Saturn Devouring His Son
A new play casts a moralist’s eye over the gated suburbs of America’s war party.
The devouring father is one of the most terrifying figures handed down to us from the dark depths of the antique psyche. The Titan Cronos eating his children is the Greek ur-text, of course, but there are parallels in other mythologies. In Persian myth, the hero Rostam unknowingly kills his son, Sohrab (my namesake), on the battlefield. In the Bible, meanwhile, the drama takes on the moral legibility typical of divine revelation: In Genesis, Noah awakes from a drunken stupor to find that his son Ham has seen “his nakedness”—that is, at least according to the most plausible exegesis, Ham has committed maternal incest with Noah’s wife. The enraged patriarch curses Ham’s son Canaan down the generations, culminating in Israel’s destruction of the Canaanites.
In Salt, the latest play by Matthew Gasda, the devouring father takes on unsettling contemporary resonances, both sexual and geopolitical. While much of the bipartisan elite seems to have moved on from the miseries and traumas inflicted on my generation by the post-9/11 wars—moved on to other wars, that is—the rising New York playwright isn’t quite ready to do the same. The GOP-blowhard Dad must pay the price for his transgressions, in the next life if not this one.
Gasda shot to fame, and a New York Times profile, last year for a play, Dimes Square, that captured a distinct moment and scene in Lower Manhattan: a gathering place for creative-class professionals fed up with the stultifying race-and-Covid orthodoxies that shaped our lives from 2020 to 2022. They were desperate to see each other, face-to-unmasked-face, to drink, hook up, and discuss ideas freely. Soon, Gasda gathered a reputation as some sort of conservative, but this had almost entirely to do with his staging underground plays at a time when in-person meetings were verboten. That this defiance coded as “right-wing” in those days attests to the sheer dourness of a “progressive” orthodoxy that mercifully appears to be receding.
No, Gasda isn’t a conservative, much less a reactionary. He is, above all, a perceptive observer and critic of American morals—a moralist in the best sense. Even as he created the Dimes scene, as the Times put it, his play skewered its cast: their mindless excesses in drink and drugs, their sexual cruelty, their grasping careerism and readiness to stab each other in the back for a chance at that Netflix writing gig or literary-agency contract. Dimes Square was, in many ways, the older Millennial’s answer to Hurlyburly, the 1984 play by David Rabe, adapted into a Kevin Spacey-led film more than a decade later, that immersed viewers in Hollywood insiders’ moral sludge: which could be a lot of fun until you realized the various industry professionals lack a little thing called a soul.
In Salt, which I saw Sunday night at a Brooklyn warehouse-cum-theater, Gasda turns his moralist’s lens to a different section of American society: to the gated suburbs of Northern Virginia, where defense contractors and politicians donning U.S.-flag lapel pins decide the fates of entire nations, wreaking world-historical havoc, all while sipping expensive whiskey and cheating on their wives with men much younger than themselves.
Sidney, an attractive middle-age woman who annually photographs her body naked to document its inexorable aging, is haunted by a pair of ghosts, as well as a third figure who might as well be a ghost. Her husband, Bill, a U.S. senator with waning presidential ambitions and a gay side-life carefully hidden from public view, has died suddenly, possibly from the stress induced by fear of being outed. There is Sidney’s son, Brian, conceived with another man and later adopted by Bill, who has been shot by a sniper somewhere in the Middle East. And then there’s Bill’s ex-lover, Ben, a Harvard-trained lawyer “rising through the ranks of the meritocracy like a good boy,” as Sidney says bitterly. As Sidney prepares to bury “the Senator,” Ben shows up at her stately home demanding admission to the private funeral. Her refusal to allow him, and her feckless efforts to buy him off, give rise to the plot’s core tension.
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But the deeper anxiety, lurking in the backdrop, has to do with the foolish wars enthusiastically supported by Bill in those fervid years. “See, you never allowed him to experience his own guilt over many, many things,” Ben berates Sidney. To which she replies: “I was against the war, for the record. I begged him not to give that speech on the Senate floor.” True enough, though she didn’t restrain, but encouraged Brian to enlist, perhaps to burnish the family’s patriotic bona fides: Who could question the commitment of a political family that dispatches its own flesh and blood to fight for democracy in Iraq?
Gasda is too intelligent a playwright to hit you over the head with any of this, of course. The lines I quoted are the only bits of dialogue that edge into anything resembling explicit political commentary. As with Dimes Square, much of Salt’s moral and psychological insight arises from a kind of permanently interrupted, disjointed dialogue, where characters trained at lying to others and themselves never quite connect, never really get at what they mean. The closest characters get to telling the truth is when they recount the contents of their nightmares—not least Sidney’s vision of receiving a sailboat carrying her son’s body in a coffin filled with salt.
Still, there stands the figure of the closeted, sexually impotent, warmongering, devouring Boomer Dad. The senator who’s sent off “his” boy, and thousands of others’ boys and girls, to pointless deaths halfway around the world—and when he wants to casually break off his relationship with Ben, he has the gall to blame the poor catamite for not rising to life’s serious demands: “It occurred to me that you don’t know anything about having to meet responsibilities.” Responsibilities, indeed: In the play’s final act, Sidney is visited by the ghost of Brian (played by the same actor as Ben in a brilliant stroke), with a gunshot wound carved indelibly into his forehead.