Federally subsidized theater in America hasn-t been around since the Roosevelt era-and this is unlikely to change given the recent reelection of a Republican administration. But interestingly, during the first four years of the Bush regime, while it passed no legislation promoting theater in America, it has created-mainly by virtue of its foreign policy decisions-a new cottage industry for the performing arts.
The anti-Bush theater work is becoming a cultural phenomenon to rival the anti-Bush documentary. David Hare-s Stuff Happens is the most prominent example. Developed, workshopped, and performed at the Royal National Theatre in London, Stuff Happens is the result of Britain-s government subsidized theater, which is noteworthy since the play is even harsher towards Tony Blair than it is to his American counterpart.
Hare-s sprawling work charts the international events that led up to the March 19, 2003 bombing of Baghdad. Hare focuses on the diplomatic front, making the rush to war into a sort of chess game, not between Bush and Saddam Hussein, but between Colin Powell and the European leaders.
In Stuff Happens, Powell is shown as the conscience of the play-and of America. Expertly played by American actor Joe Morton, Powell comes across as contemplative, forceful, and even presidential. Hare gives Morton the play-s best line which inspired the 1,100 people in the audience to cheer and applaud: -How do we know they have Weapons of Mass Destruction, Mr. President? Because we have the receipts.-
As with all the dialogue in the play, Hare mixes speeches taken from real life and mixes them-when the world-s leaders go behind closed doors-with scenes of his own imagination. Given the left-leaning slant of his writing, the fear was that Hare simply would stuff the mouths of people like Dubya, Rummy, and Condi with condescending babble. But in fact, some of Hare-s best writing is for people he probably wouldn-t to shake hands with. The anti-UN monologue he provides for Dick Cheney not only rings true, it-s also laugh-out-loud funny.
But the words Hare chooses to end the play are, fittingly, the words of an ordinary Iraqi citizen; yet after three hours of dealing with the international -stuff- that has -happened,- the is but a hint at the intimate, human suffering of war.
This pain and drama is just as important as the official maneuverings of war, and to witness this on-stage, one must turn to director Peter Sellars. Last month, Sellars- work For an End to the Judgment of God/Kissing God Goodbye played here in Los Angeles at REDCAT. With this piece, which was initially staged in Vienna as a response to the bombing of Afghanistan, Sellars is not trying to attack the actions of the current U.S. administration; but rather to locate and then expose what he feels are deeper sentiments, motivations, and prejudices that have infected this country for some time.
Sellars accomplishes this by setting two seemingly incongruous monologues in the context a Pentagon Press briefing. John Malpede, dressed in full military regalia, recites an Anti-American rant from the french poet Antonin Artaud-then Ruth Foreman, rising from the audience like a journalist asking a question, recites a poem by June Jordan that excoriates the religious right.
If Hare-s antiwar play appeals to the mind; Sellars tries to pierce the audiences- hearts and souls. Sellars- work is slow and methodical, plus it is brutally loud; but what it achieves is an emotional impact that registers on a much deeper, almost spiritual, level. Sellars- combination of poetry, stagecraft, and rage is hard to describe, hard to sit through, but once you are inside the theater, equally hard to forget.
Both Hare and Sellars' works are among the best of this new genre of theater-as-protest; but while they are both dramatically engaging, one wonders, after last week-s election, if they aren-t just preaching to the choir? Without the help of a Federal Theater Program in this country, it-s hard to reach audiences outside of big cities; but that will be the challenge for the next four years of politically-themed theater: not just to appeal the usual crowd of people who go to the theater on Saturday nights, but rather, to reach the people who prefer to be in the audience on Sunday mornings.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.