Last month, the first installment in Moving Arts Theater’s monthly discussion program, “The War Plays Project,” consisted mostly of local writers who had written plays about the U.S. invasion(s) of Iraq, and who were trying to fathom the public’s disinterest in movies and plays about those wars.
Theories abounded: public fatigue from overexposure to either press coverage of the war or rhetoric by proponents and opponents alike, or perhaps a general desire for distraction from all the vitriol. I suspect something else is going on — something that involves the very language of the theater.
When I was in graduate school at UCLA, there existed a bias in that school's theater department against allegorical plays in general, and absurdist plays in particular. Preferred were well-constructed dramas and docudramas about recognizable human emotions, and issues plucked from newspapers, magazines and talk radio. I remember one influential new faculty member dismissing Edward Albee as a living anachronism. “Theater of the Absurd is dead,” he proclaimed. Within the year, Ronald Reagan was elected president. Before you could name a leftist Latin American nation whose duly elected government we weren’t trying to topple, we were being sold the Star Wars defense shield for protection from those pesky Russians, along with the argument that Pacific Coast redwoods were a source of air pollution and that only the logging industry could save us from the scourge of toxic trees. Not even Eugene Ionesco could have come up with a script like that.
The absurd and Orwellian reports coming from the White House have since grown even more obviously duplicitous, and the lack of counterargument from mass-media journalists is almost Soviet. And that’s the source of my hunch: Smart people who attend theater have learned to distrust the indignant “newspaper speak” in which topical, political plays converse. David Hare’s docudrama about the second U.S. invasion of Iraq, Stuff Happens, and Tim Robbins’ chronicle of grunts and journalists in that same war, Embedded, pinned their bid for “importance” on overfamiliar arguments. But the larger cause of these plays' being so dated, even on their opening nights, wasn’t that we’d already been bludgeoned by such arguments in the press, but that we’d been so transparently lied to by that press. Political discourse itself grows wearying in the theater, no matter whose side it espouses, because the truth it lays claim to has been so tortured and abused.
The political dramas that draw crowds these days speak through allegories — like political plays in any society whose politics have become too dogmatic for rational exchanges. These plays’ abstractions are decoded through ancient Greek tragedies, or through a misunderstood green witch railing against the hypocrisy of power and conformity in Wicked. These are fairy tales that those professors at UCLA in 1980 would have dismissed as frivolous, when actually they’re loaded politically and metaphysically, without any character uttering a single policy statement.
Enter Scott Ritter, chief weapons inspector for the U.N. Security Committee from 1991 to 1998. Ritter was speaking at the Hayworth Theatre last Wednesday night on issues ranging from relations with Iraq and Iran to the absence of a viable antiwar movement in the United States. Ritter’s comments (and a second-half interview by journalist Jason Leopold) were part of what he described as a performance piece in development, inspired by his book Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement.
Ritter is a big man, physically and morally. Were he just an actor on a local stage rather than a player on the world stage, his performance would be just another slightly overacted one-man show. But Ritter redefines “suspension of disbelief” through the verifiable authority of his actions in life. He resigned on principle as weapons inspector to protest Iraq’s expulsion of his inspection team, and the failure of both the United States and the United Nations to press for enforcement of the U.N. resolution demanding that Iraq allow his U.N. inspectors to do their job. He had a wife and twin 5-year-old daughters when Bill Clinton’s national-security adviser, Sandy Berger, warned him that if he resigned his post, the FBI would come after him. Ritter resigned anyway, and he felt Berger’s wrath through an arrest on false and unfiled charges by the FBI that he solicited dates with minors in an Internet sting operation.
Things then grew even more surreal. The Iraqis had kicked out the inspectors, they said, because the CIA was using weapons inspectors as spies in order to obtain intelligence — not to dismantle an illegal weapons program but to plan an invasion of their country. Slowly, with a deepening sense of Washington's betrayal, Ritter realized that the Iraqi argument was well-founded.
Now, Ritter insists, the decision in Washington to bomb Iran has already been made. It’s too late to stop it, and on this matter it’s irrelevant who is elected in November.
“Both Clinton and Obama spoke of Iran as a nation pursuing nuclear weapons, despite the CIA report that there is no evidence of a weapons program today. Iran has a nuclear-enrichment program that is authorized by the United Nations and signed off by Iran and the United States. Iran poses no threat to the United States. This is not a war of necessity. We’ll regret this decision. But the American people have been imprinted, as they were last time.”
To make his larger points, however, Ritter speaks in allegories. Example: Because we love firefighters doesn’t mean we love fire. No, we arrest arsonists. Because we love our soldiers doesn’t mean we have to love war. But America does love war, at least the idea of winning one. There is no viable antiwar movement in this country, Ritter says, and there has to be in order for anything to change — that, and the replacement of all members of Congress who voted for the war in Iraq. Disapproval of the war reflected in the polls is not a reflection of our antipathy to war, Ritter argues, but of our antipathy to losing a war. Were we not stranded in a quagmire, few would be questioning the rationale or the legality of the 2003 invasion.
So now we’ll bomb Iran to punish it for the 30-year natural-gas contract it struck with China, Ritter says.
“Our aggression is to dictate the terms of development of China and India through the Middle East. Global empire is what we need to be frightened of. All empires end, most empires badly. I don’t want this for my country.”
At Santa Monica’s City Garage, Charles Duncombe’s adaptation of Heiner Müller’s text The Mission, which Duncombe retitled The Mission (Accomplished), takes Müller’s saga of three French insurgents (Troy Dunn, Bo Roberts and David Mack) in 1798 who tried to instigate a slave rebellion in British-ruled Jamaica, then juxtaposes that poem about regime change gone awry with images of a ruminative George W. Bush (John Deschamps), Donald Rumsfeld (David E. Frank), Dick Cheney (Roberts) and an American soldier in Iraq (Maximiliano Molina). Punching such a hole in the wall of history is a technique Duncombe endeavored in a 2001 adaptation of a different Müller text, Frederick of Prussia: George W.’s Dream of Sleep. The two productions are City Garage’s bookends to the Bush II presidency and could, taken together, be called Empire Lost.
Duncombe sails on stormy artistic waters, imposing a topical American context onto Müller’s historical allegory. Every rule in the book says this should fail, like those productions of Julius Caesar in which the title character emerges wearing a U.S. flag pin and throws the word nucular into the prose. Yet Duncombe pulls it off, largely because his own writing style matches Müller’s careful and tender poeticism. The other lifeboat comes from director Frédérique Michel, who guides the American portraits away from caricature.
Aside from that, Michel’s production is as visually elegant and erotic as the text is intellectually rigorous. Wonderful performances come from by Ishani Das, Cynthia Mance and Amanda Mayen. How a portrait of such brutality can emerge so sensually is a trick that defies description. There’s a subtle hint in this production that matches Ritter’s sentiments: that the end of empire need not mean the end of the world; life’s richness and beauty can persevere, if we allow it.
THE MISSION (ACCOMPLISHED) | Adapted by CHARLES DUNCOMBE from the text by HEINER MÜLLER | Presented by CITY GARAGE, 134O½ Fourth Street (west alley), Santa Monica | Through June 1 | (310) 319-9939