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A Patriotic Burlesque
Copyright 1996 Paul Sannerud
(Reprinted on the Flag Burning Page with Permission.)

Scene 1 Lights up on a person staring into a computer screen and occasionally typing.

              Playwright (Typing):

How To Burn An American Flag. A Patriotic Burlesque. Enter Actor. (Actor enters into a spotlight center stage. He is carrying a flag in a plastic wrapper)
Step 1. Purchase flag. Or if you're broke, make one from a bedsheet or draw one on a piece of paper.(Actor removes flag from packaging)
Step 2. .Ignite match. Be careful not....OUCH. (Actor does so. Burns self) to burn yourself.
(Actor strikes another)
Step 3. Hold to lower edge of flag. When lit, wave rapidly, complain loudly** about something and wait for fun to begin.( Starts to bring match close to flag.)

              At ** , Actor

US out of Bosnia now! No more sound bites! Pro-choice. Pro-Life. Save the Whales.( replace as necessary with issue du jour)

              Patriot #1 (From Audience)

Note: All Patriot characters must not acknowledge the presence of the Playwright character.
Hey you can't do that!

              Actor (looks at Playwright who types and actor says)

It's my flag. It's my right..

              Patriot #2   (From Audience)

Hey buddy. You may have the right, but what good will it be if you are dead?

              Actor and Playwright


              Patriot #3 ( From Behind )

You better not get in your head to burn that flag boy. Give it up ... I wouldn't want the smoke from that liberal smut to poison your soul.

              Actor ( starting to get nervous, again looking to Playwright) 

Um. Playwright starts typing. No, it's mine. ( shielding flag) I bought it. See, here's the receipt . I bought it at Walmart.

              Patriot #1 

Flags shouldn't be burned just like tombstones shouldn't be toppled, and churches shouldn't be vandalized.

              Actor (looks but gets no response from Playwright)

But ...

              Patriot  #4 ( another audience entrance)

Where's your patriotism and respect? People have died for that flag. It should be just plain illegal.

              Actor (looking desperately to the playwright)



Aha! Patriotism and respect..... (starts typing)


Wouldn't making flag burning illegal to demonstrate our patriotism be like handcuffing yourself to your lover to prove faithfulness? And doesn't respect have to be earned? (looks at Playwright)

              Patriot #4  (advancing to edge of stage)

What the fuck do you know about respect? A disrespectful prick like you wants to burn the icon of America. Don't cry "Freedom of Speech" either. Courts all around America have decided that freedom of speech is not absolute.

Playwright starts typing madly.

              Actor (catching  some of the Playwright's emotion) 

The Supreme Court said this is protected speech under the First Amendment. In the exact words of Justice Brennan "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds it unacceptable."

              Patriot  #  5 (comes from backstage)

Unacceptable?! This is an abomination, a desecration. This is a piece of our true-blue-made- in-America-honest-to-god-apple-pie-and-mother soul.

Actor quickly turns to face Patriot #5 and does a take to all the Patriots. Realizes the danger he may be in.


Uh.oh. Wait a minute. (Looks at Playwright) Do you know what you're getting me into?


Uh. Pauses, lost for words. Fake it for a minute.


Yeah right. Pause. Waits for Playwright who ignores him. Finally, he just goes on. (To Patriot #5) What did you just say? Oh yeah, mom, apple pie, made in America ....actually it says: Made in China.


Oh that helps a lot.

Actor shoots him a look

              Patriot #1 (advancing to stage) 

There are many ways to protest -- but we draw the line at burning the flag. We're out to protect the symbol of all that is good and true in the world. If you hate this country, there's no chain around your leg, leave!

              Actor ( to Playwright)

I just might have to if.....

Playwright starts typing frantically


But I don't hate this country. And I don't buy the idea that the flag needs "protection".

              Actor (continues thought, overlapping

                          Playwright's last sentence)

And I don't buy the idea that the flag needs protection. If it needs protection, then it symbolizes something which is false. Listen to what I'm saying: the beauty of the flag is that it does not need the force of law -- because it represents something which is true, it cannot be destroyed. It is, on the simplest level, just a piece of cloth.

              Patriot #2 (Grabbing fire extinguisher)

If you've got the right to burn a flag, I've got the right to test my fire extinguisher right next to you ... for your safety, of course.

              Patriot  #3

You listen. That "piece of cloth" is the symbol of the greatest country in the Universe. I won't listen to what you are saying, because I don't listen to horseshit.

They close in and start to pummel the Actor.



              Congressman: ( Booming )

Well, well, well, well, well boys. What seems to be the problem here? (Ad libs from Patriots) Well, I'm here from the Congress and I'm here to help you.

              Actor  ( to Playwright)

Oh. Very clever.


Scene 1b


This all started when I wrote a letter to my congressman. I was having mixed feelings about the issue and I told him I thought I'd like to write a play about flagburning. I'd written a few short scenes and it seemed that I needed some other inspiration. So, I asked about his position on the proposed Constitutional Amendment. What I got back was the Federal Flag Code, Title 36, of the U.S. Code, paragraphs 170-178 which provide guidelines " For the Display of, and Respect Shown to Our Flag".
In Section 176: Respect for Flag, I read in part these things, " No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America" to wit:
Subsection (i) "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard." In Subsection (j) "No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing." And in subsection (k) "The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning."

He was also kind enough the include portions of Title 18 of the U. S. Code, Part I entitled Crimes and Criminal Procedure. In Chapter 33, Emblems, Insignia and Names, Section 700 - - Desecration of the Flag of the United States; Penalties, it said:
(a)(1) Whoever knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States shall be fined under this title (sees flag left on floor from previous scene and picks it up.) or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both. (2) This subsection does not prohibit any conduct consisting of the disposal of a flag when it has become worn or soiled. (b) As used in this section, the term 'flag of the United States' means any flag of the United States, or any part thereof, made of any substance, of any size.
He didn't say anything about the play idea, but I got some nice campaign literature and it came in this envelope.(Shows envelope with imprint of flag on it.) The information was interesting, but what do I do with the envelope?

(Resumes typing)

Scene 2

Music up: Hendrix, Star Spangled Banner. Then fade out under.


Hi. My name is Jesse and I'd just like to give you a piece of my mind on this here flagburning thing. If I ever see anyone burning a flag, with or without an amendment, I'll tattoo the offender with the closest object I can get my hands on. I used to think it couldn't get any worse than it already was but then sometimes I wonder why I am even surprised by it all. First it was putting a crucifix in urine and all the cultural elite called it "art", now your types want to detract from the world's most precious symbol -- next to that crucifix of course. Just look at that there bald eagle I got stuffed and hanging over my mantle. It's there to remind me of what a great country I live in where most godfearing patriots wouldn't even think of harming a sacred symbol of our country . It's such hypocrisy to burn the very symbol which gives you the freedom to do so. Why everyday I sit on my official patriotically correct Uncle Sam toilet seat (with every denomination of our currency reverently laminated into the rim) and stare at my matching presidential seal towels, washcloths and toilet paper and thank God that I live in a country that takes it's values seriously. Why I even got seat covers for my pickup which have that fine emblem embroidered in full 3-D 3-color glory. I'm so careful with them that I don't even fart when I'm driving . I used have plastic covers over 'em but Thelma Lizabeth says that she liked the way the embroidery tickled her behind when we was......
Anyway, it's bleeding heart liberals that make most self respecting people sick to their stomachs. You cry that the government is doing you wrong, and in return you try to get back at them by desecrating the symbol of our nation. It is high time that true patriots take the time to abuse their second amendment right to teach cretins like yourself not to abuse their first. Thank you.

Scene 3

At lights, two men stand with a flag between them over a garbage can.


Harald, lift up that corner there.


I got it. I got it.


I want to do this..... for Carl.


I know. Me too. It's just ....


It has always been legal , and this is the recommended way to dispose of an old, worn out flag.


I know. But with all the hullabaloo, it just seems like we're doing something .... dirty. Maybe it's not so...


We said this would be the way we remembered Carl this year. This was his flag and we flew it every day for 10 years. Now I'm going into that home next month. I can't take care of myself. The house is sold and I'll have no room to have this. You've got no room at your place either.


But what if someone sees... They'll think we're....


So what. We're honoring Carl and that's that. Let them think whatever the hell they want.


To Carl then.

Harald and Christian lay the flag reverently in the can and douse it with gasoline.


To Carl: when they handed me this flag from your coffin, I knew my youth had gone for good. Whenever we was together it was like we was 19 again. So many good times, a few fights, a lot of dreams. Remember that bonfire we had that Fourth of July before we went to Korea... the one that started with a small fire "just to get rid of a few old things". Then we piled it on: the pictures of our old girlfriends, the suits we wore when we went into town, the old manure shovel, your old hay wagon with the busted axle, a few gates from the cow barn. Your dad was really mad, but how we laughed at the old life we were leaving behind, the life we wished ourselves back to each time we were awakened by incoming mortar rounds. ...... Goodbye old friend.

He tosses in a match. The fire blazes up quickly and then dies to a small glow.



They both rest their hands on the rim of the can and watch the glow as the stage fades to black.

Scene 3b


I have a flag. It lies in the steamer trunk that held every possession of my grandfather when he immigrated to this country when he was just 17. Throughout his life, he kept this trunk for all his valued items. He kept the letters his new wife wrote to him when he was in WWI, picture postcards and Christmas greetings from his family back in Norway and some good dress sweaters. The trunk was his only luggage when he moved into the nursing home near my college.

I visited him as often as I could, going to the Danish bakery around the corner for kringle and coffee, but we would always end up arguing about something. He was as conservative old farmer and I was a hotheaded liberal journalism student out to change the world. We'd always vote together though, sending our absentee ballots back to the small town where I grew up. I'm sure our votes always canceled each other.

On the bitterly cold day in February when he was buried, a bugler with cracked lips sounded taps and the color guard neatly folded the flag and gave it to me. I have moved dozens of times in the years since then and that flag, still folded so crisply, has always moved with me.

(Resumes typing)

Scene 4

Picks up at the end of Scene 1a. The Patriots are following the Congressman around in a circle around the Actor. They hold flag balloons -- long, narrow and very phallic -- which they use to torment the Actor.

              Patriot #2 

Well, what are we going to do about it?

              Patriot #3

Lets make a law!


That won't work. The Supreme Court remember?

              Patriot # 4

Oh yeah.

              Patriot #1

There is only one way to correct the situation, and that is to pass a constitutional amendment.

              Patriot #4 

Yah! What about an amendment to the constitution?


What about the First Amendment?

              Patriot  #4

You mean the one that protects the right of any ass to bray in public? (chuckles) No one will miss the freedom to burn the flag, since any who would are probably Cultural Nazis.

              Patriot #3

Or Communists!

              Patriot #4

and should "Love it or Leave it" anyway.


Isn't your legislation against flag burning actually not so much against the act as the thought process?


Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. This amendment will merely reinstate respect for the flag as one of the guiding principles of our nation. (He picks up the flag the actor used and waves it around finally wrapping himself in it)


Isn't it really trying to mandate respect for the flag?


When politicians wrap themselves in the flag, burning it should be MANDATORY.

              Patriot  #2

You say you love this country but you're trying to tear it down with your thoughts and ideas.


If you truly loved your country you wouldn't have thoughts that would break laws.


Hey, I've got a thought for you and it breaks at least three commandments.

They gag him.

              Patriot # 3 

There. Lets get on with it. How do we get this amendment thing done?

              Patriot #5  

What should it say?


I'm right on top of that boys. Snaps fingers. (SFX music up and under:Liberty Bell March) Congressman steps up to a podium brought on by minions. Reporters and cameras show up.
My fellow Americans. A great disease has come upon our land, the disease of disrespect, the disease of the disingenuous who would torch the revered collective family crest of generations of We the People. So I shall today propose this amendment to the great Constitution of these United States
--"Congress and the States shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."

General cheers from the Patriots

              Patriot  #4

I was sorta hoping for somethin' more like if you burn a flag we get to cut your pecker off and feed it to you for lunch.

              Patriot   #2 

Shouldn't we be paying some lawyers for this?

              Congressman ( leaving)

Gentleman, our task is before us. First, we'll have a hearing. We must weigh the pros and cons.......

They go. Lights dim


If the opposite of pro is con, is the opposite of progress, Congress?

Scene 5

Music up: Can-Can

At Lights, a table US with 4 Patriots wearing masks made to look like Congressmen/pigs and Congressman from previous. A podium DS. Playwright at computer. DS are cameras and reporters. Throughout the scene the cameras should pan from one group to the other. Each person should be performing for the cameras. The underlying construct for this scene should be that of a media circus. A line of dancing girls & boys doing the can-can in stars and stripes outfits entertain the congressmen for their amusement. When they are finished, the actor enters, accompanied by lawyer (Brady) and sits at the defense table.

              Congressmen ( ad libbing) (all) 

Bravo. yip yip. Doesn't that just make you proud to be an American? That redhead sure was all American wasn't she?

              Sergeant at Arms

Oyez, oyez. This joint session of Congress hearing on Senate Joint Resolution 31 is now in session. Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States to grant Congress and the States the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.


(to the others)
Those people back there, with those flags over their mouths for I can't imagine what reason -- If we passed this Amendment, could we have them arrested?
(to all)
Gentlemen. Please state your respective cases and try to give the Reader's Digest version instead of your usual claptrap. This ain't the OJ trial.

              Mr. Kotter

The Constitution belongs to We the People and the Constitution itself gives the right to the people to change the document through a purposely difficult procedure as outlined in Article V. Congress plays a part in it, but the ultimate decision for changing the Constitution lies with the people. That's where the issue should be decided.
I have here the results of five Gallup surveys of which I am aware, conducted first in 1989 and most recently in March of this year. Through that period the results have consistently shown that 80 percent of those polled: 1) see no incompatibility between flag protection laws and freedom of speech; 2) do not believe flag desecration is an appropriate expression of freedom of speech; 3) believe the matter should be decided by constitutional amendment; 4) would, themselves, vote for a constitutional amendment to protect the flag.


Thank you that was very succinctly put. Mr. Brady, can you similarly restrain yourself?

              Mr. Brady

My esteemed colleague is victim of a common misconception about the nature of the Constitution and the "will of the people". Does Mr. Kotter really believe we live in a democracy? Does he believe, for example, that a state should be allowed to pass a law banning Jews/Blacks/Asians/whatever from residing in their state, simply because the majority of people in that state want to?
Mr. Kotter, if the majority rules, why have laws at all? If I don't like something you do, I should simply be able to put it to a vote. No pesky judges and juries, simply take the majority opinion as to verdict and sentence. If that's democracy, it is a very harsh way to live.

              Congressman #2

(sotto voce) Sounds good to me.

(General murmurs of assent from congressmen)

              Reporter 1

Can you define desecration for us, senator?

              Congressman #3

Why yes, it's an offensive misuse or abuse of the symbol of the United States.

              Reporter 2

And is that your definition of the flag? The symbol of the US?

              Congressman  #3


              Reporter 2

Then how about Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Bell, the dollar bill? Are these not also symbols of the US?


Yes they are, but it is only the flag we mean to protect.

              Reporter 1

And exactly what is a flag?

              Congressman #3

What do you mean?

              Reporter 1

What is it composed of? I have here a flag toothpick, a flag printed on a cup, a plastic flag, a cloth flag, a picture of a flag, and a drawing of a flag that my son gave me. Which of these are flags?

              Congressman #2

Well ,they all are to some degree.

              Reporter 1

(Breaking from press corp ranks to address the congressmen from the podium) What degree is that? I also have here a disc on which I have a picture of the flag being consumed by another image of fire. If I pop this disc into my computer are you going to prosecute me under your proposed amendment?


A computer simulated version of a flag burning . . . cannot be treated the same as the act of desecrating an actual flag.

              Reporter 2

So what you are saying is that computer simulated flag-burning is not equivalent to burning an actual flag. In other words, a symbolic act against a symbol of a symbol is not the same as a symbolic act against the symbol itself. Right?

              Congressman #2

Right ... I guess.

              Reporter 1 

So then what is a flag? There is no provision in your proposed amendment to prohibit any State from enacting laws against cutting cakes shaped like the U.S. flag. Could it be used to stop Republicans from sweating into flag-emblazoned socks or drooling on their flag embroidered ties? Won't it really just be used selectively against those who are thinking -- speaking -- "anti- American thoughts" during their desecration?

              Congressman #4 

I think it's very easy to distinguish someone who is destroying a flag in an ethical and honorable way and someone who isn't.

              Reporter 1 

Since when are you in a position to tell us what is ethical and honorable? And if you are so all-fired worried about desecrating the flag by someone's actions, shouldn't you take down the flag you have flying over these Chambers? Anyone that would strip the heart from the First Amendment in the name of patriotism is desecrating the flag in a way more profound than some misguided soul burning one is. (Turns and smiles for the cameras)

              Congressman # 3

(Ripping his mask from his face)
You are a sick son of a bitch and should be castrated with an old rusty butter knife! Go fuck yourself with a fork you bastard!


(to Congressman #3)
Sit Down!
( To Reporters)
Any one else?

Playwright starts typing


So can I burn the Bill of Rights?


Sure. Go ahead, it would save us all a lot of trouble.

Scene 5b


I'd been watching the congressional hearings on C-Span and downloading transcripted proceedings from the Internet for inspiration. The play just seemed to grow out of -- well, sometimes it seemed out of my control, like it had a life of its own, but I wasn't any clearer about the issue than when I started. I began to wonder ...... what if....

Here ends the first 5 scenes of Paul Sannerud's play, How to Burn an American Flag. If you get a chance to see it in person, you'll catch the other ten scenes.

Please check out the Review of this play in the Des Moines Reigster

Back to the Flag Burning Page

Warren S. Apel