Theater Commentary: Who’s Afraid of the Antiwar Play?

by Bill Marx

What particularly disappointed Boston Globe theater critic Louise Kennedy about the Huntington Theatre Company’s recent production of David Rabe’s Streamers was that it lacked the emotional impact of the 1976 staging of the script. She found it “painful because that earlier production clearly resonated with its audiences as a powerful antiwar statement, something theaters and audiences are longing to find right now…” But are theaters and audiences “longing to find” antiwar statements? Not really.

Women of Troy at the National Theatre: Pandora Colin (Ileana)
and Laura Elphinstone (Macaria) share an antiwar moment.

Compare the books, films, documentaries, and television programs that have tackled the war with the tepid response of Boston theaters. Aside from Trinity Repertory Theatre’s admirable Boots on the Ground and Zeitgeist Stage Company’s expert version of David Hare’s London hit Stuff Happens, the “longing” has been underwhelming, particularly in the form of Streamers, a mannered play that, produced today, depends on Boomer nostalgia and Symbolic Imagery 101 to drive home its message about the chaotic waste of war.

Audiences that walked out of Streamers or critics that found the production to be dull are not complacent about the insanity that is Iraq. Frankly, the same critical points are made with more style, imagination, and outrage in Rendition and other cinematic and literary contemplations of the current conflict. In an interesting piece in The New York Review of Books, Michael Massing argues that our vision of Iraq is not being shaped by artists but by the powerful reminiscences of the soldiers themselves. If there was a draft for “the war on terror,” I believe that mainstream theaters would be producing incisive plays about the conflict: young playwrights would pen the scripts and theater audiences, made up of parents fearful for the future of their kids, would pay to see them on stage.

Bill Marx

Of course, theaters will retort that it isn’t a matter of preferring to placate the fantasies of aging theatergoers: there are no good plays about the Iraq war to stage. About two years ago I was at a conference dedicated to political theater at Brandeis University; a number of the panelists insisted there were a number of meaty scripts about Iraq. They went on to complain that no one wanted to produce these scripts because of the fear that they were box office poison. Also, some of these dramas were written in the Middle East — American theaters don’t often do “foreign” scripts.

The creators of Boots on the Ground, an affecting doc-u-drama about the home front gleaned from interviews with people in the Providence, RI and soldiers serving in Iraq, suggested that their techniques could be applied elsewhere, including Boston. (Deborah Salem Smith and Laura Kepley’s latest play, Some Things are Private, will open at Trinity Rep this February.) No local theater to my knowledge has taken up the “living newspaper” approach, which can provide effective political theater. “Community” remains a buzzword among artistic institutions, but it often serves as code for improving marketing techniques, juicing up sales figures via focus group confabs. A theater company creating a play out of talking to people in the area about an event that is radically transforming their lives. How gauche! Cue Man of La Mancha and “To march Into hell for a heavenly cause”!

There was a time when theaters reacted more quickly and incisively to war and catastrophe than either film or television, whose content was patrolled by corporate censors. Bertolt Brecht wrote about Hitler when he was in power; Clifford Odets dealt with labor strife; Peter Brooks staged the 1966 anti-Vietnam play US. Those days are long gone. On occasion, the popular media make use of their freedom to be politically edgy, but mainstream theater has largely turned its back on tackling the most troubling aspects of contemporary experience. The two-ton irony is that stages don’t have to come up with something new – they can draw on the classic scripts, the news that stays news. The pacifist fervor of the Greeks still shakes up audiences, such as the spiky response, in London, to The National Theatre’s production of Euripides’ Women of Troy.

Sinead Matthews as Cassandra in Women of Troy

Alas, political theater used to lead but now it lags behind and that is an ominous sign for its future. Truth is, our stage companies are afraid to do plays that directly comment on the debacle in Iraq: the disappointing box office returns for the wave of Hollywood films on “the war on terror” suggests that stories about the conflict don’t sell. Watch for the theatrical (musical?) version of I Am Legend.

We will get the antiwar play Kennedy wants at a major theater in Boston, but it will probably take another five years or so. Things overseas will have to quiet down first; threats of a recession will have to abate. Most likely the play will have had a successful off-Broadway run: boffo critical accolades and box office figures assure Boston stage companies that the choice is safe. (I am rooting for the recently closed off-Broadway production of Howard Barker’s A Hard Heart. But I fear the reviews were not good enough to convince local impresarios to risk a production.)

Meanwhile, those who really want relevant plays will have to encourage the efforts of small stage companies who are willing to take a chance with an issue – war and peace — that used to be theater’s bread and butter. These troupes may not have large budgets or cushy performance spaces, but they have an invaluable opportunity to grapple directly with the events, the losses, the tragedies, and the clashing cultures that will shape American and global reality for years to come

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