For the past few weeks London has been host to a controversy of theatrical proportions. No, I’m not talking about Prince Harry’s dubious credentials in the world of academia. Far from the pusillanimous prince’s paparazzi pursued boarding school, the National Theatre is running its production of David Hare’s latest play, Stuff Happens. The title is taken from Donald Rumsfeld’s racist comments in response to looting after the invasion of Iraq, and the play itself is a chronicle of the Bush administration’s run-up to war.
The play has been part of a small wave of anti-war drama to hit London. The past year has seen the production of Justin Butcher’s The Madness of George Dubya, Pugilist Specialist (about US soldiers assassinating an oddly familiar mustachioed Middle Eastern leader), and Tim Robbins’ Embedded, which lampoons the US media’s one-sided coverage of the war and occupation.
Stuff Happens is staged in an unorthodox fashion, with most actors remaining on the round stage for the duration of the three hour play. All the players are there; Bush, Cheney, Condi, Powell, Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, Jack Straw; and so are the lies. It gives a great behind-the-scenes look behind the fraudulent case for an illegitimate war. With most dialogue taken from actual documented meetings, it’s created a frenzy in the British media, and has prompted a response from the White House accusing the play of being “not entirely accurate.” Brave words from an administration that was willing to weave a veritable sweater factory of lies to justify the attack on sovereign nation. Hare definitely makes no bones about his opinion of Bush and the war. But instead of hitting us over the head with his beliefs, he does one of the best things a playwright can do: he tells us a story, gives us the cold facts, and lets us decide.
In so doing, he delivers an air-tight case against the war. Hare’s effective mixture of actual accounts and creative license is almost irrefutable. The only flaw in this play is, unfortunately, quite glaring. After delivering an impressive case against Bush and against war, Hare barely touches what it is that we can do to stop this occupation. Also, with an exclusive focus on what was happening behind closed doors, there is little or no talk of the opposition to the war from ordinary people. Indeed, the “anti-war’ side is represented by Colin Powell, who was instrumental in the cover-up of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. And apart from a passing mention of the February 15th protests, we hear nothing of the massive potential that a strong anti-war movement would have. This may not have been Hare’s intention, and he’s free to write about what he wants. But a year and a half into this occupation, with the global anti-war movement holding its breath until the end of the elections in the US, to not bring this up is irresponsible.
Almost none of London’s theatre columnists have addressed this. This isn’t so curious, though, when one considers the make-up of most play audiences. The sad fact is that theatre is no longer a universal form of entertainment, and as time as passed, it has become viewed as more of a privileged, upper-middle class venue; a luxury. And Stuff Happens is a perfect play for, as Guardian columnist Rod Liddle puts it, “metropolitan, left-of-center, middle-class monkeys.” To this audience, Stuff Happens simply confirms their belief in thinking Blair’s a liar and Bush is a moron, and gives them something interesting to talk about on their way back to Chelsea. But as for the “dumb mugs” who “let this war happen” (according to Liddle), “they’re on the other side of the river queuing up for We Will Rock You (the new musical about the rock band Queen). The mugs were probably against the war but aren’t, in the end, that bothered by it.”
Is this true? Do ordinary working class people care about the war? Would they care about a play like this? With Stuff Happens hitting state-side on October 24th (a staged reading is being given at Hartford Stage in Connecticut), we must ask: are the American people- “dumb mugs” or “middle-class monkeys”- ready for a play like this? And if so, why do we not see theatre like this in the US?
The answer to the first question has to undoubtedly be “yes.” Well over half of all Americans think the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea, and a growing number believe that the troops should be pulled out as soon as possible. Liddle is right when he says that plays like this are better suited for the “chattering class,” but he’s outright wrong when he says that the “mugs”- the working class men and women who are the ones being sent to die in Iraq in the first place- don’t care. I can’t think of anyone who cares more. When one looks at the amazing success that Farenheit 9/11, it’s not a big stretch to see people lining up and down Broadway to see this play, hoping to get some kind of idea about what they can do to stop their friends and family from dying needlessly.
Unfortunately, Broadway’s corporate backers wouldn’t touch a script like this with a ten foot pole. Next season, the biggest mainstream theatre scene in the country is going with a truckload full of revivals; West Side Story, Sweet Charity, La Cage Aux Folles and a host of other theatrical staples are the choices for next year. They’re guaranteed to rake in a lot of cash. They’re also safe, unassuming, and completely without relevance to most people’s lives. They raise no questions, and push no envelopes.
It’s clear that American theatre has buckled under the pressure quicker than a rookie dancing girl in a Fosse musical. But isn’t the function of theatre, and indeed, art, to question society when it takes a wrong turn? Isn’t this especially true when so many ordinary people are already starting to question? Shouldn’t art reflect the real world, and in so doing, attempt to change it?
In the 1930s, that was the case. Alongside the huge strike wave to unionize America’s workplaces, there was a theatre that was inspired by that struggle, and in turn helped to inspire the struggle itself. Plays like Bertolt Brecht’s The Mother, Marc Blitzstein’s Cradle Will Rock, and Clifford Odets’ Waiting For Lefty. These were dramas that didn’t just depict what was wrong with society, but pointed a way forward for ordinary workers involved in struggle. Many left having joined unions, the Communist Party or other revolutionary socialist groups. “Art,” Brecht said during this period, “is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” The same “mugs” that people like Liddle hold so little faith in were the vanguard of a new society, and drama played a role in spurring on that movement.
The same lesson can be learned thirty years later. Stuff Happens would not even be produced today if not for the Theatres Act, which abolished censorship in British theatre. The year that act was passed? 1968. The same year of the Tet Offensive that turned the tide of the Vietnam War. The same year the Catholic minority in Ireland armed themselves The same year as the Prague Spring and when workers took center stage in Paris. When students demonstrated in Poland, Mexico City, the United States, and Britain too. This struggle threatened the order of life that was built on war, racism, inequality and censorship. To say the Theatres Act had nothing to do with the amazing power being wielded by oppressed people in Britain is simply to rewrite history. In the States too, radical theatre had become a staple for the left, with plays not just from Brecht and other classics, but new plays by the likes of Myrna Lamb and Amiri Baraka.
The point is that we can have a vibrant theatre that actually is relevant to ordinary people’s lives. We can have plays like Stuff Happens in the US. But the struggle to make theatre relevant only comes when we make ourselves relevant. It comes when our anti-war movement stops one more bomb from dropping on Fallujah. It comes when we demand that the troops come home. When Blacks, Arabs and Latinos are able to walk down their street without being harassed by the cops. It comes when workers across the country say to the bosses “you need us more than we need you.” Theatre, just like everything else in this world, belongs to us, and if we want it out of the hands of the charlatans who are trying to shove Miss Saigon down our throats, then we need to take the whole package back.
Stuff Happens is a step toward that. I hope it does make it to the States. And when the smoke clears, I hope there’s a movement big enough to trample this war and this system to the ground.
ALEXANDER BILLET is an actor, writer and socialist currently living in London. Back home he is a member of the International Socialist Organization.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org