LONDON—Last week, a general spoke to a bank of TV cameras. “What I have done is what I was instructed to do, and what I was instructed to do was extract terror,” he said. The announcement did not occur at a Pentagon press conference, but at the Young Vic Theatre in London. And the words do not come from an inquiry into conduct at Abu Ghraib or the bombing of civilians, but from Sophocles’ Trachiniae of 430 B.C., recently adapted by Martin Crimp as Cruel and Tender. On nearby stages, prisoners in orange jumpsuits awaited news of death sentences; high-ranking officials offered dubious motives for declaring war; soldiers suited up for a battle they didn’t understand; and Donald Rumsfeld explained cheerfully, “to be in an eight-by-eight cell in beautiful, sunny Guantánamo Bay is not inhumane treatment.”
In a recent phone conversation, Michael Billington, The Guardian‘s chief theater critic, observed, “In the last 18 months there’s been a re-energizing of political theater—and it’s all tied up with the war in Iraq. Iraq is the biggest moral crisis Britain’s faced since the Suez invasion in 1956. Everyone’s been trying to respond in some way. It’s had an extraordinary effect on classical and contemporary theater. There’s a palpable enthusiasm at the moment for plays about public issues.”
In theaters all over London these days, debates rage about power and justice, about leadership and its abuses. From the National’s production of Euripides’ 410 B.C. Iphigenia at Aulis to the New Ambassador’s up-to-date Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, curtains rise on works that confront the morality of the coalition’s invasion of Iraq and inquire into government’s dubious motives.
Certainly England can claim a long history of political performance that censures leadership—certain of Shakespeare’s history plays, Jacobean revenge tragedies, Shavian debates, 20th-century dramas by David Hare, David Edgar, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill. But there’s also a rich tradition of theater endorsing Brittania’s rule—the 17th-century court masques of Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson (which starred actual royals as goddesses and heroes), the public executions popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, the pageants and parades that continue today. But when an anti-war demonstration in London attracts hundreds of thousands more people than the Queen’s Birthday Parade, it’s clear that nationalistic pageantry isn’t what the public’s after. Rarely has the British government, both inherited and elected, been so distrusted. While poking fun at Prince Charles has long been second only to football as a national pastime, the Labor Party’s recent third-place finish in by-elections was, the Press Association reported, “the first time in living memory that a governing party has fared so badly in off-year elections.”
David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic and a commissioner of Cruel and Tender, sees theatrical parallels. “It’s the death of the hero, isn’t it?” he says. “You go on wanting to believe in politicians, that new leaders won’t be like the old. Blair had a really good run of it and then with Iraq the whole thing cracked up. The government was shown to be dishonest, gullible, inadequate.”
This is the view audiences are treated to from numerous stalls, boxes, and balconies. Cruel and Tender depicts the great fighter Hercules demented, bloodied, catheterized, and suffering the symptoms of a chemical weapons attack. Agamemnon, the Greek commander of Iphigenia at Aulis, struggles to find a compelling reason for waging war on Troy and falls back on empty, alarmist rhetoric. “It’s for Greece,” he insists. “We’re all of us under that obligation. We must not allow the wives of Greece to be ravished from their beds by barbarians!”
Even when plays don’t present direct allegories to Iraq, they portray leaders as troubled at best, murderous at worst. Stanhope, the battalion commander of R.C. Sherriff’s World War I drama Journey’s End, at the Playhouse Theatre, must make himself numb with whiskey before he can direct his men. And in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Pirandello’s Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse, a mad Italian nobleman play-acts the role of a medieval king, with fatal consequences.
Naturally, given the widespread criticism of U.S. foreign policy, American leaders make unflattering cameos as well. In the National’s Measure for Measure, the line “thou concludest like the sanctimonious pirate” accompanies a projection of a grinning George W. (The audience, a mix of natives and tourists, cackled and applauded.) One also can’t help but think of our president when the corrupt Angelo observes, “most dangerous is that temptation that doth goad us on to sin in loving virtue.” Guantánamo, a docudrama based on spoken evidence assembled by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, scheduled to debut at New York’s 45 Bleecker on August 20, features Donald Rumsfeld cavalierly sidestepping the Geneva Conventions: “We call them detainees, not prisoners of war. . . . It’s our intention to recognize that there are certain standards that are generally appropriate for treating people who were—are—prisoners of war, which these people are not.” Gleefully played by William Hoyland, Rumsfeld makes a perfectly callous stage antagonist. As Slovo notes, “These details, these stories, you couldn’t make them up—it’s something that you just wouldn’t expect.”
But perhaps London audiences are flocking to these stories because—with the exception of Guantánamo—they are made up. Unlike tales of WMDs or direct links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein or carefully controlled embedded journalists, these plays present themselves explicitly as fiction—yet ring true. For one, their narratives are more nuanced, and there-fore more credible, than the melodrama proffered by TV news and tabloid papers, featuring a cast of suffering heroes, rescued heroines, and mustachioed (well, bearded) villains. Theater, by virtue of its liveness, its conflict, its dialogue, can offer audiences multiple perspectives on issues. Lan says, “What the theater does is to show complications, contradictions. Take Hercules in Cruel and Tender. You admire his strength and you’re extremely critical of the way that strength can be used.”
Most of these plays are not illusionistic—actors change the scene, carry props on and off, play multiple parts with little change of costume. These dramas remind the audience of their artifice and typically avoid making simplistic distinctions between saviors and scoundrels. Unusually in an age of soundbites and spin, spectators are forced to think for themselves. Also, theater brings actors and audience together in the same space, allowing them to participate in the process. A public that feels increasingly alienated from its leaders’ decision making must welcome this. As Slovo says, “It’s about having the audience experience something together, and that itself can be transformative. Watching them walk out, you can see that something’s happened to them.”
With rising distrust of the mass media and disillusionment with participatory government, this surge of political theater is unlikely to abate. In addition to Guantánamo, Cruel and Tender may soon transfer to New York. Meanwhile, the fall season in London will offer David Hare’s Stuff Happens—which takes its title from Rumsfeld’s infamous comment on the looting of Baghdad, “Stuff happens . . . and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” The schedule also includes at least two productions of Euripides’ Hecuba, a wrenching illustration of a conquered queen and nation.
Though Billington warns “directors may be striving a bit too hard to achieve topical resonance,” an awesome number of plays—ancient, early modern, contemporary—explicitly discuss the corruption of power or the suspension of civil liberties. They speak, eloquently and forebodingly, to the current conflict and its costs. At the National, for example, a shiver ran through the audience when, in the midst of Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio observed, “There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure; but security enough to make fellowships accurst. . . . This news is old enough, yet it is every day’s news.”