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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.

Portrait of Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez.
Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez.
Photo by Streetsblog LA.

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?

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The essay was very informative, especially in regards to its exploration of America's history of unconstitutional wars. It goes without saying that once the theater lives up to its social purpose by becoming a weapon of social and political change the funding will disappear. You can't bite the hand that feeds you without feeling the results Our collective and subsidized nature has made us submissive servants of the government. We must get to the point where socio-political theater is funded at the grassroots level. That would entail engaging a new audience and making the theater a viable part of the community and less elitist in nature.

Guillermo, thank you for the thoughtful statement. I think you are correct about the draft. I spent 2 years in the army against my will during the Korean "police action" and a few years after I got out I joined a march against the Vietnam war(?). The anti-war movement was so well supported partly because those who were drafted and their families had a personal interest in stopping the war. It was an interesting march because other organizations were involved--organizations that you would not think of. For example, the march was monitored and protected by the Black Panthers who march with us.
--Ted Shank

Thank you for your impassioned piece. Leaving prize
‘upsets’ aside (and wouldn't the awarding of a prize to a play with a war theme actually disprove your argument?), I
agree that war/s --including the current drone variety-- don’t seem to be
getting folks, generally, as upset as they used to for the reasons you describe.
However, plenty of playwrights remain upset. The work is out there, as others have suggested here-- some of it produced, much not or not widely. I
personally went through all the symptoms of loss—disbelief, anger, and finally weary
acceptance of the fate of my own Iraq war play, American Tet, about a military family living through the war/s which I desperately hoped would be produced more often, and more recently
wrote another play on the subject of war and peace (and those drones) with, I fear, similar
consequences. What conclusions to draw? You can’t force others to feel the
passion and necessity that you do about anything, even war. Because there are any number of reasons they choose not to--financial fears, for example. But god help us, if we stop trying.

Isaac is spot on here, both about the prize and about the surfeit of plays.

All of those plays came to mind as soon as I started reading this post. So did "Black Watch," which has been very popular. Bill Cain's "Nine Circles," which won the Steinberg/ATCA Award. "Surrender," co-written by Iraq vet Jason Christopher Hartley. "Nine Parts of Desire" by Heather Raffo. "Return" by Dina Mousawi, which is playing right now in London. "Motortown" by Simon Stephens. "The Great Game," Tricycle Theatre's 12-play cycle about Afghanistan. "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" by Rajiv Joseph. "Betrayed," by George Packer, inspired by his own New Yorker reporting & nonfiction book, "The Assassin's Gate."

A quick Google search turns up even more examples. Here's a recent article about a new surge of Canadian plays about the various conflicts: http://m.theglobeandmail.co...

This doesn't take into account new plays in other cities, in smaller theatres, in festivals. Or productions and readings on the college level, whether departmental projects or independent, student-initiated ones. And then there are projects tied in to such productions. For example, when Actors Theatre of Louisville produced KJ's "Reentry" last season, they also presented Theater of War Productions' "Ajax" as a set of ancillary events including readings, panel discussions and town hall talks: http://actorstheatre.org/sh...

In 2008, I took a play to the Capital Fringe in D.C. about a reporter behind the lines in Iraq. The story spanned from before the war in early 2003 to the then-present day. Being about a journalist, the script is more about the challenge of staying objective in the moment, dealing with what's reported and what's hidden. It may be set in that particular time and place, but I hope the questions and situations are more universal--that was the goal.

We only did a couple of performances at the festival, but with each show, more of the audience was made up of military. One man from the Pentagon came to all but one performance, bringing people and urging others to attend. Talking with them after the shows was fascinating--they were surprised at how right the show felt (and I was a little surprised myself, to be honest). More than a few of them thanked us for doing such a show in the heart of D.C.

For all that, a few hundred people have seen this show. That's maybe less than a single showing of "The Hurt Locker" (or any similarly war-themed film) in a single theater in a single city. Both of those numbers are smaller than the lowest audience number for a single airing of HBO's "Generation Kill." If my goal was to "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," I'd probably try to go into film or television instead.

The reason I work in theatre is not to help the American people "choke on the stench of our wars." I do this to tell stories and share visions, to build community, to serve that community and strengthen it. Sometimes, yes, that's through questioning assumptions and challenging beliefs. Sometimes not. But when it comes to portraying the current and recent wars, there's no lack of work to choose from.

First off, congratulations to Quiara Alegría Hudes on the Pulitzer. I'm eager to see her play and I'm sorry it is not in the anthology I'm about to mention. And thanks to Guillermo Aviles-Roderiguez for this brave, well-thought article. At the risk of sounding self-serving, can I recommend ACTS OF WAR: IRAQ & AFGHANISTAN IN SEVEN PLAYS (Northwestern University Press, 2011). I'm the lead editor, and wrote the introduction to the volume which attempts to articulate an aesthetic of "theater of witness" (i.e. plays that bear witness to the violence of our time); my play "Prophecy" about an Iraq War Vet who commits suicide, is also in the book, as are plays by six other writers (Bill Cain, Naomi Wallace, David Hare, Lydia Stryk, Simon Stephens, Victoria Brittain & Gillian Slovo) who early on bravely took on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and wrote fantastic plays. (The book took several years to go from manuscript to release.) Yes, of course, theater should "do something about this killing" and it CAN do something--the problem is not with the writers, (nor the audience) in fact, but with the producers (and the critics) who are playing it safe. My most recent play "Another Life" is about the march to the illegal war(s) post 9/11 and about the illegal U.S. torture program; it will reopen at Theater for the New City next March after two workshop productions this past season that were widely praised by writers, thinkers, artists, lawyers and general audiences (all I have to do is raise the $30,000 to make this possible). And so it goes...it is great that at least one writer has been financially and publicly rewarded for her humanity and her poetry--may this be the beginning of a trend of meaningful work being more widely seen and appreciated. So, again, my congrats to the Pulitzer Prize winning play and its author, Quiara!

"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."

Because at this point we're (at least nominally) engaged in military actions on /behalf/ of the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan-- so it makes no sense to declare war on them. Also, Afghanistan is not in the Middle East-- it's in central Asia-- so unless you are referring to either covert actions, or the first Gulf War, or training exercises, et cetera, U.S. military operations have been conducted in the middle east for nine, not eleven, years. Fact-checking is very important.

The first paragraph here is mighty bizarre and, well, specious in its reasoning. The reason why Quiara's play was considered an upset is that it hadn't run in New York and it had yet to have a high profile production. Very few plays win the Pulitzer without one of those (or, usually, both) being true. It had nothing to do with the play's content. Deducing from people's cynicism about the motives of the Pulitzer committee to an unrelated conclusion about whether or not theater artists hate war enough is a very large leap indeed.

I'm not sure what you mean by the lack of "anti-war" theater in major venues as well. In New York, there's been several anti-war plays, from Craig Wright's "Lady" (at Rattlestick) to Chris Shinn's "Dying City" at an obscure venue called Lincoln Center to Quiara's "Elliott: A Soldier's Fugue" at the Culture Project to Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank's "Aftermath" at NYTW, Chris Durang's "Why Torture is Wrong And The People Who Love Them" and David Hare's "Stuff Happened" at the Public to dozens of indie theater productions. And these are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. If anything, "Water By The Spoonful" could've been considered an underdog because there's been such a surplus of Iraq War related plays critics could be forgiven for suffering from fatigue on the subject.

The issue then is-- and it's a scarier one to confront-- why hasn't the surfeit of anti-war plays in the US had any impact on the country's actions?


Thank you for writing this piece. We can't possibly express enough outrage -- or produce enough plays -- about war. When the war on Iraq was declared, I must admit to having felt useless as a playwright and turned my energies to protest. Eventually that protest led back to a play, Looking for George, a multimedia collage stemming from a project I instigated where some friends, students, and I wrote weekly letters to then President G.W. Bush. As a result, a parked car inhabited by two men sat outside my house every day for a couple of months and my mother was quite upset with me for putting my 4-year-old daughter in danger.

I'm glad for any play dealing with the atrocity of war to be recognized.

Guillermo ~

Thank you for
your passionate, thoughtful HowlRound piece Theater
of War. You have generated an equally passionate responsive conversation
around the nation.

I’m thinking about how to focus your
idea of having many theaters produce a play about war (meaning a play against
war or at least a play that reveals the “consequence, costs and
casualties” of war, both “literal and metaphorical”.

We’ve seen in recent years how digital tools enable the
national theater community to produce and advertise simultaneous national and
international theatrical events. Perhaps your idea can be channeled in such a
way that a great number of theaters buying into this idea agree to produce
their plays or reading series during a specified time period, say during a two
month period during the 2013-2014 season. They announce this as a national
event calling attention to itself. I am suggesting the 2013-2014 season because
most 2012-2013 seasons are already selected. Each theater can choose to join
hands with local and regional partners who are active in addressing these
issues in the political realm. Having a collection of allies might enhance opportunities
for PR, marketing and audience development.

If waiting until the 2013-2104 season is too far away,
maybe theaters can do a national play reading event on a specific day during the
upcoming 2012-2103 season where theaters agree to read a play of their choice
addressing the issues of war. This could be a prelude to producing plays as a
national event in the 2013-2104 season.

Asking TCG to help coordinate and collaborate might be
useful as well as using HowlRound as a communicative tool.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars you reference, not to mention
warlike military adventures in Pakistan and Yemen, are indeed hidden in plain
sight as you point out. Your ideas demonstrate the agency theatrical art has always
had in the fabric of society. Collectively, the audiences of all theaters in
the U.S. in not insignificant. And all audiences all have families and friends
and co-workers. Many go to churches, mosques and synagogues with large
populations. So the potential ripple effect is substantial.

Someone would need to spearhead this effort and drive the

Two plays I’d like to add to the list that is growing in
your HowlRound responses:

R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End and Steven Belber’s Geometry
of Fire.

Thanking you
again for putting it out there.

Benny Sato Ambush

Distinguished Producing Director in Residence
Emerson Stage
Emerson College
Boston, MA

I have to share Mr. Butler's surprise at the author's surprise about Quiara's play (which I am eager to read or, better, see) being considered an underdog. And it is true that NY audiences have had ample opportunities to witness war-related theatre and performance. I myself was in a reading of the Irwin Shaw play at Cooper Union several seasons ago. Lysistrata, in a badly adapted format, recently crashed and burned on Broadway. In addition to traditional theatre, the non-profit Intersections International has sponsored, for several years now, the Veteran-Civilian Dialogue, an engagement between returning vets and civilians interested in the war, its aftermath on the home front and the psyches of the families of returning soldiers and their own struggles with depression, joblessness, trauma (that over-used and little understood term). The program has attracted many theatre followers, partly because the format is based in therapeutic techniques that originate in theatre games.
Whatever you think of familial role-playing as a theatrical device, the evenings at the church on 5th Avenue which Intersections International sponsor are thoughtful and deeply engaging - acknowledging the politics of war, but focusing on the broken interpersonal reckonings and individual struggles that are war's spillover and lasting legacy. As Mother Courage still reminds us - oh yes, that too was done here recently at the Public as was The Great Game, on Afghanistan, thanks to Oskar Eustis and his collaborators and partners.
Having shared Mr. Butler's surprise, however, I would still acknowledge the author's call for more focus on the ongoing effects of the war, particularly in communities outside major urban centers and even within NYC. And larger viewpoints encompassing more of the context of war - the issue of financial commitment to war-making is inseperable from the other fiscal concerns of Occupy Wall Street, the current political campaign, the Supreme Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act and all politics that hinge on where we spend our resources, that is to say, all politics. Surely we need more performance about these topics, and ongoing, about the dwindling dollars for education that could be requisitioned from the military budget for next year.
More is...more!