This piece is a special re-publication of a Plan-B Theatre blog post written by Plan-B Resident Playwright and UTBA Guest Blogger Eric Samuelsen on September 30, 2013.
From 1996-1998, Susan McDougal, a woman from Little Rock, Arkansas, married to Jim McDougal, an S&L owner, was under investigation by Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr for her alleged complicity in the Whitewater case. Because she refused to testify before Starr’s Grand Jury, Susan McDougal spent eighteen months in federal prison, including 8 months in solitary confinement. David Hale, a main Whitewater witness, insisted that she had had an affair with Bill Clinton. She insisted that she had not done so, and would not lie about it in court. For that refusal, she was imprisoned.
In a sense, then, the character ‘Susan’ in my play NOTHING PERSONAL refers to Susan McDougal, and ‘Kenneth’ refers to Kenneth Starr. References in the play to ‘David’ mean David Hale, ‘Jim’ equals Jim McDougal and ‘Bill’ means Bill Clinton. NOTHING PERSONAL is a play very loosely based on McDougal and her imprisonment.
But not all that much of it. My initial impulse was to focus entirely (and factually) on McDougal and her imprisonment. But as I wrote the play in the darker years of the Bush administration, I became increasingly concerned about the loss of civil liberties taking place through a wide variety of measures and incidents. The Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, the illegal detention of terrorist suspects in Guantanamo and other ‘dark sites’ across the globe, all reflected an overall atmosphere of fear and paranoia, leading to the destruction of basic American constitutional provisions. I began to see Kenneth Starr’s out-of-control Whitewater inquisition as an early symptom of that paranoia. Starr’s self-righteousness, his prissy obsession with sexuality, his prurient obsession with McDougal’s appearance and (as he supposed it) loose morals, it all seemed to reflect a similar narrative to the Bush/Cheney war on terror narrative. America under attack. America in terrible mortal but also moral danger. Because Bill Clinton was sexually rapacious, (hardly the case), because he had had an affair with Susan McDougal (which was completely untrue), America was morally threatened, morally bankrupt even, and McDougal’s civil rights could be violated with impunity. I’ll grant that that 9/11 attacks did constitute an actual threat to the American homeland. But by so routinely violating the fundamental human rights of detainees (most of whom were entirely innocent), we lost the moral high ground, and lost as well the opportunity to genuinely engage with the Moslem world.
The same arrogance and self-righteousness and contempt for rule of law continues today. I supported Barack Obama’s candidacy because I saw in him the possibility for genuine change. But as our country continues drone attacks that kill non-combatants, and Guantanamo stays open, that assault on civil liberties continues. I supported the President in both his political campaigns, with both time and money. But friends tell friends the truth, and this President has also succumbed to fear, with its attendant violence.
So the play gradually shifts away from the specifics of the McDougal case, and begins to make reference to such ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ as sensory deprivation and waterboarding, none of which actually happened historically to McDougal.
The third character in the play, the Matron, represents for me the law enforcement establishment, the soldiers at Guantanamo, the bailiffs in the courtroom, the jailers and cops and foot soldiers. She’ll go along with Starr, but when he loses her, he’s done. And she’s deeply, personally and genuinely religious, which I have symbolized by having her speak entirely using glossalia.
The idea that ‘truth’ is a function of power derives from Kenneth Starr. And the play also explores a link between fundamentalist religious dogma and conservative politics. The play also echoes 9/11, symbolized by imagery of people leaping from the roof of a burning building.
The play does describe ‘Susan’ as being mistreated in ways that Susan McDougal never was. No confusion is intended—I simply want the play to have a broader scope than the specifics of one case.