They run, March, curse, fight, sing--and occasionally die--on a cavernous expanse of stage nearly half a football field wide. In their dress-up uniforms, they're an exotic-looking bunch: wearing kilts, playing bagpipes, sporting tam-o'-shanters with a red feather. This Scottish army regiment seems out of place in Iraq, transferred from Basra to bolster U.S. troops bogged down in the "triangle of death" near Baghdad. But their plainspoken, Highland-accented gripes about the war have a familiar ring. "You're no' really doing the job you're trained for," says one soldier. "You're no' defending your country. We're invading their country and f______ their day up."
Black Watch, a galvanizing, free-form stage piece from the National Theatre of Scotland (it debuted in 2006 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has toured Britain, Australia and three U.S. cities), is the highlight of a remarkable recent surge of plays about the Iraq war. Hollywood, traditionally the go-to vehicle for telling war stories, had its own flurry of interest but after a few star-studded box-office underperformers (In the Valley of Elah, Redacted and, most recently, Body of Lies) has largely retreated to its foxhole. Theater has stepped into the breach, using an impressive arsenal of stage weaponry to grapple in more imaginative, varied and visceral ways with the U.S.'s extended tour of duty in Iraq.
The plays have ranged from politically loaded docudramas, like David Hare's Stuff Happens--an account of the Bush Administration's run-up to the war, with a focus on British Prime Minister Tony Blair's role as overzealous cheerleader--to angry satire, like Embedded, a biting if overwrought send-up of the selling of the war, featuring Administration stand-ins with names like Rum-Rum and Gondola, written and directed by Tim Robbins for his L.A.-based Actors' Gang. The war has been a jumping-off point for psychological family drama (Christopher Shinn's Dying City, about a war widow reunited with the brother of her husband, recently killed in action) and for polemical journalism (George Packer's Betrayed, based on his reportage about the plight of Iraqi citizens who went to work for the Americans early in the war, then were abandoned to face sectarian revenge). Some plays are stripped-down monologues, like Judith Thompson's Palace of the End, in which an Iraqi woman, a British weapons expert and a U.S. soldier who took part in prisoner abuse tell their stories; others are more ambitious, experimental and experiential. Coming soon to off-off-Broadway: a 3 1/2-hour environmental-theater event called Surrender, in which audience members are put through simulated training and deployment to Iraq, taught how to search for insurgents and then sent back home to go through rehab at Walter Reed. Turn off your cell phones, please, and return the M-4 rifles on your way out.
It's safe to say American playwrights have never before been so obsessed with a war, at least while we're still in the middle of fighting it. The country was too busy trying to win World War II (and too unified in support of the war) to sit through many plays about it. Even the last war that dramatically divided the nation, Vietnam, got far less attention onstage; with antiwar protests more urgent and impassioned (thanks largely to the draft), artistic comment took a backseat to political action. David Rabe, author of a memorable trilogy based on his combat experiences in Vietnam, recalls getting "turned down everywhere" before his first play, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, was finally produced in 1971 by New York City's Public Theater. (The third, and best, play of his trilogy, Streamers, is being revived this fall by New York City's Roundabout Theatre.)
The Iraq war has still not made it all the way to Broadway. But the plays that keep emerging--from regional theaters, from overseas, as well as from the hothouse of off-Broadway--represent an artistic chronicle of the evolution of the war, both on the ground and in Americans' hearts and minds. As the war drags on but recedes from the headlines, the political satires of the early years (like Embedded and the British screed The Madness of George Dubya) have been supplanted by more rueful--one might say resigned--plays, which shift the focus from macro to micro: the men and women who are actually doing the fighting.
Not that the antiwar message has disappeared altogether. In Beast, a heavy-handed parable by Michael Weller (Moonchildren) that has just finished an off-Broadway run, a maimed Iraq-war vet rises from the hospital morgue to join his buddy on an allegorical trek back home from Germany, winding up at the Texas compound of their Commander in Chief, referred to coyly as "G.W." ("I am here because strong people put me here," he says, "and weak ones went along.") The war critique is more soft-pedaled in docuplays like In Conflict, a collection of monologues by war veterans, adapted by Douglas C. Wager from interviews conducted by Yvonne Latty (first produced at Philadelphia's Temple University and now playing off-Broadway). Though the play is worthy and often affecting, the selection of vets seems as calculated as that of a Hollywood WW II platoon (disillusioned amputee, gung-ho nurse, gay soldier burdened by "Don't ask, don't tell") and the message (soldiers good, war bad) a little too pat.
Black Watch is a subtler and more powerful picture of men in war. It too is a docuplay, written by Gregory Burke, from interviews with members of the Black Watch regiment--a storied Scottish fighting unit that dates back to the early 1700s. But what could have been dry and didactic is transformed by a host of inventive, kinetic environmental-theater devices: strobe-and-sound effects to simulate the shock of battle, video screens, interludes of traditional Scottish military songs, evocatively choreographed group movement. In one sequence, soldiers silently pass letters from home to one another, reading and weaving about the stage in a ballet of camaraderie and longing. In another, a soldier recites the history of the regiment while being manhandled by his comrades like a toy soldier--upended, passed around, dressed and undressed in the assorted costumes the regiment has worn through the decades.
The Black Watch soldiers don't hate war; they hate the war they've been thrust into, in which their traditions mean nothing, the enemy can't be understood, and--the final insult and the cause of much controversy in Scotland--their unit is broken up. "It takes 300 years to build an army that's admired and respected around the world," an officer says. "But it only takes two years pissing about in the desert in the biggest Western foreign policy disaster ever to f___ it up completely." The result, after an hour and 50 minutes with these proud, profane fighting men, is not just a critique of war, or even of this war. It feels like a tragedy.