Journey's End

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

On Sunday night I saw my last play of 2008 – and it also happened to be the last night of that show—one that's been touring for over two years.

This show, which played at UCLA Live! last fall for a healthy, month-long run, was titled Black Watch. Besides its run in Los Angeles, it played sold out, extended runs all over the U.S., the U.K., Ireland and Australia.

Written by Gregory Burke and Directed by John Tiffany, Black Watch is a drama about the Royal Highland Regiment, the Scottish equivalent of the Marines: an elite, kilt-wearing fighting unit that survived Napoleon and the American Revolution, but that met a sort of existential Waterloo in the deserts of Iraq.

Watching this final performance on Sunday, with actors, some of them playing roles they originated two-and-a half-years ago, seemed like the end of a long journey—not just for this run of Black Watch, but also for a particular era of theater history.

Since 2003, the theater world has responded to George W. Bush and Tony Blair's Iraq Campaign with a shock and awe strategy of its own. Much like the Iraqi insurgents, this worldwide band of theater artists have not been organized or unified under any official banner, and yet they have been relentless and seemingly untiring.

Almost every week for the past few years has seen some sort of protest play, at large subsidized theaters or scrappy 99-seaters, whether it was a new drama ripped from the headlines, like Tim Robbins' Embedded or David Hare's Stuff Happens; satires like The Madness of George Dubya, or even the revivals of a classic works, tweaked and dressed up to make political points, like Simon McBurney's production of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, where the gangster/Hitler character (played by Al Pacino) and his thugs looked and sounded like W. and his cabinet.

These are some of the better examples, but there are countless more that are not worthy of mention. Seeing many of these pieces live in the theater did often result in some palpable energy, but most of the time these works felt like journalism (sometimes not very deeply researched journalism) hastily written and carelessly thrown on stage. The important thing was to get it up and running before the material was dated.

Revisiting Black Watch on Sunday, which I think was probably the best example of this recent genre, I wondered: how many of these plays will ever be revived in the future? Black Watch's singular focus on this band of Scottish lads, could compel audiences of a future revival. It could be to the Iraq War what R.C. Sherriff's 1928 play Journey's End is to World War I. But Jane Martin's Greek Tragedy-like Flags? David Hare's flat Vertical Hour? Robert Schenkkan's monotonous Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates? Unlikely. Even New Yorker writer George Packer's compelling Betrayed is a piece I fear is not destined for future stagings.

Perhaps these plays will live on in published form, where they can be judged more for their politics and ideas, as opposed to their dramatic potency; but my guess ultimately these plays will be remembered lees for their individual theatrical merits and more en masse, in the context of the larger anti-war movement.

Now, just because the incoming American president and the current Iraqi head of state seem committed to getting U.S. troops home doesn't mean that the battle in Iraq is over—nor does it mean that the war, its causes or ramifications won't inspire future playwrights.

The war may continue, but as 2008 and Black Watch come to a close, so too the era of Iraq and Bush-themed political theater — the end of which now appears to be in sight.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.