From Bengal Tigers to Baghdad Tanks, the Stage Finally Catches Up with the Wars in the Middle East





Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

No matter where you go in Hollywood these days, people who work in the film industry complain bitterly that none of the movies produced about the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made much of a profit at the box office. The Hurt Locker even won the Oscar as best film and hardly made any money.

Why isn’t the public fascinated by movies about our wars in the Middle East, they ask. War stories are a vital part of the history of entertainment. World War II movies did well in the 1940s and ‘50s (nearly three hundred of them) and are shown on television endlessly (John Wayne made a career out of them). Civil War movies have been even more popular. Yet nobody goes to see movies about Iraq or Afghanistan.

The same has been said about the theater world. Broadway producers stayed away from the Afghan and Iraqi wars, that been ongoing for ten years. Now, though, it seems like the log jam of inactivity in production of recent war plays has been smashed wide open. This spring there will be more than a dozen plays about our recent conflicts in that corner of the world and in other wars back through history, highlighted by the much praised ‘War Horse,’ about World War I, at Lincoln Center, that just opened.

The biggest play about the history of the Iraqi war is ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,’ starring Robin Williams, that opened March 31. In it, a Bengal Tiger (Williams) helps to narrate the story of America’s presence in Iraq as various ghosts, especially that of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s reckless and violence son, wander about the stage.

It is not the only war play, though. Last December, the Public Theater presented ‘The Great Game: Afghanistan,’ a trilogy of three sharply written plays about the history of wars in Afghanistan between the Afghans, the British, Soviets and Americans since the middle of the nineteenth century. Last week ‘Blackwatch’ returned to St. Ann’s Warehouse Theater, in Brooklyn, for the third time. ‘Blackwatch’ is the story of the fabled Scottish Blackwatch regiment, founded in the eighteenth century, as it becomes bogged down in combat in Iraq. Later in the spring, the 59E59 Theater will produce ‘The Eyes of Babylon,’ about a gay soldier’s fighting in the Iraqi war. At the end of April, the WorkShop Theater Company, at 312 W. 36th St., an off off Broadway theater, will open an  unusual month long workshop of plays devoted to the American military men and women involved in the Iraqi and Afghan wars and other conflicts. Over the last few years, there have been several plays about prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, in Cuba.

All of the plays have not been about the Middle East. ‘War Horse’ was about a teenager’s hunt for his horse in World War I. Last year, Lynn Nottage’s play about women in the Congolese Civil War, ‘Ruined,’ won the Pulitzer Prize. This winter, ‘Honey Brown Eyes,’ about the 1990s war in Bosnia, was staged Off Broadway. This month the Free Theater of Belarus will stage three plays about the wars against the people there by the dictatorial government (last week Minsk, in Belarus, was the setting for a bomb that killed eleven and wounded hundreds). The Public Theater just produced ‘Compulsion,’ about the diary of Anne Frank, the teenaged Dutch girl killed in World War II. ‘The Whipping Man,’ about the end of the Civil War, is at City Center. The New York Theater Workshop just announced that in the fall it will stage a new version of ‘The Iliad,” about the Trojan wars.

Wars, brutal and gory though they may be, have always been popular in American entertainment. U.S. theaters have been home to plays from ancient Greece and the Persian Wars to the American Revolution, Civil War, Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam. You want musicals? How about ‘South Pacific’ about World War II, ‘Miss Saigon’ about Vietnam, or ‘1776’ about the American Revolution? There are no more heroic, or tragic, sagas than war sagas.

Today, the U.S. is involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is part of the NATO attacks on Libya. Those wars offer the same bloodshed as World War II, the same heroism as Vietnam and the same bold drama as World War I. They are gritty subjects for the theater.

“People go to plays about American wars for several reasons,” said Susan Feldman, artistic director of St. Ann’s Warehouse Theater, that is staging ‘Blackwatch.’ “First, wars offer complicated dramas about soldiers lives in combat. There are no more dangerous stories than those. Second, audiences want to find out what life is like for the victims of the wars, not just the armies. Third, we all go to plays about wars to try to find out how we can end these terrible conflicts.”

The theater should be applauded for tackling these wars while they are being fought. Movies have always tended to lag behind wars by a decade or so. Most of the Vietnam movies did not start coming out until the mid 1980s, nearly ten years after the evacuation of Saigon (‘Platoon,’ 1986, ‘Full Metal Jacket, 1987,’ ‘First Blood,’ 1982, ‘Born on the Fourth of July,’ 1989). Most of the World War II films came out in the 1950s.

Why have there been so few plays about our Middle East wars until now and why have movies about them failed?

The reason is that, polls show, these wars are unpopular with the American people. The people do not buy tickets to see American forces in wars they do not approve of while they are being fought, when the war is news. They go later, when the war has become history.  

“People just can’t appreciate plays or movies about wars while they are being fought. That was true of Vietnam, Korea and the Gulf. Now, after ten years of war in the Middle East, and the approaching end of them, the public is ready to sit back and watch stories about the conflicts,” said David Mead, the artistic director of the Workshop Theater. “War stories are not fun, either. They are compelling and engaging, but often sad. It’s always hard to sell war plays, but especially when the wars, and the debates about them, are in the papers and on TV every day.”

Even so, playwrights do tackle unpopular wars. There were hundreds of plays about Vietnam, a dramatically unpopular American conflict. David Rabe’s Vietnam War play, ‘Sticks and Bones’ even won the Tony Award as best Broadway play of 1972.

The key to all war plays is to stage them so that they resonate over the years. They need to have important themes and strong dialogue about war in general, not just a single conflict. In any play about the Middle East, those themes have to connect to all wars and the millions of soldiers who fought in them.

Now, finally, we are starting to see a theatrical exploration of stage dramas about Iraq and Afghanistan. The flood may be on.

The question that seems to be asked in all of them is why are we there? It is asked again and again in ‘Bengal Tiger,’ starring Robin Williams. As the ghost of a tiger wandering the bullet riddled streets of Baghdad, Williams tells a startling tale of meeting a little girl with half her head blown off. Why? Americans soldiers battle over gold plated guns and gold plated toilet seats they stole. Why?

‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’ is fiction, but there are a number of plays about real soldiers, such as ‘Blackwatch’ and ‘Eyes of Babylon.’ ‘Blackwatch’ was written after the author interviewed dozens of Blackwatch troops who fought in Iraq. It is their story.

“There is no story like the true story,” said St. Ann’s Feldman. “’Blackwatch follows the soldiers from the pubs they frequented in Edinburgh to Baghdad and back again, studying their personal lives and combat lives. When you see the story of these soldiers you can come to terms with what happens in a war to all soldiers.”

Today, in 2011, there are stories about gay soldiers, too, something you did not see a lot of thirty years ago. In ‘Eyes of Babylon,’ that opens in May at the 59E59th Street Theater, author Jeff Key, a 6’5”, 220 lb. Marine, tells of his experiences in the Iraqi war as a gay man who identified himself as such to the troops around him and eventually left the army under the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.

“The play is the journey for self acceptance for gay soldiers in a world over there, with the American military fighting the Iraqis that is immoral. That war, and the Afghan war, were and are debacles and people can learn that by going to these plays,” said Key.

“War makes any man, gay or straight, a very serious person. You might die any day; that doesn’t happen back home,” Key said. “War is a lesson in life and when audiences see war stories they understand that.”

And gay men are tough. “I joined the Marines late, at age 34, right after 9/11, to battle the terrorists because I love my country and I love freedom. Gay men are patriots, too.”

There have been steps in the healing process, too. There is a traveling theatrical group, Theater of War, that uses ancient war themes to help contemporary soldiers deal with our wars today. The troupe of actors, funded by grants, visits different cities and military bases and stages reading sections of two Greek plays, ‘Ajax’ and ‘Philoctetes,’ both by Sophocles. They cover numerous issues that affect soldiers, such as the difficulties of returning to a quiet home life after a tour of combat duty. Those Greek plays had themes that were eternal, that are as important today as they were three thousand years ago. They are of great help to veterans of U.S. wars who go to see them.

WorkShop Theater has an interesting program for its month long festival, called ‘They Have Borne the Battle: a Celebration of Those Serving in the Armed Forces.’ The unique festival, that kicks off May 5, will feature six one act plays, ‘Air Force 525,’ by Marylee Martin, ‘Bethesda,’ by Bob  Stewart, ‘Breakfast with Charlie,’ by Bob Manus, ‘The Fatwa of Corpsman Johnny Jones,’ by Greg Bodme, ‘On the Advice of an Old Friend,’ by David Mead and ‘Vowed and Wowed,’ by Rich Orloff. Added to that will be readings of two full length plays, ‘The Dishonorable Discharge of Private Pitts,’ by Dan Damiano, and ‘Army Royalty,’ by Mead. The festival will include a new translation of Aeschylus’ ‘The Persians’ (May 22) and a film documentary, ‘No Job for a Woman,’ about women war correspondents (May 23). Tickets to the one act plays are $18; everything else is free.

Five of the eight plays are about the Iraqi or Afghan War. Those include stories of men in Veterans’ hospitals, marriages, the return home, friendships formed on the battlefield and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Others are about World War II and Vietnam (one of which, ‘On the Advice of an Old Friend,’ is about a Jane Fonda like character who, late in life, meets one of the men incarcerated in a POW camp in Hanoi at the time she was on her infamous visit to the North Vietnamese Army.

“We are celebrating the idea that Americans now treat the men and women who served in our army with a lot of respect. You didn’t always have that. The Vietnam Vets were treated disgracefully. There was a phrase back then, ‘Hate the War, Hate the Warrior.’ It was true,” said David Mead, artistic director of the WorkShop Theater, himself a Vietnam Vet.

Playwrights also believe, deep down, that if only the people in charge of wars went to their plays, that argue so strongly against them, they would quit. If they only had that chance. Well, they did. Pentagon officials, hundreds of them, agreed to bring in the company of ‘The Great Game: Afghanistan’ to put on a performance for them. It was a powerful trilogy against U.S. involvement in that country. The Pentagon’s reaction – great show, great theme, great acting. The next day, the Pentagon went right back to bombing in Afghanistan. It meant nothing.

Will there be more plays about wars in the future?

Of course there will. That’s because, as St. Ann’s Feldman said, ‘there will always be wars.”



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