Murder and the American Dream

A revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1990 play "Assassins" now provides us with a musical meditation on the competitiveness and envy that fuel a great deal of what a number of social observers have noted as the rise in US "meanness."

Think about how we talk about what it takes to “make it” in business in the USA. What words show up again and again? Critic John Lahr has noted that,"...the vocabulary of murder has been inseparable from capitalism's bravado of success. 'Making a killing,' 'killer instinct,' 'going for the kill' and 'getting away with murder' are shibboleths of the psychopathic style that our entrepreneurial culture applauds and rewards."* Even when, in fact, there is no one to kill, we are encouraged to have the qualities of being able to stalk and dispatch our prey at the negotiating table or in the marketplace if not in the forest or on the savannah.

Though “killer” words still occur in our speech as they did when Sondheim first wrote “Assassins,” we need them less right now because we have a shared sense of victimhood in the wake of 9/11. Feeling like a victim allows the killer instinct in us to find a less murderous sounding outlet—there is a guilty enemy “out there” who needs to be brought to justice and punished. It is legitimate to defend against those who represent wrongdoing to us in the world and to attack them with a murderous intent that no longer seems murderous. We are the good guys and they are the bad guys. It is a virtue to feel murderous if we are the wronged good guys. We get a license to kill that turns psychopathology into virtue. Vengeance becomes acceptable at least at some unconscious level.

Lying behind the need stalk and to kill, is a US sense of entitlement. If we have a right to realize the American Dream, to enjoy our constitutional right to "the pursuit of happiness," (interpreted with amnesia about the "pursuit" part), then we have the right to target and dispatch those who get in the way of realizing our happiness, no matter who they may be.

Presidents make good targets because they are big shots. In Sondheim's theater piece, a group of historical presidential assassins, from John Wilkes Booth who killed Abraham Lincoln in an act of Southern justice, to John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan to get Jody Foster's attention, are brought together on the stage. They sing about the disappointment, envy and anger that propel them to strike at the chieftain of the land that they see as having promised them so much and delivered so little.

Where does this rage spring from? The US is a culture where who one is what one does. We expect to be rewarded for hard work—or any effort at all. We construct ourselves through our work and our self advertisement. Others should see, recognize and reward this. Thus when we don’t succeed in work (which is our life) it strikes a double blow. First at our identity (losers are nobodies) and then at our goodness (having not succeeded, it is our own fault—we must be bad people).

In the US it is insufferable to be a nobody around others who are somebodies. We want to strike back for anything that feels like an attack on our sense of self and our goodness. We don’t need to be outcasts or even bad off; we just need to be one down to want revenge. Envy is stoked by being a lesser somebody than somebody else in a world of individualists. There is no one to assuage the loneliness accented by the feeling that one is not a winner. A loser is a dangerous loner

Okay, so few of us need to maim or kill another person or even kick the dog to balance our accounts, but small time everyday assassins abound. They steal the happiness of others to get even. The killer and the psychopath we see in film and on the stage would not make sense unless he or she were a believable exaggeration of very real tendencies that we can recognize in ourselves. Are not the moments of character assassination, Schadenfreude, gossip and backbiting not connected to the sense of getting less than the next guy or gal or getting less than what we feel should be our share.

In good theater and film, the internal workings of the killer instinct are laid bare. The catharsis of meeting our alter ego on stage can help prevent both the little murders we commit and the little deaths we die in day to day competition with each other. In the glow of the footlights we walk a bit with the enemy, and it is us.

Sondheim’s show is unfortunately a revival from another time, a decade past, and an era when a booming economy made not succeeding very painful. A post-9/11 sequel is sorely needed, one which examines more carefully our current solidarity in assassination and our denial of its murderous intent. We need theater that begs us not to leave unexamined the elements of entitlement, disappointment and revenge against humans who live beyond our borders, who, whatever their cause, attack us. Unfortunately there is little in the world of entertainment that takes us to a level of self-understanding in the way that Sondheim’s “Assassins” does. From video games to adventure movies, we are generally persuaded that killing is part of getting on in life.

© 2010 George Simons


Other Resources Books Periodicals

*     *     *
There are no elements so diverse that they cannot be joined in the heart of a man. - Jean Giraudoux

George Simons is a US specialist in intercultural and gender communication who hangs out in Mandelieu - la Napoule, France, as well as in Santa Cruz, CA. In the 1980’s he was one of the founders of the Hidden Valley Center for Men and the Cyberguys network. He is currently the treasurer on the board of The National Men's Resource Center™. He is on the faculty of Management Centre Europe, where he consults on virtual global teamwork. He has written over a dozen books on culture and gender including  Working Together:  How to Become More Effective in a Multicultural Organization and with Deborah G. Weissman, Men & Women:  Partners at Work. (Crisp Foundation) and is the creator of the award-winning Diversophy® game. or E-Mail.

Contact Us | Disclaimer | Privacy Statement
Menstuff® Directory
Menstuff® is a registered trademark of Gordon Clay
©1996-2023, Gordon Clay