9/11 and Political Theatre

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From our house in Millburn, you could smell the towers burning—fifteen miles and a river away.  
Editor’s note: I wrote this for the Portuguese journal Obscena in 2007. I’ve published it here before, but thought with the 15 year anniversary of 9/11 upon us I thought I would republish it again. Of course, the things most present in my mind in 2007, such as the Iraq War and the death of Rachel Corrie, have been replaced by the current election. Both candidates are making visits to Ground Zero, which is good but also, of course, a political gesture.
I think I knew even at the time that it wouldn’t be long before people thought of 9/11 as a historical event. If you weren’t around for it, it’s hard to recall how weird it was then and shortly after. Yes, I bought an American flag sweater and wore it at the airport (where I bought it). yes, I was nervous when a man in a turban got on the plane before me (and yes, I am embarrassed about that now).
And yes, the four days I was stranded in New Jersey, I took calls from playwrights and actors and continued to cast the Southern Writers Project workshop I was running. It seemed normal, not ghoulish, for them, and it was for me too.

How It’s New York: 9/11 will always be associated with New York, and a lot of the political theatre attempts to deal with it happened here too.  Everybody’s sending around their reminiscences of 9/11, so I will too.  Some of my 9/11 memories are embedded in this article about sentimental political theatre I wrote for the Portugese Journal Obscena in 2007.  It is a rant but in its own way it honors 9/11.  When things are really important they should be treated with honor and dignity.
How It’s Irish:  Irish playwrights fall into this trap too, unfortunately (less about Iraq than Israel, but that’s a whol ‘nother topic).

Since I’m guessing most of you don’t read Portugese, I’m uploading my original word doc.  Political theatre in this country for a long while after 9/11 was all very guilt ridden, often false as the day is long as playwrights tried to imagine life from the perspective of an Iraqi.

But before the political theatre rant– some more on me an 9/11:

Sigmund the Cat

The real reason I was in New Jersey on 9/11:  my cat Sigmund, who had Squamous Cell Carcinoma, took a turn for the worse on 9/9. 

We had to send him Over the Rainbow Bridge on 9/10, and knowing I wouldn’t want to fly that same day, I changed my ticket to 9/11.  I have always believed that somehow Sigmund arranged it so that I’d be in New Jersey with my family on the awful day (and yes, I know how that sounds).  I would have panicked if I’d been in Montgomery, Alabama, where I was living then.

 

From our house in Millburn, you could smell the towers burning—fifteen miles and a river away. 

We actually first found out what was happening from friends in England– my mother was online emailing a Cat Newsgroup (I know, I know) about Sigmund when someone there mentioned it.  She asked my father had a plane struck the World Trade Center?  No, he said, reading the paper, you’d hear about that.  A few minutes later she said “here’s another post, let’s turn on the television.”  We did, and saw the second tower come down live. It was a gorgeous day, one of those perfect September days.  There was an eerie silence because the airports were closed, interrupted by government planes buzzing the coast.  I wondered, is this the day the world ends?

My father, the late Leo Orel

My father, Leo Orel, who was a World War II vet, was shaken up.  There was a candlelight vigil on my street and we joined it. My dad even carried a candle and was eager to go out, and this was not like him.  He looked around for a flagpole stand in the yard.

It’s hard to explain now the impulse to put up and wear flags but it was something beautiful, not something aggressive as it often is here.  It was somehow a way of joining together.

9/11 is the reason there is a flag sticker on our front door.  To decode what it means you need to picture my dad sadly standing there.

 

The Worst of Times, the Worst of Times… ?
“These are the scariest times that I can remember,” playwright Wallace Shawn said at a panel called “Theater and Citizenship,” held at the Public Theater.  The panel was cosponsored by Columbia University, as part of its “Havel at Columbia” residency.  Playwright Václav Havel was in town for seven weeks, also attending a Havel Festival sponsored by Untitled Theatre Company #61, and although he did not directly participate in this panel, his presence was cause for its assembly.  The other panelists were Anna Deveare Smith, Edward Albee and Israel HorovitzAlisa Solomon moderated.
It’s not a great time to be a flag-waving American these days, after Katrina and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and the mishandling of the war in Iraq.  But the scariest times, Wally?  Born in 1943, Shawn would have been 20 when JFK was shot.  He’s old enough to remember the 60s riots, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., the draft-card burnings of Vietnam, Watergate, the oil shortage, the recession…
Albee remarked that “99% of the creative people I know are Democrats.” Albee is generous to young playwrights; he’s a member of PEN, and a friend of Havel’s.  But this statement is troubling—because it’s true (Full disclosure here:  I am a registered Democrat too).  In theatre we talk a lot about diversity.  Shouldn’t that mean diversity in points of view, as well as ethnicity?  Can theatre provoke thought, let alone persuade, if it’s made-up of people (including the audience) that think alike?

Staging a response to 9/11

The American theatre’s response to 9/11 and the Iraq war has been well-meaning but lame.  And part of the reason for this is an ideological sameness that approaches group-think.  Part of this is a result of trauma—it’s so hard to make a living in the arts during the best of times (and while I take issue at “worst of times” rhetoric, we’re a long way from the opposite)—and after 9/11 theatre people felt both marginalized and obligated to try to make art that heals, art that provokes, art that sheds light.

I was visiting my family in New Jersey the day the towers fell; actually, I was supposed to fly back to Alabama that very morning. I was working as literary manager for the AlabamaShakespeare Festival.  From our house in Millburn, you could smell the towers burning—fifteen miles and a river away. Here’s what I remember.
The airports were closed, so I had to stay four extra days in New Jersey.  Now, I had new play workshops scheduled just a few weeks later as part of the Southern Writers’ Project program.  Virtually every playwright called me while I was stranded.  They wanted to know who had been cast, and to find out their schedules.  ” Isn’t it awful; are you O.K.” were just preliminaries to get into the more serious matter:  their play-reading.  And that was fine, because that’s where my head was too.  Right after 9/11, we all just wanted to go back to work.
And because this is a free country (Patriot Act notwithstanding), and not Czechoslovakia during the seventies, we didn’t need to go to the theatre to find out what was going on—we just watched CNN around the clock.   “Post 9/11 the big uproar in the theatre community was not about politics but just ‘we have to do something,'” remembers Anne Kauffman, director with a company called The Civilians, whose mission is to “develop original projects based in the creative investigation of actual experience.” 
Kauffman had been working on a piece about being “hip in New York,” which seemed inappropriate after the tragedy.  She and her husband had heard that the movie Fly Away Home had been shot in upstate New York, and that the baby geese used for the film had been abandoned afterwards.  She began a new piece, intended to be an investigation of this “crime,” with Kauffman comparing the callous filmmakers to the mujah hadin.  But she learned that the film shot upstate had not been Fly Away Home, but French documentary about geese.  The documentarians had taken care of the geese afterward.  Canard, Canard, Goose changed from an investigation of a crime to a show about “the way we get our information.” But Kauffman’s refreshing deflation of hyperbole is rare.
Most theatre people were more interested in the origins of emotions than in information.  Like the inverse of Sally Fields, who crowed at the Oscars “you like me!,” American theatre people moaned, “they hate us.” New Dramatists, a playwright service and development organization, held a series of discussions on the role of the playwright in society.  Benjamin Barber, author of Jihad vs. McWorld, spoke about the causes of the terrorist attack.  Sadly, even if we knew—we couldn’t control it.  But imagining we can gives us the illusion of agency.  “Why They Hate Us” plays don’t offer much real insight, because the focus is always, really, on us.  Playwright Alan Ball’s (screenwriter of American Beauty) new play, All That I Will Ever Be, just opened at New York Theatre Workshop.  It dramatizes American fear of the other, with an Arabic-looking hustler who lies about his identity, and symbolically represents the third world that we exploit and reject. 

Rally Round the War, Boys—THAW

The looming Iraq war gave theatre people something more concrete to rally around than unpopularity. THAW, or “theatres against war” (the acronym adds an extra “h”) had its first meeting in December 2002.  Self-described as “an international network of theater artists responding to the United States’ ongoing ‘War on Terror,’ aggressive and unilateral foreign policies, and escalating attacks on civil liberties in the U.S. and throughout the world,” one of THAW’s first events was the creation of the Lysistrata Project.  On March 3, 2003 (3/03/03, get it), according to THAW’s website, “1,100 simultaneous productions of Lysistrata were performed in 59 countries around the globe.” The idea was proposed at THAW’s first “town hall” meeting.  THAW showed a documentary called Operation Lysistrata,by director Michael Patrick Kelly, in New York this past December.  
Everybody jumped on board (including Alabama Shakespeare Festival) but this “happening for peace,” this “theatrical act of dissent,” didn’t replicate the circumstances of Aristophanes’ play, in which women withhold sexual favors from their men until they end the long-drawn-out war.  In 2003, the war was just beginning.  The US hasn’t instated a draft, so only those with military friends and family were affected—not so many theatre people.  The U.S. in 2003 really didn’t look like fifth-century B.C. Athens and Sparta.

 

THAW organized a march in New York to protest the outcome of the 2004 election..  Most of us in the arts didn’t vote for Bush. Like a lot of people, I thought the 2000 election was stolen. 2004, we just lost. THAW posted a call for people to march protesting the outcome of the 2004 election. Playwright Moss Hart famously described theatre people, with their tantrums and temperament as “impaled in childhood like a fly in amber.” Nothing screams “whiny baby” like marching around because you couldn’t rock the vote. It’s not even particularly theatrical, as our only audience would be ourselves.  Says Republican (yes!  There is one!) playwright Jeremy Kareken,  “You might as well call the group ‘Italians for John Kerry,’ what’s the difference.  It’s cheerleading, identity politics.” 

 

Performing the Rachel Corrie debate

What’s the point of political theatre that merely confirms the positions of the audience?  In 2006, New York Theatre Workshop decided to postpone My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a drama compiled from the diaries and letters

Can’t we just stop reading in and let the plays be?

of a young American activist killed by Israeli bulldozers.  British director Alan Rickman
called Artistic Director Jim Nicola’s decision “censorship.”  The brouhaha grew as Nicola admitted that he decided to postpone the show after he consulted Jewish religious and community leaders about it. Ironically, New York Theatre Workshop is known as one of the most left-leaning theatres in the city.  The cries of “censorship” (as if choosing not to do something is the same as being forced to suppress it) nearly always failed to take into account the fact that theatre exists in a community or it doesn’t exist at all.   New York is not London.   Says Melissa Hillman, artistic director of ImpactTheatre, in Berkeley, California, 

 

“I can’t help but frame this argument as one of anti-Semitism:  it appears to my already admittedly paranoid mind that the anti-Semitism in this country is so deeply ingrained that there is actual contempt for Jews objecting to a play that they feel—rightly or wrongly—is anti-Semitic, and a cry of censorship is raised when the play is shut down because of it.  On the other hand, if a group of African-Americans shut down a play they felt was racist, we would be cheering.” 

 

Playwright Jason Grote, whose play 1001, about a Jewish man and a Palestinian woman just opened at the Denver Center Theatre Company in Colorado, posted an online petition about the Rachel Corrie “censorship” last year, and kept a blog about it.  He has never seen the play, and admits he’s not very interested in it as a play. Like Hillman, he’s Jewish, but believes that “trying to paint legitimate debate as Anti-Semitism is obscene.”
     Yet he says he is

“pretty much totally uninterested in the recent spate of plays that espouse the politics of obviousness—a politics that I largely agree with, but for which I do not go the theater. Now, I’ve heard that pieces like Guantanamo and The Exonerated did great work in drawing attention to underreported issues, and that’s terrific, but I already listen to ‘Democracy Now’ every day.”    

So who does Grote imagine is going to the theater for documentary drama of the obvious?   Kareken wonders, 
“do we honestly think that anybody in the department of defense is going to say oh, the theatre people care, so let’s just stop?  The Jihadists will say, oh Western theatre wants us to stop, so let’s just stop?” 
 The Exonerated, by Jessica Bland and Erik Jensen, was a documentary drama, about wrongly convicted prisoners on death row.  Guantanamo:  Honor Bound to Defend Freedom is a documentary play developed by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, and it came to Manhattan’s Culture Project after its first run in Britain’s West End.  Note that the play taking on the Iraq war directly is by two Brits.

 Projecting and Profiting from Bush

 Stuff Happens by Briton David Hare, at the Public in the summer of 2006, was the most talked-about anti-Iraq-war play.  Hare’s Vertical Hour is at the Public Theater now. Playwright Jeffrey Sweet admired Stuff Happens, but thinks in The Vertical Hour “there is a lot of windy speechifying that did little for me except convince me that Hare is against the war, but I knew that already.” Anne Kaufman wonders, “Why are these British playwrights doing it and not us?  Is it just distance?”  And then, too, she wondered what was the point of doing Stuff Happens in New York.  “People were cheering it on.  It felt very self-congratulatory.”  If the play were done in a “swing state, someplace other than in a liberal environment where everyone who comes will agree with that politics,” it might accomplish something, she thinks.   “Political theatre is the left’s response to [right-wing radio host] Rush Limbaugh,” says Kareken.  “It’s a place for liberal people to go and feel good about themselves.”  It also sells tickets. Critic Simon Saltzman, in his Curtain-Up review of Joshua Rosenblum’s Bush Is Bad:  A Musical Cure for the Blue-State Blues, suggested that “preaching to the choir may be in part therapeutic.”  
It’s one thing to bash Bush for dollars.  Projecting the anti-Bush war issue into political theatre from any era approaches solipsism, even, cultural appropriation.  A production of Ionesco’s The Lesson by the off-off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre Ensemble substituted, for the swastika on the professor’s armband, an American flag.  Ionesco wrote the play in post-war France, where there could well have been collaborators with the Vichy regime in the audience.  I doubt anybody in the East Village audience had participated in the murder of their neighbors.  The talk at several of the Havel plays in the Festival was even sillier:  Artistic director Edward Einhorn published an “open letter to Bush” in the Festival program, decrying the destruction of civil liberties.  Says Stepan Simek, who translated Havel’s early play the Increased Difficulty of Concentration,
I actually feel that Havel’s plays have absolutely nothing to do with the political situation in the US or anywhere else….I worry that he (Havel) is being used by all of us ‘good theatre liberals’ to further our own agenda… (Hey, he publicly supported the invasion of Iraq – how about it for all of us good anti-bushistas?)”
The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park had a summer “anti-war” season in 2006 that included  Macbeth  and Mother Courage.  But Macbeth isn’t an anti-war play, it’s an anti-tyranny play.  Playwright Tony Kushner tweaked some lines in his translation of Brecht’s Mother Courage for the sake of the zeitgeist… the cook, played by Kevin Kline, ponders that liberty is expensive, “especially when you start exporting it to other countries.”  Kareken remembers feeling as if he were at a pep rally. Mother Courage is an anti-war play (and Meryl Streep ate the title role in big glorious gulps).  But it’s not an “anti-Iraq war play.”

Political Playwright Possibilities, and Potential Progress

Of course—there are many playwrights who write about issues, and deserve to be called political playwrights.  Several of these, like Kia Corthron, who has written plays that deal with land-mines and cloning, also march with THAW.  Thomas Bradshaw‘s plays about race give equal time to black and white pedophiliacs; Young Jean Lee challenges and re-presents Korean-American stereotypes.  There have been a few serious attempts at American 9/11 plays: Craig Lucas‘ 2004 Small Tragedy, took on the Bosnian war via an amateur production of Oedipus.  It won the OBIE for best off-Broadway play that year.  The play’s action ends in 2000, but several critics saw it as a post-9/11 play, with its arguments about America’s participation in international tragedies and American complacency and gullibility.
Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vasillaros’ Omnium-Gatherum, which is, literally, a dinner party from Hell (there’s an Edward Said-inspired pro-Palestinian professor, , a Christopher Hitchens-inspired right-wing journalist, a heroic fireman, etc.) was the hit of the 2003 Humana Festival (Actors Theatre ofLouisville’s yearly new play festival) among critics and dramaturgs.  But despite good reviews, it tanked in New York. Craig Wright’s 2004 Recent Tragic Events takes place while a woman waits for news of a missing sibling after 9/11.  The most memorable thing in the play, though, is the creation of Joyce Carol Oates as a sock puppet.  Reviewing both plays for the Village Voice, critic Michael Feingold wrote, “Though my shoulder muscles no longer automatically lock in panic every time I hear an ambulance siren, I’m not over 9-11 yet, and I doubt that most other New Yorkers are.”  He questioned the “hot topic” commerciality of 9/11 plays, but concluded that while these plays were sincere, they were flabby.
Wright’s new play Lady, which just opened at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre, takes on the Iraq war and its effect on Americans without flinching.  It is about three friends, one a Democratic congressman who has gradually moved to the right, his friend whose son has just enlisted, and one who just wants to keep the peace.  In Act II there’s a big argument about 9/11 and America’s response to it.  The congressman says,
America is not a privileged person, meditating alone in a room with an orchid and an ipod, you asshole…. America is the big guy at the party where everyone is drunk and pissed off, where every bedroom has something bad going on it, where all the kids are being ignored by their messed-up parents, where the old people are crying on the porch in the cold, and the house goes on forever.  At the Party Of The World, America is the Designated Driver and America is never alone.  … Is it absolutely, perfectly, purely right to be in Iraq right now? Honestly? I don’t know. But I do know this: as long as this American Moment lasts, we have to be in charge and spread democracy and freedom as we see it, any way we can.
It’s an even-handed and impassioned diatribe from the “other side,” and that excites me.  Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune writes, “You get the sense the writer opposes the war, but his pro-military congressman is still the least hypocritical American on the hunt.”  Steven Oxman in Variety writes that “In this sorrowful work, filled with anger and confusion, what’s broken in the friendship –and, by blunt metaphorical extension, America – can’t be easily tidied up.”  That a writer is taking on the full messiness of the situation is a reason to celebrate.  Here’s another: following the playwrights’ panel at the Public, I spoke to several people I knew in the audience; playwrights, directors, critics.  “That was excruciating,” said one.
Maybe things are changing.  Or maybe we’re just plain bored.  But the tide is turning.

Theatre can only change the world when it admits its only responsibility to truth and art.  And telling the full truth will always be a political act.

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Comments

  1. A few corrections and opinions Gwen, just cause you mentioned some aspects of the Havel Festival:

    The Public Theater event was actually the official end event of the Havel Festival, suggested by me (though the direction of the panel got somewhat sidetracked from my original ideas). We brought on Columbia, and then I think Columbia and the Public became highlighted because they are the larger institutions. They also took over the planning, at some point, to be sure. I had trouble with the event in the end, as I think we discussed; perhaps it is just my control freak nature (I of course loved the after party in Joe’s Pub which I was able to take charge of myself…) One thing I thought was a bit ridiculous was the way the word censorship was thrown around–not having a theater produce work is a far cry from government censorship. I sort of hate false equivalencies between the United States and totalitarian regimes.

    Which is of course why I feel somewhat defensive about my open letter to Bush. I was very careful not to create a false equivalency there. However, I do think a lesson from Havel is the importance of speaking out against injustice, and I was (and am) often concerned about the eroding of civil rights. Just because our problems at the time were not on the scale of what happened in Czechoslovakia does not mean that there is not also a political side to art, and I felt like it would be hypocritical to do a festival lauding a writer who spoke out without at least a small effort in relationship to our own, very different, issues.

    The war in Iraq was something my letter did not address, very deliberately. But I have to tell you, I have spoken to Havel about Iraq, and his views are much more complicated than you might think from Stepan’s quote. He did favor intervention, but he also felt that Bush went about things very poorly. He felt that what was needed was a true international force, much in the nature of the recent Libyan intervention. His views typify–well, Obama’s really. Not what we might call far left liberal, but also not particularly Republican in bent.

    I agree with you that the idea of twisting a play to say what you think it should say politically is a bit ridiculous. But I also think the viewpoint that Havel’s plays, or any political plays, have no implications beyond there own society and circumstances is a bit limited. The lessons those political plays can bring is complex, and trying to simplify those lessons into one to one analogies is almost always doomed to failure. But there are lessons to be learned from every good play that can and should feel relevant. Contrary to popular opinion, history never repeats itself exactly. But the themes of human behavior and politics are enduring and universal, and it is in those themes we see the repetition.

  2. Hi Edward, thanks for your thoughtful comments. They are not, however, corrections, since this essay is my opinion, the comments of others, and a report on what I saw n(unless I misstated and Untitled actually presented the Panel too? I don’t remember seeing it listed in the program).

    The Havel section kicked this off,because the hyperbole at the panel was so spectacularly appalling (and as you know, I was really annoyed at how few people from the Theatre scene bothered to show up at the Festival) and self-congratulatory. Your letter did not cite Iraq, but at talkbacks others did (not you. and you know who I mean, I think).

    I don’t think anybody believes history repeats itself exactly. It would be so simple if it did. That’s my point. A swastika in The Lesson makes no sense at all. Lysistrata has nothing to do with the Iraq war (except, you know, War Is Bad).

    All injustice is not the same injustice, and eliding it is– hyperbole. The most specific is the most universal. Heavy-handed shoehorning of comparisons serves neither the play nor the audience, who are perfectly capable of finding relevance without having it served up to them.

    This is why in the essay I also protest forcing Macbeth to be an anti-war play, and at calling the decision not to present Rachel Corrie, censorship.

    As for what Havel wanted, in the context of my essay, that’s irrelevant, when you consider groups like THAW, who were against war in any way, shape or form.

    In any case, thanks for reading the essay, and for doing what you do so thoughtfully and well.

  3. Untitled may not have been in the program, you may be right. Now that you bring it up, I sort of remember them apologizing for that…though on the other hand, the panel was so different than I had envisioned, perhaps it was for the best. I probably shouldn’t bother claiming it except when it looks good on a grant.

    Thank you for your kind comments and your always interesting take. And I passionately agree with your comments on Rachel Corrie and censorship. That misuse of the term, so soon after working on Havel, particularly frustrated me.

    You might be interested in a blog post I wrote in the midst of the Obama/McCain election about political theater/why it is liberal http://theaterofideas.blogspot.com/2008/10/why-is-theater-liberal.html