Anatomy of a Quagmire


There are three kinds of political play, and David Hare’s Stuff Happens tries to be all of them. Given its enormous, urgent subject and a mere two-and-a-half-hour running time, this inevitably brings the script a certain muddled quality. But maybe that’s not important. After all, any writer might get muddled—not to say overexcited—in his eagerness to confront a topic as vast and immediate as our current quagmire in Iraq. And the three plays Hare wants to draw from it are all important, even necessary. One of them, sufficiently developed, might even have been a masterpiece. In the moments—all too brief—when that one takes hold, Stuff Happens links you not only to the evening news but to the summits of political tragedy: For an instant, you breathe the air of Aeschylus and Shakespeare—a blast of pure oxygen much needed in a theater where, this year, the atmosphere of most plays, imports and local products alike, has been nothing but stale smoke. So give Hare his due. That he tried, and came so close to succeeding at his impossible task, is impressive enough.

We are stuck in Iraq. Every month, a few more Americans and a great many more Iraqis die, while your tax dollars gurgle down the sewer of the war’s multibillion-dollar cost. Told in retrospect, in terse scenes interspersed with flash-forwards to the current situation, Stuff Happens tries to explain how we got there. Its viewpoint is specifically British; its focus is specifically on political maneuverings and negotiations. From an ordinary U.S. citizen’s point of view, a lot has been left out: This is a play about the war on terrorism with no Guantánamo, no Patriot Act, no Valerie Plame, no mass wiretapping, and only passing mention of the fall of the Taliban. No mention, either, of terrorist incidents, or the arrests and legal controversies arising therefrom, in Spain, Italy, or Germany: Britain and America are the principal pieces on Hare’s diplomatic chessboard, with France the principal kibitzer on its sidelines. But that too is understandable: America made this war; England came along under protest, willy-nilly. Hare’s entirely understandable outrage at being made to go to war under protest, willy-nilly, is the engine that drives Stuff Happens.

That Hare’s outrage is understandable doesn’t mean he can steer the engine lucidly, however. When his anger gets the better of him, Stuff Happens becomes a naked, screaming cry of fury, which might have been fiercely effective outdoors on a platform at some political rally but doesn’t help you track the nuances of a complex series of political deals in the small, enclosed space of the Public’s Newman Theater. Those deals—the endless back-and-forth between British and American officials, the endless juggling of discrepant facts among public statements, private agreements, and secret agendas—are the play’s substance, a road map that Hare reads like a clear-eyed documentarian when his outrage calms down long enough for him to navigate.

But then Hare’s playwriting instinct takes over: The major figures in this story begin to appear to him as characters rather than real people. He invents things for them to say or to leave unsaid. He gives them little unverified tidbits of attitude and comment. As a result, we, riding along at his mercy, never get the full benefit of his documentary clarity: We can’t be sure what’s factual and what’s made up. This puts him, ironically, in the same position as the politicians he’s outraged by, with their now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t pictures of Iraq’s nuclear plants and biological-weapons factories. Not that Hare gives us the kind of phony-baloney, fact-suppressing hard sell that the Bush administration has used from the start to win its points. If anything, he steps rather gingerly around the notion that this was an out-and-out conspiracy to commit fraud. In so doing, he probably gives the dangerous, greedy incompetents now running our country far more credit than they deserve.

In a sense, it’s Hare’s desire to be fair-minded that does him in. If his outrage had produced a giant, viciously excessive cartoon on the order of Barbara Garson’s MacBird!, the energy charge its laughter released could strengthen us. If, conversely, he had thrown away both fury and factoids and built his own data-free conception of Bush, Cheney & Co., he might have been able to sustain the high political tragedy that, at its best, Stuff Happens is: the story of two decent, idealistic men—Tony Blair and Colin Powell—who, half blinded by their dream of a peaceful and prosperous post–Cold War globe, let themselves be inveigled, through tricks and pressures and outright lies, into believing that a preemptive invasion of Iraq was a necessary evil. As enacted by Byron Jennings (Blair) and Peter Francis James (Powell), in Daniel Sullivan’s swift, understated production, this is genuinely heartrending—in particular Jennings’s performance: As the agony increases, his nerves seem to fray more visibly and his lanky figure to get longer and gaunter, as if he were being stretched on an unseen rack. But Sullivan’s cast is almost uniformly strong: The vaudeville team of Jeffrey DeMunn’s weaselly, aggressive Rumsfeld and Zach Grenier’s coarse-grained, smiley-smug Cheney also deserve special praise, as do Robert Sella’s triple-tongued turn as a French diplomat and George Bartenieff’s beaming Hans Blix. To see Stuff Happens is not to see a fully achieved play, but it is to learn what incredible opportunities history offers a playwright—and to realize how severely we ourselves have been trapped in a historic nightmare from which there seem to be, increasingly, only hideous ways out.

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