I struggle with plays about the Iraq War. On Sunday, I saw Jack Gilhooley’s The Warrior, and it was probably the best Iraq piece I’ve seen. Still, I can’t say I enjoyed it, nor did I find it very dramatically compelling, and as I left the theater I realized that I have never seen what I consider to be a “well-made”or “good” play about the war in Iraq.
Before I go on, let me clarify a few things. As Tammy, the main character and documentary subject of the play, Marietta Elaine Hedges is quite remarkable. She gives an emotionally draining and extremely passionate performance. The play’s content is also dense, well-developed, and rife with conflict. The whole experience is very disturbing, and I left the theater unsettled, as I gather was the playwright’s intention.
But on the whole, I found The Warrior dramatically unsatisfying. I don’t expect to like or enjoy plays about the Iraq War. But I do expect a play to be a play, and in the various Iraq pieces I have seen, there seems to be a trend towards politically virulent, dramatically unsound playwriting.
At the moment, there are 3 works that come to mind besides The Warrior: Tim Robbins’ Embedded, Tony Kushner’s Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy, and Craig Lucas’ Prayer For My Enemy. I’m not going to compose a critical essay about all these plays here, but as I mull them over in the context of just having seen Gilhooley’s work (granted it’s been several years since I saw the first two), I am tempted to pose the following statement: it is Ã¼ber-difficult, even for talented theater-makers, to dramatize our disgusting debacle in Iraq.
All of these plays employ hackneyed devices to elicit anger and exposition: awkward tirades, disembodied voices, overextended phone calls (I’m of the opinion that prolonged use of a phone by a single character is one of the cheapest and most disappointing stage tricks, no matter how talented the actor), and purple language, to name a few. The most obvious similarity, however, is the overarching tendency to tellabout the conflict rather than show it, and I mean this in regards to both the war and the inner struggles of the characters. I can understand the aversion to depicting combat on stage, for reasons of practicality and propriety. But take, for example, The Warrior, in which Tammy tells us at length about the awful disintegration of her marriage. She goes so far as to enact some of the episodes with puppets—which I admit was powerful, if not unnerving—but I would prefer tobear direct witness to the drama rather than a 75-minute reaction to the ghosts of a previous drama. I realize that Tammy is locked in a cell-like room, and that this is in some way a representation of her troubled mind; however, we do not need to leave the room in order to see, rather than merely hear about, the episodes that have so influenced her psyche.
Listen, I have no real answers here, only the seeds of a much vaster discussion. There are some things, at some points in time, that simply defy art, and right now the Iraq War may be one of them. Maybe it’s too soon, too real, too damn disappointing and frustrating. I have never attempted to write a play about Iraq, but I imagine that alot of feelings flare as one sets out to do so. Perhaps those feelings are so strong—and, because of our historical proximity to the catastrophe, so fresh, so raw—that they obscure many of the normal necessities of the craft. This leads to characters that are less character and more author’s mouthpiece. I would like to see an Iraq play that embeds the pain of this war in the action of another drama, that weaves the atrocities into the subtext, and that doesn’t grate the audience’s emotions so severely. I know that we are dealing with war, and that there is nothing pretty or “well-made” about it. But I think that a play with some of the rigorous dramatic elements I just described—not to mention a little more subtlety—would be more powerful, and perhaps move me to more deliberate action, than the ones I’ve seen. Is there such a play (perhaps it is in this year’s fringe—I have not seen A Report of Gunfire, for example)? Does anyone think I am completely off-base here?