Visit to a Small Planet

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Editors: David M. Galens and Lynn M. Spampinato
Date: 1998
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 2. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 15
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Visit to a Small Planet

GORE VIDAL 1957

If a visitor from another galaxy happened to land on earth to observe the United States firsthand, what kind of impression would the country make on a complete stranger to die human race? This is the question posed in Gore Vidal’s Visit to a Small Planet, a comedy subtitled as A Comedy Akin to a Vaudeville. Originally presented as a television play in 1957 (it had a New York City stage premiere in the same year), the satirical play follows the exploits of Kreton, an alien who lands on Earth, hoping to catch a glimpse of the American Civil War only to find that “something went wrong with the machine”; he has landed in the Manassas, Virginia, of the mid-twentieth century, outside of the Spelding family’s home. Upon learning that it is not 1861, Kreton nevertheless decides to stay and observe human behavior: “You are my hobby,” he tells the Speldings, “and I am going native.”

Unlike film aliens such as E.T. or the creatures in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Kreton is no lovable Martian. Arrogant, selfish, and patronizing, he is determined to make his stay memorable by starting a full-scale war between the United States and die Soviet Union (die setting being the days of the Cold War, when trust between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. was distinctly lacking).“I admit I’m leaping into this on the spur of the moment,” he admits at the end of Act I, “but we’re going to have such good times!”

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Vidal’s play pokes fun at the post-World War II fear of Communism and the “Red-baiting” (Senator Joseph McCarthy’s house hearings on Un-American Activities) common in the late 1950s, as well as military paranoia and the rising importance of television in American life. Using Kreton as the satiric personification of America’s ugly underbelly, Vidal’s play employs a common science-fiction scenario to explore not alien but American life.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Describing himself as America’s “current biographer,” Vidal’s work has been widely applauded for its depth of satire and biting wit. Named Eugene Luther Vidal upon his birth—October 3, 1925—at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, Vidal grew up in an elite family, the son of an aeronautics instructor and the grandson of Oklahoma Senator Thomas P. Gore. As a child, he attended the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and enlisted in the Army upon his graduation in 1943. World War II proved to be the inspiration for his first novel, Williwaw (1946), a critically well-received look at a military transport ship during the war. His next novel, In a Yellow Wood (1947), was similarly received; it was the publication of The City and the Pillar (1948), however, that gained him his first taste of notoriety (due to the novel’s frank depiction of homosexuality). Although he was now a somewhat controversial figure, his next five novels were neither critical or financial bonanzas.

1964’ s Julian, however, helped Vidal gain new critical and popular success. The first of his many historical novels, Julian is the “autobiography” of the fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to abolish Christianity. Vidal’s method of mingling historical fact and his own brand of wry fiction became one of his trademarks: other historical novels such as Washington, D.C.(1967); Burr (1973); 1876 (1976); Lincoln (1984); Empire (1987); and Hollywood (1990) feature this fact plus fiction approach to exploring and satirizing contemporary issues. His 1992 novel, Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal, imagines the effects of television coverage of Christ’s crucifixion in order to satirize today’s media and press. In addition, Gore has written numerous plays, screenplays (including an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer), twelve books of


Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal

essays (such as 1992’s Screening History), and a series of mysteries under the pseudonym Edgar Box. He has also written a memoir, Palimpsest, which was published in 1995.

Vidal has always been interested in the connections between public and private life as well as the ways in which history is shaped by those whose motives seem (at best) questionable upon close examination. His outspoken manner and penetrating wit soon earned Vidal a status that goes beyond author. He is thought of as a social commentator, a celebrity as much as a writer. Although Visit to a Small Planet is not his most famous or critically favored work, it is representative of Vidal’s wit and desire to satirize American political, sexual, and social life.

PLOT SUMMARY

Act I

Visit to a Small Planet opens with a view of television news commentator Roger Spelding’s comfortably middle-class home near Manassas, Virginia. General Tom Powers, a friend of Roger’s, is explaining to him that an Unidentified Flying Object Page 256  |  Top of Article(UFO) has, for the last twelve hours, been spotted hovering over the Spelding’s home. When Roger dismisses the idea, Powers convinces him to look outside—which he does, seeing the craft. Roger, who was planning to announce to a television audience that UFOs do not exist, panics and asks Powers for permission to break the story. The general refuses, stating that this information is “classified.”

Ellen, Roger’s nineteen year-old daughter, men appears on the terrace with her boyfriend Conrad Mayberry, whom Roger dismisses as “the boy farmer. “She and Conrad discuss their plans for the future; these plans are interrupted, however, when the UFO lands outside the house. The hatch opens and Kreton, the visitor from outer space, enters the room. He looks very human, sporting side-whiskers and the garb of an 1860s gentleman. Kreton asks the Speldings to take him to General Robert E. Lee. After some confusion, Kreton explains that he has been studying the inhabitants of Earth as a “hobby”; he hoped to see the Civil War Battle of Bull Run. He soon realizes, however, that he must have set the wrong coordinates for his time-traveling spacecraft. Invited by Roger (who hopes to interview him on his television show) to come inside, Kreton accepts, thrilled with the prospect of seeing “a real house.”

General Powers returns with an aide and in Roger’s study begins questioning Kreton. We learn that Kreton is not only from another planet but from another dimension, one where its inhabitants do not die and have the power to read minds—a power that Kreton demonstrates on the general. After being ordered by Powers to search Kreton’s ship, the aide returns, explaining that the door has been shut and that there has been “some kind of invisible wall” constructed around it. When asked by Powers how he managed to create this force field, Kreton dryly responds, “I don’t think I could ever explain it to you.” Powers then announces that no one present is allowed to leave the house. The general presses his investigation of Kreton, speculating that he “has been sent here by another civilization for the express purpose of reconnoitering prior to invasion.” Kreton denies that he has been “sent here” by anybody—but then explains that he intends to “take charge” of the entire world. When Powers attempts to arrest him, Kreton surrounds himself with another invisible force-field. The curtain closes as the audience hears all of the characters’ thoughts and Kreton saying,“Tomorrow will be a wonderful day for all of us. Sleep tight!”

Act II, Scene 1

The next morning Kreton is found in the living room examining a globe and talking to Rosemary, the Speldings’ cat, whose thoughts he can also read and understand. Roger has left for Washington with General Powers, Reba (Roger’s wife) has received permission to go shopping and Conrad is still asleep upstairs. Ellen brings Kreton his breakfast, which he refuses because he never eats. He also tells Ellen that the inhabitants of his world have given up reproducing, since they never die. Finally, he explains that after they “wiped out” diseases such as scarlet fever, mumps, and the common cold, the inhabitants of his planet rid themselves of “the ultimate disease:” passion. As a result, Kreton explains “We feel nothing. We do nothing. We are perfect.” Ellen learns that this lack of passion or any strong emotion is what initially led Kreton to travel to earth and escape his dull commander, Delton 4.

Ellen and Kreton grow friendlier, and Ellen convinces the alien to give her a lesson in the mind-tricks that he has been using throughout the play. Eventually, she is able to levitate a vase over the fireplace mantle for a few seconds, much to the surprise of Conrad, who watches in awe. Kreton next begins thinking about how he will take over the planet, deciding against “drying up one of the smaller oceans” or “monkeying around with the moon” in favor of a more subtle trick. At that moment, the audience sees the aide (who is stationed on the porch) watch in disbelief as his rifle leaps from his hands into the air. Kreton explains that he has just made all of the rifles in the world levitate for fifteen seconds.

General Powers returns and tells Kreton that he has been recently “classified as a weapon” and that the United States government expects him to furnish “a comprehensive list” of his “various mental powers.” Roger enters with the alarming news that “at eleven twenty-six this morning every rifle in the Free World was raised fifteen feet in the air and the lowered again.” Never considering the possibility that this was one of Kreton’s tricks, Roger concludes, “It’s the Russians, obviously.” Kreton then explains the real purpose of his latest trick to the cat: “Well, I do believe I have started a war. . . . After all, that’s what I came down here to see!”

Act II, Scene 2

Roger delivers a newscast from his study, interviewing General Powers, who tells the viewing

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An illustration from the original production

An illustration from the original production

audience that “it doesn’t look good.” Upstairs, Kreton enjoys his first bath while Roger informs Conrad—an avowed pacifist who hates all forms of war—that he should enlist in the Army. Conrad refuses and asks Ellen to marry him, but she refuses on the grounds that Conrad lacks “drive.” Kreton comes downstairs, wearing full Confederate Army garb, and begins testing Conrad’s pacifism by singing a series of patriotic songs. Conrad remains unmoved. As a last resort to incite Conrad’s “primitive” urge to fight, Kreton broadcasts the mind of Powers’s aide as he looks at Ellen; when Conrad hears these thoughts that refer to Ellen as “the babe with the crazy build,” he attacks the aide and Kreton watches the fistfight, delighted. Ellen is also impressed and agrees to marry Conrad because of this display of love. As the young lovers exit, Powers enters and is told by Kreton that he has (again using the powers of his mind) “arranged a sneak attack” of United States bombers on Russia. In exactly forty-seven minutes, the world will reach “zero hour.”

Act III

It is a half-hour later, and Kreton has transformed the Speldings’ living room into a command center, using toy planes and soldiers to simulate the upcoming destruction. Powers reports that the Russian military is “completely mobilized” and enjoys a last drink with Kreton. Conrad and Ellen beg Kreton to stop the upcoming war, but Kreton explains that “war is not only fun,” but “creative,” since so many of humanity’s great inventions were made during wartime. Ellen then tricks Kreton into telling her how he would contact his leader, Delton 4, if he so needed; Kreton’s answer, “concentration,” inspires her to attempt a “mind-trick” similar to the one she performed in Act II. As the cast rushes about the stage, Ellen sits on the sofa repeating, “Delton 4 . . . Delton 4 . . . Delton 4,” until Kreton’s leader arrives in answer to this call. Dressed in a suave morning suit, Delton 4 thanks Ellen for the warning and explains that Kreton “is a rarity” among those of his planet, for “he is morally retarded and, like a child, regards this world as his plaything.” He also tells the cast that Kreton had “escaped from his nursery” and that he will take him back home. Kreton says goodbye, remarking that he actually envies earthlings for “being so violent. . . so loving . . . so beautifully imperfect” and “so much happier” than they realize. Once the aliens leave, time shifts back to the exact moment before Kreton arrived, leaving the characters with no memory whatsoever of the events that have just taken place.

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CHARACTERS

Delton 4

A leader of Kreton’s unidentified home planet, Delton 4 is an alien who enters the play at the end, after he is summoned by Ellen Spelding. He explains that Kreton is “morally retarded” and “was able to escape from his nursery.” He apologizes for Kreton’s actions and takes him home.

Kreton (kree-tahn)

Arriving on Earth from a distant planet in another dimension, Kreton is the “visitor” alluded to in the play’s title. Like others who inhabit his home planet, Kreton never needs to eat, is immortal, and never has sex—immortality has negated the need for reproduction, and their culture has eliminated passion (sex for pleasure) as a societal evil. Through the powers of his mind, he is able to read the thoughts of others, create invisible force-fields, and cause objects to levitate. Kreton arrives hoping to witness a Civil War battle, but because of a navigational error, he lands in 1957. He invades the home of Roger Spelding and shows a great interest in the day-to-day lives of earthlings, calling them his “hobby.” In order to create some excitement for himself, Kreton plays a prank that, he is sure, will cause a worldwide nuclear war. He sees the earth as a playground and hopes that a war will allow him to see the ways that “primitive” humans behave. As a character, he is a curious mix of super intellectual and wide-eyed child.

Conrad Maybery

Ellen’s boyfriend, Conrad, is a mild-mannered young farmer. A pacifist (who resents all forms of war), Conrad contrasts the political views of both Roger Spelding and General Powers. One of the play’s comic scenes features Kreton attempting to provoke feelings of agression within Conrad—which he eventually does, with a soldier whose thoughts about Ellen are broadcast by Kreton. Vidal uses Conrad to lampoon those who conveniently use pacifism as an excuse for their lack of direction and laziness.

General Tom Powers

General Powers is the Army commander assigned to investigate the spacecraft seen hovering over the Speldings’ home. Complaining that he doesn’t want this assignment and would rather return to his “Laundry Project” (where he oversees the washing and drying of the military’s uniforms), Powers suspects that Kreton may be a “hostile alien” who has been sent by a “foreign power” to begin an invasion of the United States. His character is frequently used by Vidal to poke fun at paranoid military attitudes, officious bureaucrats, and the prevalent fear of Communism found in 1950s America.

Ellen Spelding

Ellen is Roger’s daughter, a bored college student who wishes for the opportunity to do “something important” like “save the world.” She convinces Kreton to teach her how to perform some of the “tricks” with her mind that he can do, and she eventually uses these skills to contact Kreton’s superior, Delton 4, and halt the war that Kreton has planned. She also focuses her romantic attentions on Conrad, a local farmer of whom her father disapproves. Ellen is the embodiment of youthful optimism and idealism. She is the only character that Vidal abstains from making look foolish.

Reba Spelding

Reba is Roger’s wife and Ellen’s mother. Her biggest concern in the play is that fact that Kreton’s spacecraft has landed in her rose garden. In Reba, Vidal is making fun of the 1950s ideal of the perfect housewife, a domestic-minded woman obsessed with presenting the perfect image embodied by everything from her delicious apple pie to her beautiful, well-behaved children.

Roger Spelding

A news commentator who believes that UFOs do not exist, Roger’s opinions are immediately reversed when his home is visited by an alien from another dimension. He is constantly thinking about the possible ratings his television show will receive when he “breaks” the story of Kreton’s visit. When not thinking about his own potential fame, Roger is found scolding Ellen, his daughter, for her choice of a boyfriend. Roger represents the growing role that television has in American society. Already by the 1950s, television had become an important source of information, bestowing considerable status and power on those who controlled it. This explains Roger’s eagerness to interview Kreton; his first instinct is not to protect his family from possible harm but to secure the television rights to the alien visitation.

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THEMES

Politics

The plot of Visit to a Small Planet concerns Kreton, an alien visitor, who invades a middle-class home in 1957 America. After he announces his plans to engage the world in a full-scale war for his own entertainment, the characters respond to this threat in ways that reveal their political ideas and ideals. Kreton has used his powers of mind to levitate all of the rifles in the world for fifteen seconds and both General Powers and Roger Spelding assume the Russian Army is behind the stunt. Roger explains to his television audience that the Russians have “launched a new anti-gravity force which suspended all the rifles in the free world some fifty feet off the ground.” He continues by stating, “late this afternoon . . . Moscow, in an obvious move to avert suspicion, accused the United States of lifting all the rifles in the Communist world one hundred seven feet off the ground.” Later, Powers asks Kreton if the United States can officially announce his arrival, for they would like him (and themselves) to “get the best possible break, publicity-wise.” These are only some of the ways in which Vidal mocks the United States/Soviet rivalry as well as the then-prevalent American fear of Communism.

Earlier examples of political paranoia occur when Kreton is interviewed by Powers. He tells the alien, “you’ll die if it turns out you’re a spy or a hostile alien or something like that” and that he suspects Kreton to be “sent here by an alien race to study us, preparatory to invasion.” Kreton, however, is above such trivial concerns as land acquisition, and his cool indifference to Powers exacerbates the General’s rage. Later, Powers informs Kreton that he has been “classified as a weapon” and that the Pentagon expects a detailed list of his “powers.” Visit to a Small Planet satirizes politics, revealing the insincerety of its highest ranking officials. Vidal presents politics as little more than a forum for ego-satisfaction and personal gain. Ultimately, Vidal’s play invites viewers to notice the fear and suspicion that play such a large role in modern politics while also highlighting what he seems to see as a contradiction in the phrase, “military intelligence.”

Patriotism

Closely connected to Vidal’s political issues is his examination of patriotism. While author Samuel Johnson once defined patriotism as “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” Visit to a Small Planet shows how different people define “love of one’s country.”

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MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • Visit to a Small Planet was adapted as a film by Edmund Beloin and Henry Garson, with Jerry Lewis as Kreton. Released by Paramount in 1960. Available on video.

When he first suspects Kreton of being the representative of a foreign country, General Powers attempts to display his patriotism by telling him,“if your people are thinking of an invasion they should know that we’re ready for them. We’ll fight them with everything we’ve got. We’ll fight them with the hydrogen bomb, with poison gas, with broken beer bottles if necessary. We’ll fight them on the beaches; we’ll fight them in the alleys.” Powers equates “patriotism” with military might and assumes that his definition of the term—and his fervid devotion to American—will intimidate Kreton.

After Kreton’s threat of war becomes more of a possibility, Roger tells Conrad that he should enlist in the Army; Conrad, however, refuses because he “doesn’t want to fight anybody.” His pacifism directly opposes General Powers’s display of “rough and ready” American spirit. This shocks Kreton, who asks, “Do you love your country?” When Conrad says that he does, Kreton’s response shows his own understanding of American patriotism: “Then don’t you want to slaughter its enemies?” After Conrad shakes his head, Kreton states,“that’s the wrong answer. That is not a proper mid-twentieth century sentiment.” Vidal is using Kreton as a way to illustrate Conrad’s pacifism and suggest that not all patriots and “good Americans” equate “loving one’s country” with a desire to “slaughter its enemies.” Kreton begins singing old military songs in order to stir patriotic emotions within Conrad; when these fail, he begins evoking names from popular legend and entertainment: “Davy Crockett stood by his guns! Remember the Alamo! Remember the Maine! Remember Errol Flynn on the Burma Road!” However, none of these have any effect. Conrad’s attitude towards war is meant

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Vidal’ s subtitle for the play is A Comedy Akin to a Vaudeville. Locate sources that describe what vaudeville theater was like and explain how the play resembles this faded American theatrical form.
  • Research the McCarthy trials and the impact they had on American life. Compare and contrast your findings with the way that Vidal presents the fear of Communism in his play.
  • The nuclear war that Kreton almost causes can be compared to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, a nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Research this topic and compare the role that then President John F. Kennedy played in averting this disaster.
  • Research the history of American television and explain what major changes in broadcasting took place in the 1950s.

to be seen as a more reasonable form of patriotism than that offered by General Powers. Kreton’s inability to understand Conrad’s ideas shows the alien’s simplistic view of what patriotism entails.

Sex

A subplot of the play involves Conrad and Ellen’s love affair. When the play begins, they are planning to check into a hotel under the names “Mr. and Mrs. Ollinger”; they have even filled a suitcase with old telephone books and plan on telling Roger that they are “going to the movies.” Their furtive sexual scheming is mocked by Kreton, who tells them that, on his planet, sex does not exist, since they have rid themselves of all forms of passion. Throughout the play, Vidal explores American attitudes toward sex by having Kreton attempt to discover why Americans make such a fuss over it. When he asks Ellen if he can watch (for scientific purposes) her “tangle” with another man and is informed by her that his request is “disgusting,” the mind-reading alien responds, “but . . . but it’s on your minds so much I simply assumed it was all quite public.” Ellen explains that, in America, “we do think an awful lot about sex, but we’re not supposed to talk about it and we only do it when nobody’s looking.” This attitude toward even the mention of sex is questioned by both Vidal and Kreton, who remarks,“these primitive taboos. You revel in public slaughter, you pay to watch two men hit each other repeatedly, yet you make love secretly, guiltily and with remorse.” This conversation is one in which the audience is invited to question what Vidal sees as a contemporary contradiction: talking about violence is perfectly acceptable and decent, while sex is a forbidden topic and is reduced to a “primitive taboo.”

STYLE

Satire

“Satire” is any work of art that uses ridicule, humor, and wit in order to criticize and provoke change in human nature or social institutions; satire can be found anywhere from Shakespeare {Measure for Measure) to an editorial newspaper cartoon. Vidal is widely known as a satirical writer, and Visit to a Small Planet is a work that strengthens such a reputation: when Kreton, an alien visitor, invades a middle-class Virginia home, the characters react to him in ways that showcase their fears and frustrations with their own lives. The play examines (and pokes fun at) contemporary ideas about war, the fear of “foreign” invasion, and attitudes toward sex. Vidal ridicules military bureaucracy and paranoia through General Powers, the influence of television on American life with Roger Spelding, and, in general, the irrational, “primitive” impulses that often govern our lives. Through the eyes of Kreton, an alien with little understanding of American life, Vidal is able to offer his viewers an “objective look” at our society and attitudes—as well as a commentary on how odd (or even silly) these ideas and attitudes may be.

Setting

Rather than offer his audience a play about aliens that occurs on another planet, Vidal offers his viewers a look at how we would seem “alien” to an extraterrestrial visitor. To accomplish this, Vidal sets his play in a modest, middle-class home, allowing Kreton, the alien, to see a “typical” American family whose concerns are television, college, sex, marriage, and patriotism. Doing so emphasizes Page 261  |  Top of Articlehow odd many Americans would seem to a “visitor” unaccustomed to our quirks, values, and everyday way of life.

Stereotype

One of Vidal’s most prominent satirical targets here is the United States military (and in a larger sense, that American government) and the way that it approaches any form of alien (or foreign) life. In drama, a “stereotype” character is an exaggeration of a certain type of person, such as the lovelorn poet, the disaffected teenager, or the dorky nerd with tape holding his glasses together. General Powers is a stereotype of the American military commander, and Vidal forms this stereotype with a variety of traits. For example, the play begins with him complaining to Roger Spelding that he has been assigned to investigate the appearance of Kreton’s spaceship: “Strat-Air tosses it to Major General Spotty McClelland (he’s Com Air Int now) who lobs it straight at me so by the time I get back from luncheon I find I’ve been TD’d C.O.S. Priority 1-A the hell and bloody UFO deal dumped right in my lap.” The General’s use of so many acronyms and jargon-laden speech parodies the language employed by the military. Adding to this stereotype is the General’s complete fear and suspicion of anyone foreign. At first suspecting Kreton of being “a spy sent here by an alien race,” the General eventually accepts the fact that Kreton is from another planet, but not before he tells him that the Pentagon has “classified him as a weapon” because he can create force fields that will “put radar out of business.” The General’s inability to see Kreton as anything except a possible weapon to be used against enemies of the United States marks him as a stereotype of one-track military minds.

To a certain extent the other characters, with the exception of Ellen, represent stereotypes as well. Roger is a typical broadcaster, more interested in the next “big story” that will elevate his status than he is with the welfare of his family. Likewise, his wife, Reba, is more concerned with the family’s outward appearance and how others in the neighborhood will perceive them (her worries that Kreton may have trampled her garden when he landed) than any real threat to their lives. Reba is a stereotype of the unrealistic 1950s housewife ideal—like June Cleaver on the Leave It to Beaver television series—a woman who cooks, cleans, and gardens, yet still looks fresh as a daisy twenty-four hours a day. While Vidal sympathizes more with his views than the other characters, Conrad is still the butt of many jokes about unmotivated young men who halfheartedly fly the flag of pacifism.

Black Humor

“Black humor” refers to comedy created by means not usually regarded as proper subjects for laughter. For example, although Visit to a Small Planet is a comedy, the plot concerns an impending nuclear war and the destruction of the entire world for one person’s amusement. Although this seems like an odd subject for a series of jokes, Vidal uses the characters’ reactions to this event to satirize modern attitudes towards warfare and violence. Vidal’s play seems to suggest that any objective visitor to our nation would find many of our ideas and actions ludicrous and, therefore, funny. By using a “typical American family,” Vidal also turns the mirror to the audience, letting them see how ridiculous they might act in a similar situation.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

McCarthyism and American Life

The mid-1950s marked the height of Americas” ‘Red Scare”—a widespread fear of Communism that reached its peak in the investigations of the House Un-American Activities hearings, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (a Republican from Wisconsin). In 1950, McCarthy advised President Harry Truman that the State Department was staffed with many Communists and Communist sympathizers. In addition, he suspected that a great number of Communists were working in fields that might influence public opinion, including the film and television industries. In the following years, McCarthy performed what was often called a “witch hunt” to prove the degree to which he felt Communists had infiltrated levels of American society. His hearings grew into popular, televised events where he and others would “Red-Bait” the accused; many entertainers and writers found themselves “blacklisted” (refused employment) either for their often inconsequential Communist affiliations or for refusing to cooperate with what they saw as McCarthy’s unconstitutional methods. Events such as the Soviet Union’s 1956 invasion of Hungary served to fan McCarthy’s fire. McCarthy died in 1957 but not before receiving the formal censure of the United States Senate for his hearings on alleged subversion in the U.S. Army.

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COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1950s: American fear of Communism increases, spurred by the U.S.S.R.’s signing of a 30-year pact with Communist China (in 1950), North Korea’s invasion of South Korea (1950), the passing of the McCarran Act which calls for severe restrictions against allowing Communists into the United States or of immigrants who have belonged to totalitarian organizations (1950), and the mid-decade McCarthy hearings that attempt to uncover Communist infiltration in all levels of American society.
    Today: Communism has ceased to be viable world power. The former Soviet Communist empire is now broken into smaller nations, each with its own form of government. The Communist-controlled state of East Germany faded with the reunification of East and West Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall. China remains the only large country to still employ Communist principles.
  • 1950s: Nuclear power rises as both a global and national concern; the United States tests the Hydrogen bomb in 1952 and electric power is first created by atomic means in 1955.
    Today: Although the threat of nuclear devastation has been somewhat allayed by the breakdown of the Soviet Union, many politicians and leaders still call for increased disarmament. Nuclear power has become more a part of American life, despite a horrible 1979 scare at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania and, in 1986, the world’s worst nuclear accident at the Chernobyl Power Station (in the Soviet Union), where 133,000 are evacuated and clouds of fallout affect all Europe.
  • 1950s: Science-fiction becomes a popular (although somewhat critically dismissed) art form: initially sparked by Orson Welles’s 1938 radio production of H. G. Wells The War of the Worlds, which caused considerable panic, American interest in extraterrestrial life is found in Ray Bradbury’s successful collection of stories, The Martian Chronicles.
    Today: Science-fiction is an established genre for many writers and filmmakers: novelists such as the late Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke are popular favorites; films such as E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and the re-release of the Star Wars trilogy break box-office records; The X-Files, a television show about FBI agents investigating alien and other unexplained activity on earth, becomes a highly-rated and critically-successful series (ironically, the show plays upon paranoia and suspicion of government conspiracy—elements prevalent in the red-baiting 1950s).
  • 1950s: Television becomes a major force in American political and social life: in 1955, there are 33.5 million television sets in American homes. In 1957, NBC presents the first videotaped national broadcast: the Eisenhower/Nixon inauguration.
    Today: By 1995, there are 95.9 million television sets in American homes; cable TV and satellite dishes are offering greater services, choice of programming and access to worldwide news. The American public has become more and more demanding about the immediacy of their information. Live events such as the O. J. Simpson murder trial are watched by millions worldwide.

Like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), Visit to a Small Planet attacks (although in a more comic vein) this prominent fear of Communism. On his newscast announcing the impending war with the Soviet Union, Roger Spelding warns, “[Soviet Premier] Nikita Krushchev and his gang” that “Moth-er-and-Father-America are ready.” General Powers suspects Kreton of being an “alien spy” sent to the United States to “reconnoiter preparatory to invasion”; his fear of Kreton’s origins is a metaphorical Page 263  |  Top of Articlelook at the red-baiting occurring in the McCarthy hearings. The characters’ overall paranoia provoked by Kreton’s visit reflects the prominent fear of Communist invasion found in 1950s America, described by Kreton as “the wonderfully primitive assumption that all strangers are hostile.”

Nuclear Weapons and Warfare

While nuclear power is now a part of contemporary American life, such was not always the case. Electric power was first produced from atomic energy in Idaho in 1951 and the first United States hydrogen bomb was exploded, at Edniwetok Atoll in the Pacific, in 1952. At this point, nuclear power was something strange and frightening to many Americans; however, atomically generated power was first used in the United States (in Schenectady, New York) in 1955. A growing concern over what nations possessed the knowledge and resources necessary for creating “the bomb” became a routine topic for newscasters, writers, and citizens. Underground “bomb shelters” were also being sold to American homeowners who wanted to avoid the dangers of a possible atomic attack.

Visit to a Small Planet reflects the growing American concern over the possibly of nuclear war. When Kreton’s initial attempt at triggering a global war succeeds, General Powers warns him that the Russians “got the bomb, too,” to which Kreton replies,“Oh, I hope so!” His attitude toward atomic warfare as “exciting” and a cause for delight contrasts the terror of such an event taking place in the 1950s. Even more indicative of this fear is the way that Kreton begins the war: by causing every rifle in the world to levitate for a few seconds, Kreton plays a prank that causes the two major world powers to prepare for war. The idea of a war being started over such a “minor” event reflects the popular idea of “the button,” which would, in the imagination of many Americans, be pressed by a mad foreign leader for an insignificant reason. The fear being that the fate of millions lies in the hands of one or two men’s hands.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Visit to a Small Planet was originally written as a television script; its success in this medium convinced Vidal that it could be reworked for the stage. The play premiered on Broadway in 1957 to critical and commercial success. Brooks Atkinson, writing for the New York Times, wrote that, “as a writer of comedy, Gore Vidal is foolish and funny.” Atkinson called the play “uproarious.” He also noted the fact that, although Vidal had to make his television script longer for the stage, “the padding does not show,” for Vidal “makes us look ridiculous in a low comedy carnival that has its own insane logic and never runs out of ideas.” Atkinson concluded his review by remarking that Visit to a Small Planet is “a topsy-turvy lark that has a lot of humorous vitality. The tone is low; the entertainment highly enjoyable.”

After its New York success, the play was made into a film starring Jerry Lewis as Kreton, the alien visitor. However, acclaim for the film was not sung as loudly as before. Writing for the New York Times, Howard Thompson stated that while he viewed the play as “fairly contrived stuff, cleverly turned on one obvious, running gag,” the film version falls below the play for several reasons. The first is Lewis himself, who offers only “business as usual, the Lewis way.” Complaining that Lewis lacked the talent to fill Kreton’s role, Thompson writes that, “Mr. Vidal’s brightest idea of all—that the visitor is a highly civilized bird, curious about us bumbling earthlings—is cut right down to Lewis size.” A second reason for the film’s failure is that General Powers, “the target of the playwright’s devastating cracks about Pentagon static,” has been removed entirely from the film.

The film’s lack of success, however, did not hurt Vidal’s reputation (the fact that he did not write the screenplay also helped him escape critical censure). In fact, praise of his wit has been something to which the versatile writer has grown accustomed throughout his career. Called “a scathing critic of every aspect of American life,” (according to Magill’s Survey of American Literature) and a writer whose work is described in The Cambridge Handbook of American Literature as both “tart” and “penetrating,” Vidal has enjoyed a great amount of success and time in the literary spotlight. He is routinely praised for his “outspokenness in satirizing social mores and institutions,” whether this satire arises in his plays, novels or essays. While not categorized as a major American playwright, Vidal is certainly regarded as a major American literary figure who, for forty years, has produced a body of work that is noted for its sheer volume, breadth of topics and genres it covers, and the lively critical discussions that it has engendered. While Visit to a Small Planet never received the acclaim or amount of criticism that his historical novels or essays on Page 264  |  Top of ArticleAmerican history have, it nonetheless stands as a representative example of Vidal’s satirical mind and desire to uncover the attitudes and assumptions of Americans.

CRITICISM

Daniel Moron

Moran is an author and educator. His essay discusses Vidal’s facility with satire.

Gore Vidal once labeled himself America’s “current biographer,” and Visit to a Small Planet can certainly be read and enjoyed as a satirical chapter in the political and cultural biography of the United States. Satire creates its effects by mocking human behaviors and assumptions in an effort to raise a reader or viewer’s awareness of what the satirist sees as their foolishness. The satire of this play hits many “targets,” such as American attitudes toward sex, military incompetence, bureaucracy, and paranoia. It also pokes fun at the fear of “Communist infiltration” and slogan-spouting patriotism. By using an alien visitor, Vidal is able to provide a “fresh look” at what he sees as modern American issues that deserve our examination. The play’s humor derives largely from its suggestion that any such objective look at Americans would reveal them to be very silly people,“absolutely” as Kreton, the alien, observes, “wallowing in the twentieth century.”

The play’s opening scene immediately establishes its satirical tone. General Powers is complaining about his position to Roger Spelding, and his fear that other military staff members “mean to destroy” his career: he speaks of Lieutenant General Claypoole’s assigning him the investigation of a possible UFO because it is “too hot” for him to handle. He sees himself as “the innocent victim of conspiracy and intrigue” because “Claypoole has been trying to get [his] corner office with the three windows and the big waiting room.” Powers would rather spend his time on what he sees as the Army’s more “important” work—the new “Powers Mobile Laundry Unit-K” project. This is Powers’s chief concern, and the earnestness with which he describes it reveals the Army’s love of bureaucracy and emphasis on seemingly unimportant matters: “Lot of big decisions to make in that area: kind of soap to use, things like that. Decided finally on snow-chip flakes. Fine lather. Good detergent. Doesn’t harm the fabric and has bluing already built in.” The silliness of Powers’s concerns are heightened when, fearing that the United States will go to war with the U.S.S.R., he states, “if there’s one thing that destroys an army’s morale and discipline, it is a major war” because the soldiers “lose more damned sheets and pillowcases.” To General Powers, no fate is worse than discovering that “your laundry’s a wreck”; to the audience, his “militarization” of the laundry is seen as a satirical jab at the concerns of military leaders.

A second theme raised in the opening conversation is the value that we inhabitants of this “small planet” place on television and the publicity it can create. When he hears of Powers’s investigation, Roger (a newscaster) begs him for permission to “break the story,” which Powers refuses due to the “Revised Espionage Act.” However, Roger is not the only character concerned with his public image. Later in the play, Powers tells Kreton that the United States would like to “announce [his] arrival ourselves” in order to “get the best possible break, publicity-wise.” Roger, too, tells Kreton that he “would certainly like to interview” him on television while he’s “down here”; his news ratings are more important to him than the fact that his own home has become the site for an extra-terrestrial visitation—or that this visitor wants to watch humankind destroy itself. The most obvious mockery of the way that television operates is when Roger begins his broadcast—in which he plans to announce the impending war between the world’ stwosuperpowers—with “Mother-and-Father America, have you had your milk today? Pour yourself a glass of Cloverdale, the milkier milk” and then segues into the topic at hand with, “and what sort of a day has it been? Well, it’s been quite a day. Not since those dark hours before Munich has the free world been so close to the precipice of total war.” The banality with which Roger speaks of possible atomic destruction is an exaggeration of the way in which modern newscasters speak of two completely different topics (such as milk and nuclear war) in the same breath and with the same gravity (“A fire killed several hundred people today . . . and here are tonight’s winning lottery numbers!”). After interviewing Powers (who chuckles and admits that “it doesn’t look good”), Roger concludes his broadcast as he began it: after describing the upcoming war as a test of “the morale of a free people,” he smoothly asks, “Mother-and-Father-America, have you had your milk today?” Clearly,

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WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible presents the chaos of a Salem witch trial as a way to explore the effects of McCarthyism on the lives of Americans.
  • Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s suspense novel, Fail-Safe, was an incredible success when published, largely because of its theoretical look at what would happen if an accident caused six American atomic bombers to attack the U.S.S.R. without the chance of being recalled.
  • Julian is Vidal’s 1965 novel that made him a celebrity. This is the first of his historical fiction works; in it, readers follow the exploits of the fourth-century Roman Emperor who tried to abolish Christianity.
  • Vidal’s “Washington D.C.(1967) is a historical novel that spans the eras of the New Deal and McCarthyism.
  • The Best Man: A Play of Politics is Vidal’s 1960 play (revised in 1977) that looks at a campaign race for political office and those affected by it.
  • Live from Golgotha, Vidal’s 1992 satire of the television industry in which he imagines modern “coverage” of Christ’s crucifixion.
  • Rita Kleinfelder’s When We Were Young: A Baby Boomer Yearbook (1993) contains interesting information about the political, social, and cultural lives of mid-twentieth-century Americans.
  • Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television (1995) presents the history of the medium in a conversational, easy-to-follow format.
  • Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel, offers (like Visit to a Small Planet) a top-down satirical look at American politics, government, and sexual mores.

no disaster can supersede or displace the truly powerful force of American advertising.

Despite these jokes and jabs, it is Kreton, the visitor, who supplies most of the play’s satirical attacks. Dressed in the outfit of an 1860s gentleman, he enters the play hoping to witness the Civil War’s Battle of Bull Run but instead sees something more amazing: an everyday American family. Explaining that, in terms of his own planet’s evolution, civilization on earth is “just beginning,” Kreton decides to “go native” and study the “primitive” earthlings. His first observation is one that highlights the pettiness that makes up so much human interaction: “I expected to hear everybody talking about great events: battles, poets, that kind of thing, but of course you don’t. You just squabble among yourselves.” More “squabbling” ensues when Kreton attempts to learn about sex: when he is told by Ellen that his scientific interest in seeing her make love to Conrad is “disgusting,” the mind-reading alien responds, “oh? But . . . but it’s on your minds so much I simply assumed it was all quite public.” Ellen explains that earthlings are very private about their sexuality and Kreton’s response, “you pay to watch two men hit one another repeatedly, yet you make love secretly, guiltily and with remorse,” illustrates the apparent contradiction in American morality: violence is a perfectly acceptable topic (and even a form of entertainment) but sexuality (and the act of human creation) is a “primitive taboo.” Like General Powers’s emphasis on the Laundry project, Vidal is again highlighting what he sees as an odd distribution of values.

The values of Conrad, Ellen’s boyfriend and a confirmed pacifist, are also placed under scrutiny. One of Vidal’s “set-pieces” in the play is Kreton’s attempt to evoke Conrad’s “primitive” side through the mention of patriotic slogans and the singing of patriotic songs; he believes that “all primitives can be lashed to fever-pitch by selected major chords” Page 266  |  Top of Articleand that even a “peace-loving man who grows English walnuts” can be made to embrace the idea of total war. Kreton begins by singing a few verses of “There’s No Place Like Home”; when this fails, he switches to “Yankee Doodle,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and the World War II andiem, “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer.” Vidal’s satire here is aimed against the “patriotism” found in such songs, which, when sung by the alien, seem hollow and silly: as the unmoved Conrad says after Kreton tells him, “it’s for Mother,” “Then let Mother go fight.” However, Kreton does discover a way to incite Conrad: by broadcasting the thoughts of a soldier guarding the house—who desires Ellen—Conrad starts a fistfight which Kreton finds thrilling. Conrad is then characterized by Kreton as “a pacifist with a hard right, a stealthy left jab and a sly knee to the groin.” Even the most staunch pacifist can display “blood lust,” and the human tendency to resort to violence (described by Kreton as “complete reversion to type”) is offered to the audience as a topic worthy of mockery and humor.

Despite his apparent perfection, however, Kreton possesses a major fault that serves as Vidal’s final word on the play’s issues. When talking to Ellen, Kreton says that, on his planet, the inhabitants can control time with their minds, communicate tele-pathically, and have rid themselves of every disease (including the common cold). But they have also wiped out “the great killer itself: passion,” in an effort to eradicate “love-nest slayings, bad temper” and “world wars.” The effects of this destruction of passion are described in Kreton’s remark, “and now . . . we feel noming. We do nothing. We are perfect.” Perfect as they may seem, the inhabitants of Kreton’s planet also find life “terribly dull”—which inspires Kreton to travel to earth and begin a world war in the first place. In one of his conversations with Rosemary, the Speldings’s cat, Kreton explains that he “dotes on people” because of their “primitive addiction to violence” and “because they seethe with emotions” which he finds “bracing and intoxicating.” His desire to “wallow shamelessly in their steaming emotions” reveals Vidal’s attitude toward his characters and their values: despite the fact that they may behave in ridiculous ways and engage in irrational fighting, at least human beings have emotional lives that, at the very least, make life interesting. At the end of the play when Kreton is retrieved by his superior, Delton 4, he tells the Speldings, “oh, how I envy you. . . . For being so violent . . . so loving . . . so beautifully imperfect. And so much happier than you know.” Even a “Laundry Project” coordinator or a bumbling broadcaster has a more fulfilling existence than the most “perfect” of aliens. Despite all of the jokes at humanity’s expense, it is Vidal’s fondness for humanity as a whole that prevents the satire from ever becoming too bitter or the faults he points out from being seen as irredeemable.

Source: Daniel Moran, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Wolcott Gibbs

In the following review, New Yorker drama critic Gibbs offers a mild endorsement for the expanded stage production of Vidal ‘s television play.

[Text Not Available]

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[Text Not Available]

Source: Wolcott Gibbs, “Out of Nowhere” in the New Yorker, Vol. 32, no. 52, February 16, 1957.

Jack Gould

In the following review of the original television broadcast of Visit to a Small Planet, Gould offers a favorable appraisal of Vidal’s play.

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[Text Not Available]

Source: Jack Gould, in a review of Visit to a Small Planet in the New York Times, Vol. 104, no. 35536, May 11, 1955, p. 42.

FURTHER READING

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit), 1985, pp. 402-12

A critical overview of many of Vidal’s works, this reference entry addresses the author’s background and his work in a variety of genres.

Pemberton, William E. “Gore Vidal,” in Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Vol. 6, Marshall Cavendish, pp. 1998-2008.

Another overview of Vidal’s career with critcal analysis of the author’s major works.

SOURCES

Atkinson, Brooks. Review of Visit to a Small Planet in the New York Times, February 8, 1957, p. 18.

Salzman, Jack, editor. “Gore Vidal,” in The Cambridge Handbook of American Literature, Cambridge University Press, p. 248.

Thompson, Howard. Review of Visit to a Small Planet in the New York Times, April 14, 1960, p. 34.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Visit to a Small Planet." Drama for Students, edited by David M. Galens and Lynn M. Spampinato, vol. 2, Gale, 1998, pp. 254-268. Gale Ebooks, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2692700024%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dpoul45153%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D1973c07c. Accessed 17 Sept. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692700024

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  • American Northeast
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 262-263
  • Asia
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 262
      • 2: 263
  • Comedy
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 254
      • 2: 261
      • 2: 263
  • Communism
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 255
      • 2: 259
      • 2: 261-263
  • Emotions
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 256
      • 2: 260
      • 2: 266
  • Europe
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 261-263
  • Fear and Terror
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 255
      • 2: 259-263
  • Film
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 260-263
  • Hatred
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 259-261
  • History
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 263
  • Humor
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 260-261
      • 2: 264-266
  • Love and Passion
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 256-257
      • 2: 260
      • 2: 264-266
  • Music
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 266
  • Nationalism and Patriotism
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 257
      • 2: 259-260
  • 1950s
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 261-263
  • North America
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 254
      • 2: 256-257
      • 2: 260-262
  • Nuclear War
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 259
      • 2: 263
  • Outer Space
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 256
  • Paranoia
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 255
      • 2: 259-262
  • Patriotism
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 259
  • Politics
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 256
      • 2: 258
      • 2: 259-262
  • Psychology and the Human Mind
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 256-257
  • Satire
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 254-255
      • 2: 260-261
      • 2: 264-266
  • Sex
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 260
  • Space Exploration and Study
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 254-257
      • 2: 262-263
  • War, the Military, and Soldier Life
    • Visit to a Small Planet
      • 2: 255-266