“Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies…
…and the nimble gunner
With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,
[Alarum, and chambers go off]
And down goes all before them. Still be kind,
And eke out our performance with your mind.”
–Shakespeare, Henry V
In the past few months I’ve attended three stage performances that portray contemporary war subjects and themes. Theater of War, staged by a troupe called Outside the Wire, combines veterans and theatrical actors to read scenes from Sophocles’ plays Ajax and Philoctetes. Both plays concern an anguished veteran’s return from the Homeric wars in ways that are relevant to contemporary redeployment issues. Beyond the Wall, a work-in-progress product of a student vet at Vassar College named Jack Eubanks, is an ensemble dramatic reading that explores the pre- and post-deployment life of its lead character, while also making connections between the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and the Vietnam War. Goliath, a production of a New York City experimental company called Poetic Theater, dramatizes the heinous acts of a soldier responsible for war crimes in Iraq. Like Beyond the Wall, it shows us its hero before the war and then again afterwards. A common thread of all three is their focus on traumatizing events while deployed and troubled relationships at home. The plays are not especially subtle. They go for characterization that borders on stereotype, on plot lines that, as I’ve reported, seem to be similar, emotions that tend toward the histrionic, and politics that indict and condemn. They assume that war mangles its participants’ psyches, while implying that even more interesting than whatever takes place overseas are the altered-for-the-worse relations of vets with friends, family, lovers, and spouses upon redeployment.
Which just might be the stuff that makes good theater. All three plays were galvanizing to watch and contemplate, and the shared excitement and common cause of the actors and audience palpable. Each performance blended vets and non-vets both on stage and behind the curtain, with the audiences of each similarly mixed. Everyone involved seemed like they were very glad to be in the company of so many like-minded performers and audience members, all committed to thinking just as hard and as well as they could about the impact of the wars. Something about the plays—and dramatic performance at large–must be central to how the wars are being processed culturally. Theater of War, Beyond the Wall, and Goliath each featured opportunities for audience members to engage in post-play Q&As with actors and directors. Contemplating the melodrama of the plays and the earnestness of the post-play discussions, I mused about how the blurring of boundaries separating lighted stage and darkened seats united veterans and non-veterans, actors and audience in a warm balm of curiosity and sharing. The spirit of discovery and reflection may be as good as anything else we’ve got going today in terms of bridging the much talked about civil-military divide.
I encourage all to see productions of these plays if you get the chance, or even mount productions of your own as scripts become available. And please join me in anticipation of new plays about the wars, which I am sure are forthcoming.