Theater At War, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce

Classic and modern plays target Bush and (other) terrorists

By Lucy Komisar

The Public Theater in recent months consciously chose three plays to comment on the Bush war. Not by name, of course, but hardly mistakable. So did The Classic Stage. An import brought from Ireland by the Atlantic Theater Company skewered war in general.

War historically has aroused playwrights‘ passions. Think Aristophanes. And it is appropriate that three preeminent playhouses should offer us a commentary on war, book-ending works by Shakespeare and Brecht with modern views that move from the serious to the absurd.

“Stuff Happens”

“Stuff Happens,” by David Hare, directed by Daniel Sullivan, at the Public – from the days of Joseph Papp a prime venue for relevant theater – turns the drama of Washington decision-making into vivid realism on the stage. Hare is the “fly on the wall” as he creates dialogue so realistic and grounded in what we already know, that we don‘t for a minute doubt that it, or something like it, occurred. The title, of course, is from Donald Rumsfeld‘s inane excuse for the Iraq disaster.

Red swivel chairs are pushed around the floor to represent cabinet meetings or dealings with foreign visitors. Hare is British, and his vantage point is the interaction of decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic. In between are press conferences and internal discussions.

Hare makes Powell (Peter Francis James) a hero, probably more than is warranted. The Secretary of State warns about setting the Iraqi regime on fire. He says Bush (Jay O. Sanders) needs to pay attention to diplomacy. Rumsfeld (Jeffrey De Munn) asks, “How do you know he has weapons of mass destruction?” Powell: “Because we still have the receipts.” Under Bush I, the US facilitated extensive arms transfers to Saddam. But Powell comes off badly in comparison with Robin Cook (Armand Schultz), a former foreign secretary who resigned his job as Leader of the Commons over Tony Blair’s decision to go to war. Cook spoke out. Powell didn‘t.

Hare is the political arguer making his points through the characters we know. Director Daniel Sullivan gives us a quasi documentary feel, helped by actors such as Gloria Reuben who is a dead-ringer for Condoleezza Rice. (You‘ll also see Hans Blix, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz – the great and the dreadful.)

This play ought to be produced in every city, town, and university in America.

[“Stuff Happens,” by David Hare, directed by Daniel Sullivan, starring Goerge Bartenieff, Jeffrey De Mun, Glenn Fleshler, Zach Grenier, Peter Frances James, Byron Jennings, David Pittu, Gloria Reuben, Jay O. Sanders. The Public Theater.]

How did we get there? Americans didn‘t invent war-for-power. Nor do US political leaders have a monopoly on megalomania, refusal to adhere to moral codes or a ready willingness to order killing. Shakespeare had some ideas.


The set at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park is filled with debris and metal, the detritus of destruction, a junkyard. Soldiers are in camouflage; officers show bloody wounds. The weird sisters are in modern dress and do not seem crazy.

In this Public Theater version, directed by Moises Kaufman, Liev Schreiber as Macbeth and Jennifer Ehle as his wife are more richly nuanced than the traditional cardboard power couple. Indeed, they are very sexual beings, a fact emphasized by Ehle in her slinky gowns. Lady Macbeth is manipulative, but no more neurotic than your normal wife-on-the-make, till the final breakdown.

Macbeth seems less a tyrant than a man who fervently believes in his own right and destiny to rule. Not very different from others who share that sense of their “vocation.” Of course, he‘s a stand-in for Bush. The couple‘s plotting to take power appears cool and calculated and could have been organized by Carl Rove.

When murdered King Malcolm‘s son declares that he thinks his country is struggling “beneath a yoke,” there‘s no doubt which country is meant. And when the troops pass through the real trees in Central Park to come onto the stage, it‘s not hard to imagine a metaphor for a modern populace rising against repressive rule. (Or didn‘t you know that the Bush administration and Congress have repealed habeas corpus?)

[“Macbeth,” by William Shakespeare, directed by Moises Kaufman Starring Herb Foster, Jacob Fishel, Live Schreiber, Jennifer Ehle, Sterling K. Brown, Florencia Lozano, Teagle F. Bourgere. The Public Theater.]

“Richard II”

Even more “Bush” was the Classic Stage‘s “Richard II,” a vivid lesson about the arrogance of power. Brian Kulick hardly had to put Richard II and his court in dinner jackets to make the point more timely: arrogance among national leaders produces smug blindness and disaster. But the contemporary staging, a common and dynamic trait of Classic Stage Company productions, brings even more vividness to Shakespeare‘s morality tale.

Here‘s a monarch (Michael Cumpsty) not only imbued with a sense of being born to the manor, or throne, but also so incompetent a political manager, that when presented with two disputatious lords, he doesn‘t solve the problem they pose, but simply banishes both. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak.

Richard doesn‘t bother to consider what might result. Alas for him, one of the exiled lords, his own cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (Graham Winton), decamps to Ireland, where he plots with disaffected aristocrats there and in England to raise an army.

Richard‘s childishness is emphasized by a drunken, champagne-swizzling revelry to the ironic tune of the fantasy “Teddy Bear‘s picnic.” Professing concern for the common people, he is served cocaine by Sir John Bagot (David Greenspan), one of his loyal sycophants. (Drinking? Cocaine? Just who could Kulick have in mind?)

While disaster looms, Richard and his French queen, Isabel (Doan Ly), in riding costumes, enjoy the good life at the ranch, err, country castle. Shakespeare‘s lines emphasize Richard‘s sense of royal prerogative, his feeling that he has been selected by god. Richard ignores the cardinal‘s advice that he will raise house against house, bring on war, disaster and horror.

[“Richard II,” by William Shakespeare, directed by Brian Kulick. Starring Michael Cumptsy, Jon DeVries, George Morfogen, Graham Winton, Doan Ly, David Greenspan, Jesse Pennington, Craig Baldwin, Ellen Parker, Bernarda De Paula. Classic Stage Company.]

“Mother Courage”

Kings and presidents may fight for power, but they have a lot of help from those who make cash from the strife. “Mother Courage” was Bertolt Brecht‘s ironic allegory of war as a tool of capitalism. It‘s 1624 and a Swedish Protestant has invaded Catholic Poland. The Swedes are fighting for god…and legal tender. And sometimes for the “high,” the exhilaration. “War: once you‘re in, you‘re hooked,” says a sergeant.

Meryl Streep‘s Mother Courage seems war weary from the start, sometimes almost zombie-like in the way she plods on, impervious to suffering, though occasionally with a glint that suggests she‘s having a good time making it while the world burns around her. Her curious New York accent and her tough demeanor, her hiking boots and khaki clothes locate her smack in the middle of US war cheerleaders. It‘s swiftly clear that this play is about the present, just as for Brecht it was about the war of the time. And about war‘s connection to money. We don‘t see the actual battles here, just the “supply side” of the business: the food and wares that Mother Courage peddles (Halliburton?) and the human “supply,” her children who are taken as war fighters or war victims.

The cannon fodder/troops are ensnared by machismo. A solider declaims, “When you‘re marching, no woman can scold you.” He prances in a uniform set off by a red sash: “No woman ever controlled you.” The only woman war wants is the prostitute. Yvette (Jenifer Lewis) gives a smashing performance of the archtype, with a bluesy rendition of a raunchy song about fraternization.

Tony Kushner has made some rather pointed changes in Brecht‘s text: “It is expensive, liberty, especially when you start exporting it to other countries.” The audience understands and applauds the politics. A character notes that there‘s a tax put on salt and that, “The rich get tax exemptions.” More applause. And, “Sometimes you have to torture people, which adds to the cost of the war.”

Well, maybe the references are less than subtle. However, the modern commentary on the Bush administration fits politically quite well with Brecht‘s sentiments – he would have liked it. Besides, Brecht didn‘t mean to be subtle. In his script, the general announces that troops are allowed “only one hour of looting.”

The money connection is stark. “What else is war but competition, a profit-making enterprise?” And so is the moral that the beggars pronounce in the “Song of Solomon”: “Obedience leads to our wretched ends.”

[“Mother Courage,” by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Tony Kushner, directed by George C. Wolfe. Starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Frederick Weller, Larry Marshall, Jenifer Lewis, Raul Aranas, Alexandra Wailes, Austin Pendleton. Public Theater.]

“The Lieutenant of Inishmore”

From the horrific to the absurd. Or rather, to the more horrific, which can be shown only as the absurd. Lest we forget that evil warriors come in all national stripes, and that for some countries “war without end” has burrowed into the psyche even more than in America, the Irish “Lieutenant of Inishmore” provides the satirical edge, a comment on war‘s absurdity mixed with its horror.

Martin McDonagh‘s play is a satire of the brutality and senselessness of IRA killings. It‘s the only one of the anti-war plays that takes on the squeamish task of detailing what happens to the road kill of warrior kings, presidents and small-time terrorists, who often use similar tactics.

Padraic (David Wilmot) is too mad for the IRA and even for his erstwhile comrades in the “INLA” splinter group. Padraic is torturing James (Jeff Binder) – who hangs upside down — because he sold pot to Catholic school kids. McDonagh skewers the fighters‘ moral pretensions. Padraic assures his victim that he shows mercy by pulling only two toenails, and on the same foot. Young Mairead (Alison Pill) practices shooting cows to blind them, to take the profit out of the meat trade. She sings with feeling about a dying rebel.

Padraic‘s affectionate sentiments are reserved for Wee Thomas, a cat, who becomes a target of his erstwhile comrades. But as one observer notes, heroism is measured by the target, an important point for these macho men. One says, “There‘s no guts involved in cat battery; it sounds like something the fucking British would do. Like on Bloody Sunday. The INLA has gone down in my estimation.” Christie, the fighter with an eye patch, declares, “Is it happy cats or it is it an Ireland free we‘re after?” So how do they choose their “heroic” targets? One terrorist says, “I used to have a list of valid targets, but I lost it on a bus.”

The blood sports go so over the top that you can hardly take them seriously, except for that fact that the IRA or its splinters, really do blow people up. When the young boy, Davy, asks “Will it never end?” and “Hasn‘t there been enough killing?” – ironically the language of the anti-war Irish — he might be totting up as well the death tolls of the wars in all the other war plays this season.

[“The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” by Martin McDonagh, directed by Wilson Milam. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Gerety, David Wilmot, Jeff Binder, Alison Pill, Andrew Connolly, Dashiell Eaves, Brian D‘Arcy James. Atlantic Theater Company.]

Photos from “Stuff Happens,” “Macbeth” and “Mother Courage” by Michal Daniel.

More performance photos:,,

Photo from “Richard II” by Joan Marcus.

Photo from “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” by Monique Carboni.

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