This is the Tea Party. This is the fight against socialized medicine, or even the idea of climate change. If we admit these things to be true, such as the self-evident facts that became glaringly obvious in the light of the recession, then we can no longer be who we are. Think about how hard it is to change something you dislike about your self; you are just one being, not an overly large continent of individual state-countries populated with a lot of people who hate each other.
This is no defense. I don't believe there is one. But I believe my country is in a state of denial, is lost, and that we will take a long time to be found.
My favorite quote from Las Vegas, and there are many, came from a woman we spoke with in the Office of Cultural Affairs. She was in her 60s, and had been born and raised in Las Vegas (unusual for a woman of her generation). She said, "We love growth. We...we just grew too fast." She had the same sense of whiplash that we encountered again and again across the city. They had been living the American dream. A dream bred largely by multinational corporations invested in forging generations of potential customers, but a dream held deep nonetheless. And the city isn't going to return to what it was. American manufacturing isn't going to return to what it was. Everyone seems to know this, but the world spins and spins, and root change hasn't yet come.
I remain hopeful for the Occupy movement, and was especially heartened by their initial outpacing of the Red Cross in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts . There is work happening at grassroots levels all over the country to re-imagine the ways in which we function on a daily basis. And we wait eagerly for the mainstream media to acknowledge these voices as legitimate, and to therefore create national space for shifting the old narrative.
Shall I spoil it? Mission Drift ends with a main character essentially committing suicide, running off into the desert. And in the blazing desert heat she finds herself transported back to the beginning of the story for which she already knows the terrible end; she can't get out of it. The show ultimately tells the story of a person who knows her myth has run out, but doesn't yet have the imagination to create a new one. And I think this is where we as a country find ourselves: needing to sever our love affair with the frontier, with the eternal bonanza, and yet terrified, at our very core, of moderation.
Mission Drift is playing in The Shed at the National Theatre until 28 June. www.theshedtheatre.co.uk, 020 7452 3000