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Des Moines Register
Thursday March 20, 1996
Play Explores Flag Feelings'How to Burn an American Flag' sure to offend some By Deborah Wiley
Of The Register's Cedar Rapids Bureau
Mount Vernon, Ia.
Two Korean War veterans reverently, but surreptitiously, burn a flag in memory of a comrade who has died.
A patriotic family plops down for a Fourth of July picnic on a disposable flag tablecloth and slices into a flag decorated cake -- but pays the ultimate price for apparently desecrating the flag.
A seductive Uncle Sam pops balloons on his skimpy costume as he exposes both himself and his questions about the flag.
A playwright fumbles for clarity on the issue of flagburning.
These are a few of the characters in a new play fueled by the Internet and inflamed with the rhetoric of hotly argued points of view. "How to Burn an American Flag," a one-act play by Cornell College theatre professor Paul Sannerud, premiers in Iowa Thursday, promising to provoke -- and perhaps offend. Reaction is one of the playwright's goals.
Proposal Upset Him
The issue of flag burning ignited Sannerud's ire whenever he heard of a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.
"Whenever it gets hot in the papers it makes me crazy because it's such a non-isssue," he said. "There are children being murdered. People are homeless and dying of diseases. People are wasting our legislative time." So he did what many Americans are doing today when they want to vent their opinions on a wide scale: He logged onto the Internet. He found "The Flag-Burning Page," where Old Glory burns in virtual reality and folks on both sides of the issue are steaming.
"It seemed to me that everybody was offended by the idea of burning the flag or called someone a name if that person wanted to burn a flag," said Sannerud. "It was like everyone had the right to not be offended. I thought about that. Nobody wants their ideas challenged anymore, but that's part of my business, to look at things in a new way, to hold it up and make you look at it."
On the other hand, Sannerud also respected the idea that the flag evokes strong emotions in nearly every American. " In each scene, someone is reflecting on something that means something to them,"he said. "A certain amount of patriotism has to do with reflecting on what we value."
Balance A Goal
He tried to balance the play with both sides of the issue, including voices of veterans he found on the Internet. One former prisoner of war told of being tortured for not disowning his country. His tormenters showed him photos of people burning the flag in protest of the war. "That proves I am right," the soldier tells his captor in the play, "In my country we are not afraid of freedom, even if it means that people disagree with us. It was never the piece of cloth I fought for."
The play's characters are drawn as caricatures, although their words are taken from real people. Some of the language in this 45 minute play may be offensive to members of the audience. In one line, a character who wants to ban flag burning, in a threat taken directly from the Internet, suggests he will cut off a certain portion of a man's anatomy and feed it to the flag burner for lunch. "I didn't even use some of the ones that were really vile," Sannerud said. "But I felt it was necessary to show the threats of violence and vulgar threats."
Ultimately, the playwright -- both Sannerud and the character in his play -- decides that flag burning should not be legislated. "It's an issue that needs to be decided on a personal and individual basis, " Sannerud said. The character of the playwright sums it up like this: "The flag stands for your right to burn it."