Annie Baker’s first four published works - Nocturama (2006), Body Awareness (2008), Circle Mirror Transformation (2009), The Aliens (2010) - are collectively known as the “Vermont Plays,” and each is set in Shirley, Vermont, a city with a unique and sometimes troubling history.
Located in Windsor County, the city of Shirley was settled in an area once populated by the Abenaki, an Algonquian-speaking peoples who named the region Wabanahkik (“Dawn Land”). Abundant with ponds, streams and brooks, the area provided an excellent source for fishing. Claimed by the English in 1754, the city was named for Lord Henry Shirley, a colonist attributed for introducing one of the first acts of biological warfare in North America. Responding to various Abenaki uprisings in the 1760s, Shirley approved a plan to distribute smallpox-infected blankets to the Native people.
In 1853, pure spring water was discovered near Shirley’s Plum Brook, and for nearly three decades the city was home to the Shirley Hydropathic Institute, becoming a curative health resort destination. The former institute is now home to the Shirley School, a small day school for dyslexic students.
The tradition of a town meeting form of government (where adults of voting age gather annually to approve budgets and enact laws), along with a board of selectmen to handle day to day operations, continues into the 21st century.
In the 1980s and 90s the city opened its arms to a small but thriving community of Cambodian refugees.
Public nudity was legal until 2008 when Shirley banned the practice “on the main roads or within 300 feet of any school or place of public worship.” The Saturday Morning Farmer’s Market at the Unitarian Church had once been a popular destination for local nudists
Home of Shirley State College and host of the annual Vermont Gourd Festival, Shirley’s population was just over 14,000 residents in the 2000 census. Notable historical residents have included Gilbert Rosebath, astronomer; Edwin Hunt Lessey, reed organ maker; and Elizabeth Collins, poet.
What is most unique about Shirley, however, is that it is a complete fiction. The city’s origin and its history was outlined by Annie Baker in a 2009 interview distributed by Playwrights Horizons in anticipation of the world premiere of Circle Mirror Transformation. Baker has never lived in Vermont. She grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts and, after her parents’ divorce, divided her time between life in Amherst with her mom and visits with her father who had moved to New York City. This, of course, begs the question: why Vermont?
Vermont - the Green Mountain State and home to Bernie Sanders and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream - is certainly one of the most progressive states in the nation. Ranked the 42nd best state for business by Forbes Magazine, Vermont actively resists corporate culture and mass consumerism. The first Wal-Mart arrived in 1996 and there are only five in the state today. Montpelier is the only capital city in America without a McDonald’s franchise, and for over forty years the state has prohibited roadside advertisements. Farmers’ markets are plentiful, and green industries fuel the state’s economy.
As Baker has acknowledged, Vermont has a “bucolic, free-thinking culture. They have health care for everyone. Gay marriage was legalized aeons ago. It’s beautiful, hippyish and green.” Indeed, based on the number of communes, food co-ops per capita and the percentage of Facebook users who “like” the Grateful Dead, Phish, Bob Dylan, marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs, Vermont is the best state in America to let your freak-flag fly.
It sounds more than ideal, but there are challenges. The most rural state and the second whitest state in America (Maine is number one), Vermont’s progressive credentials belie a lack of cultural diversity. Over the last 50 years, Vermont has attracted a professional class of well-educated, left-leaning, outdoors-loving, environmentally-minded white people, and one can argue Annie Baker’s plays implicitly examine the contradictions at work when liberal white people are forced to confront their privileges in a bubble of homogeneity.
More disconcerting, Vermont, according to an article in Slate, has the highest rate of illicit drug use in the country. Marijuana is the drug of choice, and the possession of an ounce or less was decriminalized in 2013. Hallucinogens are also popular with high school and college students.
The unfocused, directionless malaise that seems written onto the bodies of Annie Baker’s characters in The Aliens taps into something palpable about living in a state full of so many contradictory forces. The challenges these young men face reflect something close to an ontologically secular crisis of faith. Their belief in themselves and what the future holds is tentative and fragile. Perhaps that is why they hover at the margins of social discourse, outsiders or aliens hourly confronting, in Charles Bukowski’s words, the “frictions of distress.”