June 19, 2013
Iraq and Afghanistan on Stage
Posted on Sep 2, 2011
By Jean Randich
In an evocative, late night conversation on the lawn, Nadia Blye, a former war correspondent and current professor at Yale, encourages Oliver Lucas, her fiance’s guarded father, to open up about his private pain: “In combat medicine, there’s this moment—after a disaster, after a shooting—there’s this moment, the vertical hour, when you can actually be of some use.” Hare considers “The Vertical Hour” a companion piece to his epic Iraq War play, “Stuff Happens.” He was interested in exploring a Henry James landscape in which the optimistic American (modeled loosely on Samantha Power), convinced of the need to intervene militarily in foreign countries, is confronted with a roguish, jaded Brit who has retreated from the inordinate wreckage his freewheeling lifestyle has caused. Lucas, a doctor who has accidentally killed, is a fantastic character, his language charged and his aim true. And while Blye rises to Lucas’ challenge in their vertical hour, she is less convincing as someone seared by the atrocities she has witnessed in Bosnia, making it hard to feel the full force of her decision to leave academia to return to Iraq.
Malpede’s “Prophecy” is an ambitious, sprawling work, interweaving so many volatile plotlines that, for this reader at least, its world sometimes appears theatrically calculated rather than real. If everyone is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s hard to hold anyone accountable. According to Malpede’s staging note, “the play bridges modernist realism with something older and more classical.” There is the story of Jeremy Thrasher, an Iraq War veteran so stewed in self-loathing that when he performs in an acting class, he hurls a chair to shatter a mirror.
Sarah Golden, the teacher, traumatized by the death of her first love, Lukas, under suspicious circumstances in Vietnam, is dazzled by Jeremy but ill-equipped to help this soldier process his rage. When we discover that Sarah’s boss, the dean of the acting school, once produced a Broadway show that was her starring vehicle and may have had a hand in Lukas’ combat-related death, we are jolted out of modernist realism and into hyperbolic melodrama.
The plot thickens. Malpede introduces an Abraham, Sarah and Hagar subplot with Mariam, the daughter whom Sarah’s husband, Alan, has by Hala, a Palestinian-Lebanese human rights worker. One of the most affecting scenes occurs late in the play when Sarah in New York calls Hala in Beirut. Trying to comfort Sarah, Hala says, “Sometimes I think we are held here by threads … as slim as the web of a spider, to the people we love, to our children. How easy it is for someone to walk through our web without seeing … without ever knowing what they’ve done.”
Acts of War: Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays
By Karen Malpede (Editor); Michael Messina (Editor); Bob Shuman (Editor); Chris Hedges (Foreword by)
Northwestern University Press, 400 pages
Perhaps Malpede aspires to map out an international dysfunctional family in which both individuals and countries are fated to repeat terrible wrongs. At the end, when the adults seemingly achieve forgiveness and the young are savaged, we sense war’s betrayal again.
American playwright Bill Cain’s “9 Circles” won the 2010 Sky Cooper New American Play Prize at Marin Theater Company. It is a fierce, macabre, shocking play in nine infernal scenes reminiscent of Georg Buechner’s expressionist fragment, “Woyzeck,” that was similarly inspired by an actual crime.
Cain’s intense Army private, Daniel Edward Reeves, is based on Pfc. Steven Dale Green, who on March 21, 2009, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, as well as for the murder of her parents and her toddler sister. Cain’s fictional Reeves, like his real-life counterpart, has a criminal record and antisocial behavior, but is admitted to the Army under a special waiver to keep the recruitment quotas up. Reeves wants to stay in Iraq, even though at the top of the play, the scene of his honorable discharge, he has already planned, perpetrated and covered up the monstrous killings.
Perhaps the brilliant achievement of this play is that, as repugnant as Reeves is, Cain captures the terror of the trapped animal inside him, the flawed human who never had a chance and never should have served in Iraq. At the same time, all our structures that failed him—the military, the lawyers, the priest and shrink—each occupy their own circle in his inferno. There are only two moments in his life when Reeves felt a human connection, and when he relives those, the barbarity makes your hair stand on end. Unlike Green, Reeves undergoes death by lethal injection. In the last seconds of his disintegrating consciousness, he is haunted by the voice of his victim begging for life.
The collection closes with “A Canopy of Stars” by British playwright Simon Stephens. This play, along with Wallace’s “No Such Cold Thing,” was first published in “The Great Game: Afghanistan” by Oberon Books in 2009 and produced by the Tricycle Theatre in London. Under artistic director Nicolas Kent, the Tricycle has a tradition of producing political theater to provide information, ignite critical thinking and promote discussion. “A Canopy of Stars,” though it consists of three spare scenes, perfectly meets this mission. It begins in 2009 at 4:20 a.m. in Helmand, Afghanistan, in a mud-and-wattle-walled bunker where Pvt. Richard Kendall, 20, is on watch and Sgt. Jay Watkins, 31, is keeping up a string of slangy banter to get them through to a predawn attack. Watkins says he wants “to take the face of every single last Taliban and grind it into the rock of the desert.” And when he declares “moral relativism” to be the new rock ’n’ roll, our impression of him as a dehumanized soldier locks and loads. But this perception shifts in the night battle scene, where Watkins does everything in his power to save a severely wounded comrade.
In the final scene, Watkins is back in South Manchester, England, where he can’t sleep, can’t look his son in the eyes and can’t really talk to his wife, Cheryl. When she badgers him about why he won’t leave the military, he counters with a tale of Delaram, a 10-year-old Afghan girl who was sprayed in the face with a squirt gun filled with acid for the crime of going to school. But Cheryl has lost all hope in him and refuses to feel empathy. We sense this dislocated warrior is more at home in a mud bunker fighting an unwinnable war than he’ll ever be on his couch.
Many of the American theatrical responses to 9/11 have focused primarily on domestic issues. “Acts of War: Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays” resists the impulse to focus solely on Western soldiers and civilians as victims rather than proponents of war. These plays consistently question what our policies do to people in other places as well as what they do to us. They allow us to experience and think about various vicissitudes of war and, gathered into one forceful volume, make an important intervention in the discourse of war. These plays have been performed in large urban centers where the middle class can exercise political influence. One hopes they will be performed in high schools, colleges and universities, and perhaps even for or by combat veterans and their families. At a time when it seems law and politics have circumscribed the debate, and we are mired in unfinished wars, these brave plays ask: What is your responsibility? What is your say? What can you do to change the discourse?
Jean Randich is a director who has been staging new plays, political and musical theater, as well as reimagining the classics for more than 20 years. Randich has received an NEA/TCG director fellowship, a Fox Foundation grant and a Jonathan Larson Performing Arts grant. She has an MFA from Brown University and a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama. Randich teaches at Bennington College and NYU.
Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges wrote the foreword to this book, which was assigned for review by his wife, Truthdig Book Editor Eunice Wong.
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