Pulitzer Prize winner Sam Shepard’s latest play is an uproarious, brilliantly provocative farce that brings the gifts of a quintessentially American playwright to bear on the current American dilemma.
Frank and Emma are a quiet, respectable couple who raise cows on their Wisconsin farm. Soon after they agree to put up Frank’s old friend Haynes, who is on the lam from a secret government project involving plutonium, they’re visited by Welch, an unctuous government bureaucrat from hell. His aggressive patriotism puts Frank, Emma, and Haynes on the defensive, transforming a heartland American household into a scene of torture and promoting a radioactive brand of conformity with a dangerously long half life.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
; February 2010
98 pages; ISBN 9780307495709
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Title: The God of Hell
Author: Sam Shepard
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Set: Early morning. Interior, very simple Midwestern farmhouse. Frosty windows looking out to distant vague, snowbound pastures-no details. Two rooms separated by a simple kitchen counter. Small kitchen stage left with faded linoleum floor. Modest living room, stage right, with plank wood floor; small couch downstage right. Many potted plants of various sizes line the walls of the living room, not arranged with any sense of design or order. An exterior door upstage right leading out to a small mudroom and porch landing. A black cast-iron school bell hangs from the porch ceiling on a short rope. Stage left wall of kitchen has an open arched entranceway leading to other rooms dimly lit offstage. The usual kitchen appliances, cupboards, and sink-all dating from the fifties. Down left corner of kitchen is a semiconcealed staircase leading down to the basement, dim yellow light leaking up from stairs. Handrail and first flight of stairs leading down are all that's visible to the audience.
Lights up on EMMA in blue terry-cloth bathrobe, slippers, moving methodically back and forth from the kitchen sink, where she fills a yellow plastic pitcher with water and carries it to the plants. She waters plants and returns to refill pitcher, then repeats the process. FRANK, her husband, sits on couch with pair of work boots in his lap, greasing them with mink oil. It's a while before they speak.
EMMA: He's not up yet?
FRANK: Haven't heard him.
EMMA: I thought they were supposed to be early risers.
EMMA: These scientists.
FRANK: He's not a scientist. What made you think that?
EMMA: I thought you said he was a scientist.
EMMA: Well, what is he then?
FRANK: I'm not sure. I mean, I'm not sure about his official title.
EMMA: Official? So, he's working for the government or something?
FRANK: I think he's in research.
EMMA: I thought you said it was something to do with the government.
FRANK: No, I don't think I said that.
EMMA: Arms or something.
FRANK k: Arms?
FRANK: I don't know. It has initials.
EMMA: What does?
FRANK: The outfit he works for. Out there in Colorado. DMDS or SSCI or something like that. You know how everything has initials now.
EMMA: DMDS or SSCI? Is that what you said?
FRANK: Something like that.
EMMA: What the heck is that? What does that stand for?
FRANK: I have no idea, Emma. I wasn't really following it. He was kind of panicky on the phone.
FRANK: Yes. Panicky. Breathless. Like he was in a rush.
EMMA: Running away from something, maybe?
EMMA: Oh, flustered. That's different. Flustered.
(Pause. She continues watering.)
Well, how come I haven't met him before this? He's such an old friend of yours, supposedly.
frank: Supposedly? There's no "supposedly" about it.
EMMA: Well, how come you've hardly ever mentioned him?
FRANK: I don't know. He kind of disappeared for a while. I thought he was dead, actually.
FRANK: Yeah-or missing.
FRANK: Yeah-or tortured even.
EMMA: Tortured? My God!
EMMA: What kind of research is he involved in where he gets tortured?
FRANK: I didn't say he was tortured. I said, I thought he might have been-he could have been.
EMMA: Well, that's kinda serious, isn't it? I mean, tortured-criminy!
FRANK: He said it was all top secret.
EMMA: Oh-so that's why you're not telling me then.
FRANK: No, no-I'm telling you as much as he told me, Emma. It's just that-
EMMA: You don't get tortured unless you know something or somebody thinks you know something.
FRANK: No-yeah, well, he probably wasn't tortured then.
EMMA: You were exaggerating.
FRANK: No! I really don't know anything about it, Emma. I didn't want to stick my nose into his business. He just said that the bottom had fallen out and he needed a place to stay. That's all he told me.
EMMA: What bottom was he referring to?
FRANK: See, there you go again.
EMMA: There I go again, what?
FRANK: Sticking your nose into his business.
EMMA: I don't know this man.
FRANK: He's a friend of mine. I told you.
EMMA: I don't know anything about him. He could be hiding, as far as I know.
FRANK: Hiding? What would he be hiding from?
EMMA: How should I know? He's your friend.
(FRANK puts his boots on and stands.)
FRANK: I'm going down to feed the heifers.
EMMA: How long's he going to stay here, Frank?
FRANK: Long as he needs to.
EMMA: I'll start the bacon.
EMMA: Should I wake him up?
FRANK: I wouldn't.
EMMA: Maybe he'd like some bacon.
FRANK: You never know. (short pause) You're going to drown those plants.
(FRANK exits. EMMA alone-stares out window as FRANK crosses, outside. He waves to her. She blows him a kiss. She crosses to the kitchen, dumps the empty pitcher into the sink. It rattles around. She goes to the stove, turns on a burner, sets frying pan on it. She goes to the fridge, takes out bacon, peels off slices. She crosses to top of basement staircase landing, stops, and yells down to their unseen guest, the bacon strips hanging from her hand.)
EMMA: Mr. Haynes? Are you up yet, Mr. Haynes?
(No answer. She goes to the stove and slaps bacon into the frying pan. She turns fire down slightly. Suddenly, the doorbell rings: a very loud, old-fashioned, crank-style doorbell with a rasping, brittle sound. emma turns abruptly toward door, very surprised. She pauses a moment, as though wondering if she imagined it; then the doorbell rings again-longer and more persistent this time. She picks up a dishtowel and wipes her hands as she crosses to door. She opens door, which swings downstage, blocking the audience's view of who is standing there. A man's arm pops into view, dangling a large cookie in the shape of an American flag, with red, white, and blue frosting. emma jumps back. A male voice is heard from behind door.)
male voice: Cookie? American made. Oat and raisin. Totally organic-even the frosting.
(EMMA just stares bewilderedly at the cookie dangling from the hand.)
EMMA: No-uh-what is it? What-we don't-need anything.
(WELCH steps into the room, quickly closing the door behind him. EMMA backs up a little, holding the dishrag to her chest. welch-dark suit with American flag pin in his lapel, short cropped hair, crisp white shirt, red tie, attaché case in one hand and the cookie in the other. Big grin.)
WELCH: (offering cookie) American-made cookie? One of the best you ever tasted. Guaranteed. Take a bite.
EMMA: No-thank you.
WELCH: Hold it then. Just take ahold of it and feel its wonderful weight and texture.
EMMA: No-I'm sorry, but-we're not interested.
WELCH: Not interested-not at all interested.
EMMA: In cookies-
(WELCH bites into the cookie himself and savors it, smiling broadly at EMMA. EMMA stares back as welch crunches.)
EMMA: Did you, uh-come to see my husband or something? Who exactly are you? welch: Your husband. That's him, down below in the barn, I take it. Mumbling to the cows. Riding around on the tractor like a little boy. A child of the plains.
EMMA: Yes. That's him. And he's not a little boy. He's a big man. welch: He looks pretty American, doesn't he?
EMMA: I beg your pardon? welch: I mean-descent-hereditary-wise. Authentic! He looks authentic, is what I'm driving at. He could fool somebody.
EMMA: Fool? welch: Hard to tell from a distance, of course. Easy to make snap judgments. He could be one of those middle Europeans or something. Latvian maybe. Belarusian.
EMMA: I think you must have the wrong house or something. I don't know what in the world-
(WELCH suddenly moves very quickly across to the kitchen cupboards. EMMA just stands there, watching.)
welch: Would you mind if I borrow a saucer? I don't want to get crumbs all over your floor. I can see you run a very tight ship here.
(WELCH sets his case down on kitchen counter, opens cupboard, and takes out a white saucer. He places the cookie on it and notices the bacon on stove.)
WELCH: I've got it. (He turns off burner under skillet.)
EMMA: Thank you.
(EMMA stands still, in semishock. WELCH turns to her, still munching cookie. He surveys kitchen.)
WELCH: This is Wisconsin, isn't it? I'm not mistaken about that. I must have crossed the border by now. I'm sure of it. EMMA: Border?
WELCH: Wisconsin. The Wisconsin-Minnesota border.
EMMA: Oh-I thought you meant-
WELCH: I'm traveling from west to east.
EMMA: Oh-I see. Yes. This is.
WELCH: Yes. I was pretty sure of that. I was traveling from east to west before, but now I'm reversing. Like Lewis and Clark. You remember them?
WELCH: The Department keeps me on my toes.
WELCH: Yes. The Mighty Mississippi! You can tell as soon as you cross it that you're in a different domain, a new realm. The Heartland-isn't that what you call it up here? The "Heartland"?
EMMA: Dairyland, actually. "America's Dairyland." It's on the license plates.
WELCH: I noticed that.
EMMA: But it's all moved away.
WELCH: What has?
EMMA: The milk. The cows.
WELCH: But you've got cows down there.
EMMA: There's just a few of us left.
EMMA: Dairy-dairy people.
WELCH: Well, where'd they go? Where'd they move away to?
EMMA: Out west. Agribusiness. Big corporations.
EMMA: Look, if you'd like me to call my husband, I can just ring the bell and he'll come up.
(She moves toward door.)
WELCH: No! No need for that. I wouldn't want to take him away from his chores. Good to see a man carrying out simple, traditional farm chores these days, without complaint. Almost as a sense of duty. It would certainly cut down on our dependency for foreigners, wouldn't it?
WELCH: More men like your husband. Willing and able.
EMMA: What exactly do you want? What are you doing here?
WELCH: We're on a kind of a survey of sorts.
WELCH: Yes-a survey and a-search, let's say.
EMMA: Who's "we"?
WELCH: Well, I'm not really allowed to reveal my affiliations exactly. Let's just say we're on a kind of a talent search for solid citizens who own their own land outright. Are you sure you're not interested in a cookie?
EMMA: I'm positive.
WELCH: Plenty more in my attaché case.
WELCH: Suit yourself. We've targeted certain outlying areas we feel might have potential-
EMMA: Targeted? welch: Yes, that's right. This house, for instance-
EMMA: What? welch: Your house-the farm-
EMMA: It's not mine alone. It belongs to me and my husband. We're partners. welch: Of course you are. That's well understood. How many rooms?
EMMA: What? welch: In the house.
EMMA: Oh-five-with the den. I think. welch: Five?
EMMA: Yes. Why? welch: No basement?
EMMA: Well-yes. welch: Then six. With the basement.
EMMA: Well, if you want to call the basement a room. welch: What else would you call it?
EMMA: A basement. welch: Yes. Well, let's just say six then.
EMMA: With the basement? welch: That's right. Anyone down there?
EMMA: What? welch: In the basement. Anyone down there now in the basement?
EMMA: No-why would there be? welch: Well, it's not my house, Emma. How am I supposed to know who's down there in your basement or why they would be?
EMMA: There's nobody down in my basement and how do you know my name?
(WELCH moves toward basement stairs.)
welch: You're sure there's no one down there? Right now, as we speak?
EMMA: I would like you to leave, please! I would like you to get the heck out of my house! You're making me very nervous.
(WELCH stops abruptly, turns to her, and smiles.)
welch: Of course.
(WELCH goes quickly to counter, grabs his case, and heads for door. EMMA stops him.)
Wait a second. Do you have a card or something? Some kind of identification? A name?
(WELCH stops with his back to her.)
WELCH: I couldn't help noticing your flagpole out front.
WELCH: Your flagpole.
EMMA: What about it?
WELCH: (turning to her with a smile) It's empty. Barren. Just the raw wind slapping the naked ropes around. Sickening sound.
EMMA: So what?
WELCH: Well, Emma, this is Wisconsin, isn't it? I'm not in Bulgaria or Turkistan or somewhere lost in the Balkans. I'm in Wisconsin. Taxidermy and cheese! Part of the U.S. of A. You told me that yourself.
EMMA: What are you driving at?
WELCH: You'd think there would be a flag up or something to that effect. Some sign. Some indication of loyalty and pride.
EMMA: Loyalty? To Wisconsin?
WELCH: (pacing through room) Nothing in here either. Not even one small token in the home. No miniature Mount Rushmore, Statue of Liberty, no weeping bald eagles clutching arrows. Nothing like that. We could be anywhere.
EMMA: We're not anywhere.
WELCH: Well, you and I know that, Emma, but what about the rest of the world? What about the people driving by-the Everyday Joes? Wouldn't they like to look up here and be reminded of their proud heritage?
EMMA: I don't know about the rest of the world.
WELCH: What's that dripping sound?
WELCH: That dripping.
EMMA: Oh, I just watered the plants. They're dripping.
WELCH: I see. You have some sort of empathy with plants, I suppose?
EMMA: I like them, yes. Especially through the winter.
WELCH: I imagine it can get pretty grim out here in January.
EMMA: You have no idea.
(WELCH goes to couch, sets his case down on it, and pops it open.)
WELCH: Well, there are many ways to brighten a place up, Emma-we have a wide variety of patriotic paraphernalia available.
EMMA: I wish you wouldn't call me by my name. It's very confusing.
WELCH: Why is that?
EMMA: Well, it feels as though I should know you, but I don't know you.
WELCH: You could know me.
EMMA: I don't.
WELCH: You could get to know me.
EMMA: I don't want to get to know you!
WELCH: Just take a look at what we have here, Emma.
(He pulls out an accordion string of small American flags from his case and holds it up for EMMA.)
A starter kit of your basic grassroots flag and decal ensemble. Five ninety-five for the full set of six. Then, from there, you can move right on up to the Proud Patriot package for twelve fifty, which includes banners, whistles, parade equipment, fireworks-complete with a brand-new remixed CD of Pat Boone singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
From the Trade Paperback edition.