HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Visit to a Small Planet
Author: Gore Vidal
Publisher: Dramatists Play Service Inc., published in 1958
Language level: ? (the version I read had nothing objectionable, but I can’t vouch for the original)
Reading level: Probably for adults only, unless there is an edited version
Rating: 0 stars (NOT RECOMMENDED)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Vidal, Gore. Visit to a Small Planet (originally published in 1955). Eugene Luther Gore Vidal (born in 1925) is an American author, playwright, essayist, screenwriter and political activist. Born in West Point, NY, Vidal was raised in Washington, D.C., where he attended Sidwell Friends School and then St. Albans School. He began his writing career at age nineteen, with the publication of the military novel Williwaw. In 1956, Vidal was hired as a contract screenwriter for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. In 1959, director William Wyler needed script doctors to re-write the Ben-Hur script, originally written by Karl Tunberg. Vidal collaborated with Christopher Fry, reworking the screenplay. In the 1960s, Vidal wrote several novels. The first, Julian (1964) dealt with the apostate Roman emperor, while the second, Washington, D.C. (1967) focused on a political family during the Franklin D. Roosevelt era. During the latter part of the twentieth century Vidal divided his time between Italy and California, focusing on essays and two distinct strains in his fiction. The first strain comprises novels dealing with American history, specifically with the nature of national politics. The second strain consists of the comedic “satirical inventions.” He occasionally returned to scriptwriting cinema and television, including the television movie Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid with Val Kilmer and the mini-series Lincoln.
Gore Vidal wrote Visit to a Small Planet as a television play in which form it debuted on May 8, 1955 on Goodyear Television Playhouse. Later he reworked it for the Broadway stage, where it debuted on February 7, 1957, and ran for 388 performances. Star Cyril Ritchard, who also directed, received a Tony Award nomination for his performance as Kreton. Eddie Mayehoff also received a nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actor. The play intended as a satire on the post-World War II fear of Communism in the United States, McCarthyism, Cold War military paranoia and the rising importance of television in American life. A major critical success, it was subtitled “A Comedy Akin to Vaudeville” and tells the story of Kreton, an alien from an unnamed planet who is fascinated by human beings and lands on Earth for an extended vacation intending to view the American Civil War. He miscalculates and comes instead 100 years later. Having missed the opportunity to see conflict first hand, but delighted with all the new playthings the twentieth century has invented for war-making, he decides to create a war for himself and becomes friends with a suburban family. Along the way he falls in love with their daughter. However, there is a force field around him that prevents any physical contact as his race has abolished any form of affection. After petitioning the superiors of his planet, he is made human.
At first Kreton is happy, but he comes to realize that being human isn’t always happy; it comes with other less desired emotions such as sadness and jealousy. He decides that those emotions are not worth the trouble and he returns to his own planet. The play was also made into a 1960 Paramount Pictures film starring Jerry Lewis. Vidal is an ultra-liberal writer. His novel Myra Breckinridge (1968) is a “satirical transsexual comedy.” Our high school freshman literature book contained Visit to a Small Planet, and I liked it. However, I eventually concluded that we must have read a bowdlerized version, because when I was a senior, and our senior class was casting about for something to do for our senior play, I mentioned it to the drama advisor (who also happened to be my government, economics, and psychology teacher) and he said that it could not be done in our high school because it contained a scene where two unmarried people spent the night together in a motel (remember, this was a small town in 1972 and there were still some public schools with standards then). There was certainly nothing like that in our literature book! Therefore, I could not recommend it.