Theater of War
When Quiara Alegría Hudes’ play Water by the Spoonful won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, many called it an “upset.” It seems that not many people thought a play about a Puerto Rican war veteran returning home from Iraq could stand up to both an on Broadway hit (Other Desert Cities) and an off Broadway hit (Sons of the Prophet).
As I reflected on some possibilities for why this win seemed so unexpected to so many, I came to a depressing realization: we in the American theatre no longer hate war in the same way our Vietnam-era art fathers did. We are actually quite comfortable with war, as long as all of the flag-draped coffins coming home stay off of our favorite television channels. Our present day theatre situation is understandable given the fact that it is difficult to see the point in doing theatre to help stop a war if the sacrifices and costs of the war can’t be seen or felt. Perhaps this is why any play that deals with the idea that war does have consequences, costs and casualties is not given much of a shot at winning any significant recognition—let alone a Pulitzer.
It has to do with wrestling away music and pageantry from war’s hands so that we can start to get a full picture of what is really going on. I am not sure when or how it happened, but we in American theatre seemed to have surrendered too much of our music and pageantry to war mongering politicians and a saber rattling media.
Whatever the reason for the relative silence of the anti-war theatre movement, I am here to offer a humble proposal to get our troops home and stop the killing in Iraq and Afghanistan, in two easy steps. So the first thing that must happen? Congress needs to declare that our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan constitute wars. Do you remember when your high school Government class studied the United States Constitution? Specifically Article 1, Section 8? The part where it says that only Congress has the power to declare war? Well, eleven years after our “military operations” in the Middle East started, Congress has yet to get around to declaring war against Iraq or Afghanistan. This may seem like a formality but we have no hope of stopping these wars until we call them what they are and more importantly, it is impossible to stop something that has never started. It is impossible for us to stop the wars until we deal with the fact that we started them. Granted, our elected officials may resist this deceleration of war, but given the fact that syphilis now has a higher approval rating than Congress gives me confidence that we the people can persuade them.
The second step we need to take is much more complicated because it has to do with wrestling away music and pageantry from war’s hands so that we can start to get a full picture of what is really going on. I am not sure when or how it happened, but we in American theatre seemed to have surrendered too much of our music and pageantry to war mongering politicians and a saber rattling media. It was not always this way. I remember the mad rush of a lot of theatremakers to get on the anti-war bandwagon back when we first invaded Iraq, but now eleven years later one would be hard pressed to find theatres, especially in Los Angeles, actively and publicly condemning what we are doing in the Middle East. Of course there are powerful examples of theatre makes exploring our wars in the last few years, Mallory Catlett’s Oh What War and KJ Sanchez’ Reentry come to mind but have we had enough?
What is it about the way we live or the way we think that is keeping us from making theatre about the one issue that is at the root of so many of our most pressing problems? These wars are costing us more than we can afford to lose, since 2001 we have spent more than $1.3 trillion on two military conflicts. Taxpayers in the city of Los Angeles alone will pay $1.1 billion for the Afghanistan war in fiscal year 2012. Now I don’t have a math degree but I think that American theatremakers could have used $1.5 trillion over the last eleven years to stage a lot of plays.
But the real cost to us, even if we don’t see it, is in blood. More than a 100,000 men women and children have died in Iraq alone, fortunately most of the casualties are not American, as a matter of fact relatively few soldiers are dying in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are unfortunately coming home to commit suicide at record rates. Returning vets are killing themselves at twice the rate of deaths in combat, and today being a veteran doubles one’s risk of suicide, if you are a vet between eighteen and twenty-four years old your risk of committing suicide is quadrupled. Luckily American theatre is protecting us from these unsettling truths.
But this is not an animadversion against any theatremakers. I am actually confessing that my work in the past ten years has not been particularly concerned with ending any far-flung conflict anywhere in the world. Before I go on I should also say that I do not own stock in Halliburton or any other player in the military industrial complex. I also do not have any immediate family or friends who serve in any branch of the United States armed forces. I do however teach many veterans and active duty soldiers and the unsolicited confessions they have made to me make me feel ashamed. Perhaps it is my interactions with these young men and women that have compelled this penitential essay. I feel ashamed at how easy it has become for me to put this massive and perpetual cost in blood and money out of my head. As a director who prides himself in exploring socio-political issues how could I have remained silent for so long? Did I just feel like the subject of the war had been done already and that it would be pointless to do more theater about how bad our wars are? Did I think it hopeless to try to use theater to stop killing? Or was it that I suffered from the “let’s not bum people out syndrome” that I diagnose other theater makers of suffering?
Only after thinking about this do I now see that the key to stopping these wars is to stop hiding them. Let the sun shine on what we are doing so that killing people will stop being easy and that none of us will be able to look away and remain silent or pretend that nothing is happening. We seem to have somehow made war so painless and easy that rushing into it has become the most natural thing in the world. So what if we accidently drop a bomb on a wedding party? Or rub a little fake menstrual blood on some enemy combatant’s face? As Donald Rumsfeld says “freedom’s untidy”. If we lived in the 1940’s (the last time Congress declared war) it would have been nearly impossible for us to not feel the repercussions of war. All the fit males among us would have been drafted and the women would have been tapped to work in vacated factory positions to help in the mass effort to support our troops fighting in Europe. The entertainment of the day would have taken its material directly from the front pages of the newspapers and radio reports from Europe. We would have all made literal or symbolic sacrifices and we would have all wanted the war to end as soon as possible, in large part because of these sacrifices. Back in those days solders would do their tour of duty, come home (if they were lucky) and someone else would step up and take their place. But we live in 2012 and Robert Bales, being compelled to serve a fourth tour of duty does not have a chance to really command our attention, even after he allegedly massacres sixteen sleeping Afghan women and children. Therefore I shall swiftly and humbly propose my ideas to end these wars. Let’s make the killing of people in wars harder to ignore. Let us make it so that American theater helps people choke on the stench of our wars, we can start by injecting as many anti war plays into our upcoming seasons as possible, start with the more familiar and less threatening plays like Lysistrata and Mother Courage and Her Children and then move on to the lesser known and more risky plays like Brecht’s A Man’s A Man, Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War and Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead.
After sprinkling these plays generously throughout our seasons perhaps we should move on to the work of reinstituting conscription in the United States. How else can we bring the devastation of war home to every man, woman, and child who is connected to a male between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five years of age? Let us all share in the literal and metaphorical cost of war. Perhaps then theater makers will be compelled to call attention to the carnage in the Middle East and here at home. This will be an opportunity for the theater world to make amends for failing to create more urgent and relevant theater. We can start working like mad to send as many young men, preferably rich white ones (so as to expedite public outrage), into harms way as soon as possible. The Draft may be the only way to inspire America to see the drawbacks of these wars and to make us worthy of theater’s long and storied anti war tradition. Luckily for us the U.S. never did away with the selective service system so we already have the first wave of young men registered and ready to go. We can use all the music and pageantry we have been saving up and put it toward giving the Draft the momentum it needs. Desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s time for theater makers to take action and start doing something about all this killing don’t you think?