Revivals Take on Wars Past and Present

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS) – May 10, 2007

Credit: John Ranard

A scene from The Brig.

Conflict historically has aroused playwrights’ passions — think Aristophanes’ famous War and Peace trilogy written more than 2,000 years ago.

In that tradition, New York stage voices are being raised against war in two revivals that clearly retain their relevance today.

Journey’s End, a gripping play about World War I written in the 1920s, is spare and direct, unsettling the audience with the prosaic waiting game of war. And The Brig details the numbing banality of military cruelty as the Living Theatre revives its famous gritty production of the 1960s.

Presented in a small theatre on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Kenneth Brown’s The Brig is based on the author’s own experience as a prisoner for 30 days in a Marine Corps jail at Camp Fuji, Japan in 1957, during the Korean War. It was first staged by the Living Theatre in 1963, and its stark social realism reflects the essence of the company’s political mission.

A cell with five double-decker bunks is enclosed by a chain-link fence, and the area outside, concrete floor or gravel exercise yard, is separated from the audience by barbed wire. Ten men, who have committed unknown, apparently minor infractions, are confined for up to 30 days to suffer dehumanising treatment at the hands of guards who punctuate their disapproval with punches to the stomach.

The first irony of Judith Malina’s direction occurs when a black officer calls a white inmate boy. It summons up the tradition of white men treating black men like dirt. In fact, the officers call the men maggots — insects. Or they call them by numbers, never by names.

The guards turn basic minutiae of life — dressing, showering, shaving, smoking — into opportunities for control and humiliation. The inmates must pull on boots, then take them off and step on them (they are not allowed to touch feet to floor) to put on their pants. Eyes must gaze straight ahead.

When the men move, it is in double time, knees high, arms raised with fists near chins. When they leave the cell, in double time, they must shout requests for permission to cross white lines painted on the floors between spaces and enclosures.

Inside the cell, they stand and silently read the Marine manual. Outside, they do chores, swabbing, scrubbing or mopping the concrete floor.

There is a Nazi sort of order, efficiency and gratuitous cruelty. It is surprising when one prisoner bursts into the Marine Hymn: From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we will fight our country’s battles on land and on the sea… Is that meant as satire?

The spectacle is a macabre dance. One can see how the cacophony of voices, the repetition, and the tension seared and stunned audiences more than 40 years ago.

The only one who reacts normally is an inmate (Albert Lamont) who goes crazy and is put in the hole, where he screams, My name is not ‘6’; my name is James Turner!

Curiously, Brown told IPS at the opening night reception that the men locked in the brig didn’t feel they were being subjected to cruelty. They believed they were being duly punished for infractions. The military had the acceptance of cruelty built into them.

For Malina, the play is a commentary on U.S. atrocities in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

In ‘The Brig’ we see the discipline and the training to obedience that suppresses free will and makes it possible for good-hearted young women and men to commit the atrocities that armies everywhere commit, she said. Through the bio-mechanisms of the drill and the enforcement of the absurd precision rituals, a mind-body adjustment is made, designed to overcome their natural humanitarian qualms.

Journey’s End, now running on Broadway, is not a Hollywood-style swaggering patriotic war story about intrepid fighter pilots or its 1970s version of pot-smoking infantrymen. It’s the ordinariness that at the end is so unsettling. There’s no glamour or anti-glamour here.

The play, by British author R.C. Sherriff, is based on a true experience of World War I friendship, bonding and survival. The author didn’t mean this as an anti-war play, just as a record of what his countrymen went through in the Great War trenches.

Director David Grindley stages this as the story of ordinary people caught up in the military aspect of a political game whose purpose is far beyond them. You don’t ever learn what set off the Germans against the British, or vice versa. These English soldiers just focus on staying warm and alive and carrying out orders. It is a powerful and often poetic production.

The set is a trench in St. Quentin, France, about 165 miles southwest of Paris, near Tours in the Loire Valley. In the trench is a wood hut lit dimly by a few candles. Thin beams hold up a ceiling, a crossbeam log traverses the roof. There is a small table and a couple of wood platforms for sleeping. The site is 50 yards from the front lines. The day for which the troops are preparing will see a German assault.

Captain Stanhope (Hugh Dancy), the cynical company commander, is from the English heartland: his father is vicar of a country village. He’s been in the war for three years and his nerves are wrecked. He is wound-up, overwrought, and drinks to dull the pain.

Lt. Osborne (Boyd Gaines), his second in command, is a generation older. A former schoolmaster, he is solid. He loves Stanhope like a son. Gaines gracefully exhibits Osborne’s steady intelligence and charm.

Private Mason (Jefferson May), the cook, is working class and serves the upper class officers the way he would in civilian life.

Just out of school, 2nd Lt. Raleigh (Stark Sands), is fresh-faced and imbued with the romance of it all. He’s from Stanhope’s village and courts his sister. His vision of war clashes sharply with Stanhope’s, and we’ll too soon learn who is right.

The horror is matter-of-fact: a gas mask packed around soldiers’ necks, the hysterical fear of 2nd Lt. Hibert (Justin Blanchard). The men wonder who will survive the expected German attack. Stanhope tells Hibert that sticking it is the only thing a decent man can do. That was, of course, the ideology that kept the men in the trenches.

There are suggestions that the problem rests with each country’s leaders. The troops are more humane: the Germans allow English soldiers to carry back wounded from the field, even sending up flares so they can see their way. The German prisoner (Kieran Campion) is terrified but treated decently. They are all, it would seem, cogs in a wheel spun by unseen hands. Hindsight makes the events all the more chilling.

The play is a period piece and seems rather hokey in the na¯veté and simplicity of everyone involved. But perhaps that’s what they were like in the days before troops realised that leaders were using them for cannon fodder.

At curtain call, the actors, unsmiling, stand before a wall covered with the names of the dead.

Article on IPS site

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