Postmodern Drama Post-9/11: Adriano Shaplin’s Pugilist Specialist and David Hare’s Stuff Happens

 

Markus Wessendorf (University of Hawai‘i at Manoa)

 

[Forthcoming in: Drama and/after Postmodernism. (Contemporary Drama in English 14.) Ed. Christoph Henke and Martin Middeke. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2007]

 

 

The idea for this essay first emerged after critical reflection on the ambiguity of the conference motto (and now title of these proceedings), “Drama and/after Postmodernism.” Apart from apparently suggesting two alternative topics for discussion—1) the relationship of drama to postmodernism, 2) drama in the wake of postmodernism—the slash separating “and” and “after” can also be interpreted to indicate the simultaneous applicability of those rather disparate options, thereby allowing for the following reading: plays (and since these are the proceedings of a conference of a Society for Contemporary Drama in English: contemporary plays) may still draw upon and define themselves in relation to postmodernism, even though that term may no longer adequately describe the current conditions of certain postindustrial societies. But would a drama that still relates to postmodernism—for example, by adopting key features of postmodern aesthetics—not be obsolete under social and cultural conditions that could no longer be characterized as postmodern? And what possible relevance could such postmodern plays still have under those changed circumstances?

            From an American perspective, the notion of postmodernism seemed increasingly anachronistic and irrelevant in the wake of the attacks of September 11. The initial cultural response to the carnage of that day, shared by popular opinion at large, was a call for the “end of irony” by numerous pundits (including Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and Time contributor Roger Rosenblatt). More damaging and of longer-lasting effect, however, were the consequences of the domestic and foreign policy initiatives of the White House in response to 9/11: the Patriot Act, the War on Terror, the Iraq War, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc. The political concepts, decisions, and actions, as well as the manipulative and authoritarian tactics of George W. Bush’s administration—regarding not only the Iraq War but also other issues less relevant to the following discussion, such as global warming, abortion, birth control, the right-to-die, gay marriage, the separation of church and state, etc.—clearly suggest an alarming departure from what the French philosopher Jean-Franćois Lyotard has described and conceptualized as the postmodern condition of technologically advanced knowledge societies. This departure certainly calls for a reconsideration of Lyotard’s sociological-philosophical concept, at least in regard to its continuing relevance within an American context, and it also necessitates a reassessment of postmodern drama in the wake of such a shift (even if the determining factors of postmodern drama as an aesthetic genre may differ from those characterizing the postmodern condition). The following pages will deal with two plays that both combine a postmodern exploration of dramatic form with a critical representation of the Iraq War as the Bush administration’s “displaced” retaliation for the attacks of 9/11: Pugilist Specialist by American playwright Adriano Shaplin and Stuff Happens by British dramatist David Hare. Since this essay responds primarily to predicaments closely associated with the second Bush administration, it may seem arbitrary that the focus here is not exclusively on contemporary American drama. Yet, the place of origin of the dramatic texts under discussion may be of less concern than the question of how Shaplin and Hare analyze, criticize, and/or deconstruct a “theatre of war” largely created by George W. Bush and his advisors—with the strong support of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Besides, both plays have been performed to major acclaim in the United States.[1]

Numerous and often polemical articles in the last few years have reassessed the appropriateness of postmodernism as a concept to describe the situation in the United States. In his landmark study The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge from 1979, Jean-Franćois Lyotard defined postmodernism as an “incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv), by which he meant totalizing stories about the history and goal of humankind that legitimize cultural practices and forms of knowledge. For Lyotard, metanarratives or, as he also calls them in his earlier work, master-discourses provide the basis for judgment in all situations. Lyotard saw the totalitarianism of modern metanarratives such as Hegel’s teleology, Hermeneutics, Marxism, and Capitalism replaced by a postmodern “heterogeneity of language games” (xxv), which no longer aimed at providing systematic theorizations of human society or at prescribing universal remedies, or metaprescriptions, for its ills.[2] Instead, the rules of these language games only applied to a particular context and had to be agreed upon by its present players. The postmodern condition, according to Lyotard, invalidated metanarratives that aimed at regulating “the totality of statements circulating in the social collectivity” (65) and replaced them with a “multiplicity of finite meta-arguments” that were “limited in time and space” (66). While it could be argued that the policies of the Bush administration are neither driven by a postmodern vision nor a high regard for heterogeneity, and many critics even attack the administration for returning to modern metanarratives (liberty, democracy, capitalism), if not pre-modern master-discourses (manifest destiny, “House on the Hill,” messianism), other voices nevertheless emphasize the postmodern aspects of the Bush presidency. It is particularly the brazen disregard of his administration for politically inconvenient scientific facts that is often associated with Lyotard’s delegitimization of traditional science.[3] The American literary scholar Stanley Fish, in this context, blames the recent inclusion of Intelligent Design in the biology curricula of several American states on liberal academics, who have made multiculturalism and postmodernism the new paradigm in research, replacing the traditional contest of ideas (and their testing by experimental verification) with a pluralistic contest of claims that all have “a right to be heard and taught” (72).[4] In other regards, too, conservatives have been quite successful in appropriating popular(ized) notions of postmodernism and turning them to their advantage—with the result that what originally promised emancipation from the demands of Western metaprescriptions now recurs, in a perverse spin, as a self-legitimization of America’s global reach for power. The administration of George W. Bush has effectively appropriated and utilized for its own purposes one of the basic concepts of postmodernism: namely, the idea that history, identity, class, race, gender, the self, etc. are constructs and can therefore be “re-fashioned.” An often-quoted passage from a New York Times article by journalist Ron Suskind, in which he describes his encounter with a senior advisor to George W. Bush, makes this very plain.

 

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

 

In November 2003, the staff of the Harvard-based online publication Perspective published an editorial that clearly differentiated between the Bush administration’s anti-scientific bias (which might be construed as postmodern but is really the result of a totalitarian desire to control all aspects of reality) and their unilateral worldview (which defies the implicit pluralism of postmodernism).

 

With all his rejection of truth and construction of alternative realities, Bush might well be said to be America’s first postmodern president. […] Right? Wrong. […] While the Bush Administration may be ostensibly postmodern in its rejection of science, it certainly is not postmodern in its rejection of every other moral, political, and economic framework other than its own. This worldview, which legitimizes a foreign policy defined by the mantra “with us or against us,” is also the basis for the Bush administration’s unapologetic denial of science. In the end, what is most troublesome is not the possibility that our leaders are abandoning scientific facts in favor of radical relativism. The real danger […] is that American leadership will remain so mired in its own absolutism that it becomes divorced from reality itself.

 

If the analysis of the political situation in the United States results in the conclusion that the Bush administration, despite its seemingly postmodern aspects, is really a threat to postmodernism, and if, furthermore, the administration’s strict adherence to self-fabricated metanarratives and its consistent attempts to superimpose these narratives onto multiple other discourses within American society (media, science, religion, morality, etc.) clearly reveal absolutist tendencies, what sense does it still make to bring up the notion of postmodern drama under these conditions? Wouldn’t postmodern drama in this context be anachronistic and, therefore, incapable of reflecting the conditions of its time, either affirmatively or critically? The first answer to this may be that the notion of postmodern drama (like that of other postmodern art forms) cannot be reduced or limited to represent a specific political formation or era. The German theatre scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte, for example, grants that postmodern theatre reflects the Zeitgeist of its time, but by this she refers to changed modes of aesthetic perception and reception since modernism, not larger historical-political constellations (227). Secondly, since postmodernism, in Lyotard’s words, describes a condition of plurality, not a unified metanarrative, postmodern drama, as one particular language game among a heterogeneous multiplicity of such games, cannot possibly come to stand in for the postmodern condition itself. Lyotard even implies that postmodern artistic experimentation may well and justifiably co-exist with authoritarian conditions when he mocks “a talented theatrologist for whom postmodernism, with its games and fantasies, carries very little weight in front of political authority, especially when a worried public opinion encourages authority to a politics of totalitarian surveillance in the face of nuclear warfare threats” (72). Different from traditional forms of political aesthetics, postmodern art resists political authority not by producing “counter-metanarratives,” but by refusing to engage in metanarratives at all. For Lyotard, postmodern aesthetics are defined by artistic experimentation that allows “the unpresentable to become perceptible […] in the signifier. The whole range of available narrative and even stylistic operators is put into play without concern for the unity of the whole, and new operators are tried” (80). However, Lyotard’s focus on rendering the unpresentable perceptible provides only one of many possible strategies for a postmodern aesthetics. With regard to postmodern drama, quite a large number of “new operators” have been tried over the last few decades that have gradually added up to a set of recognizable characteristics. “[F]ragmentation, indeterminacy, reflexivity, intertextuality, montage techniques, temporal conflation [and] randomness” (Malkin 17) are some of the traits that postmodern drama shares with postmodern literature more generally. And since the discourse on postmodernism itself is marked by a multiplicity of concepts and theories, postmodern drama has not only been influenced by Lyotard’s concern with the unpresentable but also by Jacques Derrida’s playful decentering of structures and sign systems, Roland Barthes’s “death of the author,” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s “rhizomatic” structures and “desiring machines,” Julia Kristeva’s “chora,” Jean Baudrillard’s “simulation” and “hyperreality,” Frederic Jameson’s “pastiche” of artistic forms, Charles Jencks’s semiotically “double-coded” aesthetics, and Craig Owens’s “allegorical impulse” (synthesizing the ideas of Walter Benjamin and Paul de Man). One of the most common features of postmodern drama, however, may be the self-reflexivity and metadiscursivity with which it displays and deconstructs the processes of its own signification. According to German theatre scholar Kerstin Schmidt,

 

[P]ostmodern drama fulfills a dual function: it deconstructs drama in the very process of producing drama and, as a consequence, […] generates its own meta-discourse. In postmodern drama, formal features are foregrounded to such an extent that unilateral referentiality is impossible and, in this sense, it becomes a concrete theater in which each (theatrical) sign is purely metatheatrical, only tells itself, and represents itself. (35)

 

While this definition proves valuable for the debate under discussion, its seemingly easy transition from “postmodern drama” to “concrete theatre” exemplifies a problematic terminological slippage that is still all too common in scholarly writings on drama. The terms “drama” and “theatre” denote very different fields of meaning, not less so under the conditions of postmodernism. While both postmodern drama and postmodern theatre—and, for that matter, postmodern dance, postmodern architecture, etc.—share the characteristics mentioned above (self-reflexivity, metadiscursivity, intertextuality, etc.), these characteristics manifest themselves in differing ways in each form since they apply to a literary genre in the first case and to performance methodologies in the latter. Even though postmodern drama and postmodern theatre may successfully meet in the occasional production (Robert Wilson’s staging of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine, Richard Foreman directing his “ontological-hysterical” plays), the more common occurrence is either the comparatively conventional staging of a postmodern text (as in most productions of Tom Stoppard or Sam Shepard’s work) or the postmodern interpretation of a classical or modern play (the Wooster Group production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Wilson’s staging of August Strindberg’s A Dream Play). Postmodern plays focusing on the fragmentation and decentering of dramatic sign systems and structures (such as Hamletmachine, Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play, and Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life) often inherently require an equally decentered production style, while those plays primarily exploring temporal conflation, simulation, pastiche, and double-coded aesthetics (such as Stoppard’s Travesties and Arcadia, Shepard’s Fool for Love, and Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman) often don’t demand postmodern acting or directing techniques since they cite and recycle realist plot and character conventions. Despite the fact that both postmodern drama and postmodern theatre share the “classical” avant-gardes as a major influence, they also relate to and process rather divergent artistic lineages: while the genealogical precursors of postmodern drama include the Romantic drama of Ludwig Tieck, the theatricalist plays of Luigi Pirandello, and perhaps even the self-reflective narrative strategies of Jorge Luis Borges, postmodern theatre adopts and reworks artistic techniques and strategies from a wide range of performance traditions, media cultures, and art forms.

The formal and stylistic experiments of postmodern drama can certainly be interpreted as acts of resistance not only against the “unilateral referentiality” (Schmidt) of traditional Western drama but also against a hegemonic and imperial cultural and political discourse (for example, in the form of American exceptionalism, a you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us mentality, etc.). However, in times of rising religious fundamentalism and political extremism, the foregrounding of the self-referentiality of the dramatic sign may seem a rather limited and ineffective strategy to postmodern playwrights who also want to respond to the political situation in their work. The major challenge for a postmodern drama intent on tackling the pressing issues of our time is how to combine and integrate a postmodern aesthetic that playfully explores dramatic form with a dramaturgy that critically engages with current events without falling into the trap of (re-)producing the master-discourses of traditional political theatre. The plays that will be discussed in the following pages answer this challenge in different ways.

            Adriano Shaplin’s Pugilist Specialist is a play about four marines that are assigned the task of assassinating a Middle-Eastern leader. The 15 scenes of the play cover the first military briefing of the marines, their lunch at a mess hall, their reconnaissance training, their final deployment close to the target, and a last-minute change of plan and immediate execution of this revised plan. The code names of the target are “Big ‘Stach’” (for “Big Moustache”) and “The Bearded Lady,” but several references in the play indicate that the target in question is actually Saddam Hussein: “The Bearded Lady” has doubles, is supposedly delusional and paranoid, has already survived five previous assassination attempts by the United States, is located in “Mesopotamia” (Colonel Johns refers to an “ancient Mesopotamian landscape tapestry” [202]), and is compared to Hitler in one of the letters that the marines receive from fellow Americans back home. Also, the play provides numerous clues that point to the immediate aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 as the main time-frame: one of the characters talks about a “righteous intervention” (177), and the letters sent to the soldiers include references to “nation building,” the “Christian war machine,” and “charred remains of Iraqi babies” (195). Nonetheless, the major plot element of the play—the attempt of a group of marines to assassinate “Big ‘Stach’” at one of his palaces—does not correspond to any factual event of the early Iraq War: the American “Shock and Awe” campaign actually started with an air attack on Hussein’s Baghdad palace, but the dictator had already gone into hiding and did not resurface at any of his other palatial residences after that. Since Pugilist Specialist was already performed in August 2003 at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, Shaplin must have written the play right at the beginning of the American occupation. (Saddam Hussein himself was captured by American troops only four months after the play’s Edinburgh run). The major conflict in the play is between Lieutenant Emma Stein and Lieutenant Travis Freud. Stein is a proud, tough and sober-headed explosives expert famous for her carefully organized and executed bombings of enemy sites, whereas Freud is a sniper with a misogynist attitude and a deep libidinal attachment to his job. While Stein is an idealist who has joined the military to serve the public good, Freud has chosen his profession because he loves to kill and considers sniping an art. At the end of the play, when Freud and Stein have finally entered the target’s mansion to plant the bomb, Freud suddenly receives instruction via radio to kill Stein instead of the “Big ‘Stach.’” Colonel Johns, who is in charge of the operation, never expected his team to get so close to the target that they could really kill him. Johns justifies his change of plan to Lieutenant Harpo Studdard: “I can’t let her set that bomb Harpo. […] I can’t let her finish this mission Harpo. We need the target more than we need her. […] No more targets, no more history” (225). After Stein has been shot by Freud, the last scene in Pugilist Specialist just features an audio recording of the radio communication among the remaining team members. In the recorded dialogue, Johns tells Freud to leave the corpse of Stein at the mansion and finally orders Studdard to switch off the tape recorder. The play ends with the abrupt cutting off of the tape.

            In an essay published in two installments in the early 1980s, American art critic Craig Owens identified the “allegorical impulse” as one of the key characteristics of postmodernism. Quoting Paul de Man’s statement that “Allegorical narratives tell the story of the failure to read” (Owens 73, quoting de Man 205), Owens established a close link between the postmodern aesthetic of Laurie Anderson’s performance pieces and the problems of illegibility (72), unreadability (72), and the impossibility of reading (73) associated with the allegorical mode. Pugilist Specialist relates postmodernism’s “preoccupation with reading” (74) and its concern with the “failure to ‘read the signs’” (70) to a military operation of American Special Forces at the beginning of the Iraq War. These themes not only dominate the actions and interactions that occur in the plot but also shape the dramaturgy of the play with regard to a potential audience reception.

Within the context of the play, none of the marines ever seems to be fully informed about his or her mission: information is consistently withheld (or fragmentary), while the marines themselves are under constant surveillance (a microphone records all of their conversations). Since their operation is only a small component of a larger theatre of war, the characters lack a broader frame of reference that would allow them to decode the signs. Their process of reading remains open-ended, since any possible perspective allowing for a conclusive interpretation of information would by far transcend the immediate reality and perception of the characters. At the beginning of the play, for example, Lieutenant Stein believes that she is the first person to arrive at the military briefing room, only to find out later that a clandestine pre-briefing between Lieutenant Studdard and Colonel Johns—the contents of which are not revealed—had already occurred in that same space. After Stein’s assassination it remains unclear if the change of plan was really Colonel Johns’ spontaneous decision, or if Stein hadn’t been the primary target of the mission all along—in retaliation for her leaking sensitive information to the New York Times after a previous operation. The problem of illegibility also recurs in other scenes of the play. During their reconnaissance training, the marines are asked to identify “The Bearded Lady” on photographs. However, they have a hard time distinguishing between “Big ‘Stach’” and his doubles—and it becomes apparent that all proposed methods of identification are inexact since they rely on intuition (Colonel Johns suggests that the target can be identified by the seductive quality of his “bedroom eyes” [193], while Lieutenant Stein claims that the “frown lines” are the distinctive mark [194]). In another scene the marines discuss the semiotics of the standard-issue care packages that are designed for the Iraqi population. Again, the message conveyed by the content of those packages—“One protein bar. […] One miniature white flag. A calculator. […] [T]hree condoms” [199], and a cartoon representing “Big ‘Stach’” next to a pile of money—is far from simple and can be interpreted in contradictory ways.

 

LT. STUDDARD: What do they need condoms for?

LT. STEIN: Ooo, let me see the cartoons.

LT. FREUD: It’s like: “Immigrate to the U.S., and you might need these.”

[…]

LT. STEIN: Okay, what is “The Bearded Lady” doing in this picture?

LT. STUDDARD: I think that picture speaks for itself.

LT. FREUD: It’s a harmless allegory.

[…]

L. STEIN: Do you think because you drew an arrow from “The Bearded Lady” to a pile of money that his people will rise against him?

LT. FREUD: Most importantly, will they know that’s a stack of ones?

COL. JOHNS: A strong narrative arch is essential to any military victory. You

should know that.

LT. STEIN: This narrative arch has poor character development. (199f.)

 

Apart from the theme of unreadability, this dialogue also exemplifies another key aspect of postmodern drama: self-reflexivity. Johns’ insistence on the unambiguous readability of the cartoon and his claim that military victory depends on narratives such as that suggested by the cartoon provides an ironical contrast to the situation in Pugilist Specialist itself: the cartoon, designed by Americans for Iraqis, fails to convey an unanimous message even to Johns’ own subordinates, while the marines themselves are unaware of any univocal narrative that would justify their mission. As a result, their operation ends not with a military victory, i.e., the assassination of “The Bearded Lady,” but with the killing of Lieutenant Stein by “friendly fire.” Lieutenant Freud’s claim, on the other hand, that the cartoon represents “a harmless allegory” (200) also folds back metadiscursively and ironically onto the play itself since allegories are not only far from harmless within the universe of Pugilist Specialist, they are, also, the major reason why the marines don’t succeed in their various reconnaissance missions. Lieutenant Stein’s final statement, in addition, self-referentially relates to the dramaturgical structure of the play (which could, indeed, be interpreted as a strong narrative arch with poor character development).

The theme of “character development” (or lack thereof) also extends to the problem of “readability of character.” The characters try to guess at each other’s motives and emotional lives behind their rigid military postures. Lieutenant Stein, in the opening monologue of the play, indicates that women in the military can only maintain their dignity by not revealing any private information about themselves (“Secret is my armor. Silence is my camouflage.” [160]). At the same time, she herself provokes Lieutenant Freud by telling him that she knows very well how to read his macho behavior. (“You don’t fool me Freud. […] I know you just want to hold hands.” [185])

The stage directions in Pugilist Specialist are very minimal, and locations are exclusively suggested by the dialog, not indicated by particular objects on stage. Similar to the characters within the play, the audience of the play is often under-informed. With each new scene it has to be established all over again where, and how much later than earlier events, the action is happening. The dialog is often elliptical and allusive; it becomes only gradually clear, though never explicit, that the mission of the marines is to assassinate Saddam Hussein. Since the characters are soldiers, a lot of their dialog is delivered in clipped military jargon, which also impedes our perception of their individual traits. Lieutenant Stein invites the audience, right at the end of the first scene, to approach not only herself but also the entire play as an allegory or riddle that needs to be deciphered: “Loneliness, grief, discipline. Spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch. Decode that.” (160)

There is also an intertextual dimension to Pugilist Specialist that suggests possible directions of interpretation. The name of Emma Stein, who claims that “Punctuality is my feminism” (159), points both to Jane Austen’s novel Emma, as well as to Gertrude Stein (Lieutenant Stein may be a lesbian), while the name Travis Freud refers both to Travis Bickle, the psychotic protagonist in Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver, and the pioneer of psychoanalysis. Studdard’s first name Harpo, on the other hand, points to the Marx Brothers. The association between Lieutenant Stein and the playwright of the same last name is clearly evoked when Lieutenant Freud asks Lieutenant Stein to define “empathy” for him, since he is “a sniper, not a playwright” (196), and the female lieutenant obliges him by offering a definition of the term. Lieutenant Freud’s link to Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, is emphasized when he claims to “eat unconscious desires for breakfast” (179). Similar to the protagonist of Taxi Driver, Lieutenant Freud also plots but then fails to assassinate a political leader (in Scorsese’s film, the politician is a mayoral candidate for New York City). Regarding the larger context of the play, though, the connotations of the names fail to provide meaningful clues for interpreting the characters. Lieutenant Stein exhibits none of the major traits associated with Austen’s heroine or with the famous American writer, nor does Lieutenant Freud demonstrate any behavior that clearly aligns him with the analytical Viennese doctor or the short-fused protagonist of Scorsese’s film. In addition, Harpo Studdard is not funny—the reference to the Marx Brothers serves less to suggest an analogous relationship between the four characters of Pugilist Specialist and the four famous comedians; rather, it emphasizes the striking gap that separates the regimented life of the marines in Shaplin’s play from the anarchistic humor and grotesque universe of such films as Animal Crackers or Duck Soup. The character names in Pugilist Specialist only provide limited readability and function more like arbitrary codes of designation rather than as revelatory clues to a person’s identity.

            Shaplin’s play not only features a fictitious plot that alludes to the early stages of the Iraq War, but also reflects on the way this war has been conducted in reality. Similar to the Bush administration’s habit of offering up a new justification for war once the previous one is discredited (Weapons of Mass Destruction, regime change, spreading democracy in the Middle East, etc.), the official mission of the marines, namely, to assassinate “The Bearded Lady,” is completely redefined by the end of the play to reveal a different metaprescription altogether: to keep the primary enemy alive under all circumstances so that a continuation of war will be justified. (Even though Saddam Hussein has been captured and put on trial, this still seems to be the major strategy of the Bush administration with regard to Osama bin Laden five years after the attacks of 9/11.)[5]

            David Hare’s Stuff Happens also deals with the Iraq War, but from a different angle. The play focuses not on operations in Iraq itself, but on the backroom deals and political maneuvers of the Bush administration that made the war possible. Different from Shaplin’s elliptical dramaturgy, Hare’s play represents the political plot that led to the march on Baghdad by America’s “coalition of the willing” in a more direct fashion. Stuff Happens consists of two acts with twelve scenes each. The play starts with short glimpses into the formative experiences of the major characters in the 1970s, then to zooms in on the time period between January 2001 and August 2004. The key events of that period covered in Hare’s drama include: The first mention of Iraq as a potential target at a National Security Council meeting ten days into Bush’s first term, Bush’s use of 9/11 as an excuse to bring up Iraq again only four days after the attacks, the war in Afghanistan in late fall 2001, Bush’s January 2002 speech about the “axis of evil,” Tony Blair’s initiation into Bush’s Iraq plans by the summer of 2002, Bush’s speech at the U.N. in November 2002, Colin Powell’s presentation of dubious evidence of Iraq’s WMD at the U.N. in February 2003, the launch of the war in March 2003, and—in a short final scene—the first one-and-a-half years of the American occupation of Iraq. Even though the play has 49 characters, the main plot only involves nine protagonists: George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Kofi Annan, and Hans Blix. All public utterances of the protagonists are quoted verbatim, while their confidential conversations are dramatizations based on a combination of extensive research and conjecture. (Hare states in the “Author’s Note” to the first publication of Stuff Happens: “The events within it have been authenticated from multiple sources, both private and public. What happened happened. Nothing in the narrative is unknowingly untrue. Scenes of direct address quote people verbatim. When the doors close on the world’s leaders and on their entourages, then I have used my imagination.”) Stuff Happens constantly moves back and forth between different settings and features the role of a narrator-actor that is played by alternating members of the company, easing transitions between scenes by providing background information and often introducing as well as commenting on a character’s lines or actions. The chronological sequence of events is occasionally interrupted by monologues that stand apart from the main thrust of the play and represent a range of different opinions on the American push for war. These monologues represent the views of a conservative British journalist, a New Labour politician, a Palestinian academic, a British citizen in New York, and an Iraqi exile. Hare’s own dramatization of the conflict, however, is far from unbiased. The central (but flawed) hero of Stuff Happens is the “multilateral internationalist” Colin Powell, who first puts his world reputation on the line to gain international legitimacy for what he considers Bush’s peaceful intentions in putting political pressure on Saddam Hussein, only to find himself excluded from the major decisions of Bush’s inner circle that lead to the war. Tony Blair opportunistically jumps on Bush’s bandwagon early on to have some impact on the shaping of American foreign policy in the wake of 9/11, but is soon outmaneuvered by Cheney and Rumsfeld, who care neither for his New Labour credentials nor his political survival. Bush himself is represented as an intellectually narrow man of simple but strong convictions, whose major strength is his unwavering pursuit and use of power. The most sympathetic of the nine protagonists is clearly U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, who displays a strong sense of humor and appears unintimidated by power.

            Stuff Happens presents a postmodern version of documentary drama. Even though Hare himself claims in the “Author’s Note” that his play is not “a documentary” but “a history play,” he uses a similar approach as Rolf Hochhuth (The Deputy), Heinar Kipphardt (In the Case of J. Robert Oppenheimer), and Peter Weiss (Vietnam Discourse) in their plays from the 1960s by exploring actual political and/or historical events and by incorporating factual material into the dramatic text. Different from 1960s docudrama, however, Stuff Happens is “post-ideological.” While the earlier generation of dramatists considered themselves partisan and often (particularly in Weiss’s case) attacked fascism, capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism from an openly Marxist point of view, the target of Hare’s play is not a general system of political thought or government but a specific group of politicians and their actions. (Bush, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz are certainly depicted as right-wing ideologues, but the political system represented by them is not identified with their ideology since it also allows for the contrary positions of Colin Powell.) The questions that drive Stuff Happens are exactly those attacked by the “angry British journalist” in the play, when he complains of the “relentless archaic discussion of the manner of the liberation. Was it lawful? Was it not? How was it done? What were the details of its doing? Whose views were overridden? Whose views condoned?” (15). Stuff Happens takes issue with why and how the Bush administration went to war in Iraq, but shies away from larger political generalizations (such as claiming that the Iraq War is an example of American imperialism).

            Also different from many of the earlier docudramas, Hare is rather minimalist in his use of stylization (there are no verses, songs, or choruses in Stuff Happens) and only combines a few elements of Epic Theatre (actor-narrator, Gestus, an episodic sequence of events occasionally interrupted by individual commentaries on the buildup to war) with realistic dialog and factual speech. The characters in Stuff Happens are instantly recognizable by key bits of information that are communicated through different dramatic devices. To take the first scene with Condoleezza Rice as an example, these details are provided through stage directions (“Condoleezza Rice, splendid, always alone, steps forward” [6]), the background information provided by the actor-narrator (“a minister’s daughter from Birmingham, Alabama” [6]), statements by the character herself (Brahms is her favorite composer because “He’s passionate without being sentimental” [6]), and statements by other people reflecting back on her character (“Yo-Yo Ma: Do you think it’s also this irresolution in Brahms, the tension that is never resolved?” [6]). The sense of immediate familiarity that this Brechtian indication of Gestus evokes is further heightened by the realistic dialog employed by Hare. Verbatim quotes from historical figures and conjectured dialogs between them blend so well that they almost make for a certain unease: the diegetic narration, as well as the recognizable factual speeches, suggest a high level of documentary veracity and objectivity that even affects the reader’s response to the invented scenes. Reality and fabrication seem inseparable and suggest a perfectly believable simulacrum of the “stuff” that really “happened.” This effect, however, is again offset by the metadiscursive elements of the play that serve as constant reminders of the constructedness of its dramatic representation. This aspect is even more foregrounded by the material reality of any theatrical production of Stuff Happens: The narrator-actors, the frequent and rapid scene changes that only allow for a limited realization of each locale, and the fact that the actors are never complete look-alikes of the historical characters they represent ensure that the illusion of a documentary “slice of life” is rarely sustained for long. The permanent oscillation between a simulacrum of historical reality and the metadiscursivity of the play itself (or, in production, its metatheatricality), however, not only points to the dramatic (or theatrical) constructedness of such a simulation, it also suggests that the simulated political reality may already be a dramatic (or theatrical) construct itself. The invitation to relate the situation in the play to theatrical production and to compare the group of politicians in the play to a company of actors is implied by a verbatim line of Hans Blix at the beginning of the play: “I was an amateur actor when I was a student. Theatre teaches you the value of collaboration, of getting on with other people” (9). Similar to actors performing Stuff Happens, whose efforts at sustaining the simulation of the represented politicians are undermined by the material signifiers of theatrical production itself, the politician-characters within the play also create a simulacrum, namely a semblance of evidence of Hussein’s imminent threat, that is finally undone by the post-invasion reality in Iraq.

One of the most striking aspects of Stuff Happens, particularly regarding both Hare’s treatment of Bush’s plotting as a “historical play” and, inversely, the self-understanding of the Bush administration as “history’s actors” (Suskind), is the mismatch of George W. Bush as a “leading man” considering the theatrical as well as political arenas of the genre that he purportedly represents. “History’s players” (be they protagonists in Shakespeare’s histories or actual political leaders in difficult times) are usually expected to match the complexity of the historic moment intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically. Bush as dramatis persona, in this regard, fails to meet this expectation throughout the play. The fact that none of the characters in Hare’s play are intended as parodies makes it even more remarkable that the Gestus of Bush is primarily indicated by one recurring stage direction that renders him almost robotic in his lack of intellectual agility. The stage direction “There is a silence” (or variations thereof) either indicates the stunned reaction to a disarmingly unsubtle proposition by Bush (see pages 11, 12, 20, 25), emphasizes his inability to respond spontaneously to someone else’s argument (29, 38, 39, 40, 42, 53), or precedes his own wooden reply to a question (30). This Gestus sums up key aspects of Bush’s private behavior that have been well documented in several books on his presidency. Referring to (former Secretary of the Treasury) Paul O’Neill’s descriptions of his encounters with the president in Ron Suskind’s A Price of Loyalty, the critic Carol V. Hamilton argues that George W. Bush represents a postmodern substitute for the traditional notion of character. She writes in “Being Nothing: George W. Bush as Presidential Simulacrum:”

 

Under the sign of postmodernism, the hermeneutics of depth have been replaced by the play of surfaces, and the flat celebrity has superseded the complicated historical figure. […] American media commentators […] overlook, understate, or make excuses for [Bush’s] slipshod syntax, reliance on clichés, and inability to answer either theoretical or factual questions. They inevitably refer to him as if he were a “real” person with a complex sensibility, rather than a simulacrum entirely composed of sound bites and photo opportunities. […] While in public, Bush appears to interact amiably with the media, in the center of government—away from public observation—he is disconnected, like an unplugged machine. […] If Bush “plays at privacy” in public, he cannot act “for real” in private, because he is now in a realm where substance and depth, rather than sheer surface, are called upon. […] I will speculate that in a post-literate, hyperreal world, those accretions of historical time and psychological reflection that produce subjectivity tend to disperse before they constitute a deep, coherent self. The result can be a personality like that of Bush—intellectually narrow, emotionally shallow, working with an abridged vocabulary, like a novice in a foreign language class.

 

Notwithstanding Hamilton’s anti-postmodern bias and her mourning for traditional character structure, it could be argued that it is less the flat, post-literate personality of Bush that is scandalous here than a political system and media culture that still invest him with the attributes of depth, substance, and heroic leadership.

            As postmodern plays that were both written post-9/11, Pugilist Specialist and Stuff Happens succeed quite well in combining a playful exploration of dramatic form with the tackling of political themes. Instead of judging the depicted events from a clearly defined political vantage point, both plays “unravel” the portrayed campaigns—the special operation to assassinate “The Bearded Lady,” alias Saddam Hussein, and the fabrication of a master-discourse by the Bush administration to make the American occupation of Iraq seem legitimate—from within. This, however, is facilitated by the fact that the worlds depicted in both plays and the means by which they are depicted have certain postmodern features in common. The unreadability of signs and the end of metanarratives as key themes of postmodernism are reflected both in the plot of Pugilist Specialist, where they figure as obstacles to the marines’ pursuit of their mission, and in the play’s formal composition and dramatic structure. Stuff Happens, on the other hand, self-reflectively interrelates the notion of a Bush administration determined to “re-fashion” the Middle East in its own image with the play’s attempt to model those events into coherent epic drama: the selective focus on only a few key protagonists and the obvious melodramatization of the more nuanced historical conflict between Colin Powell and the other members of Bush’s inner circle clearly reveal Hare’s play to be a fabrication itself. Overall, though, the postmodern aspects of the realities that both plays describe have a rather different significance from those elements that allow the plays themselves to be characterized as examples of a postmodern aesthetic. While the unreadability of characters, motives, and overall mission in Pugilist Specialist, as an artistic strategy, confronts the audience not only with their own desire for closure but also, more generally, with a key aspect of the postmodern experience, within the military context of Shaplin’s plot itself those themes connote surveillance, secretiveness, hierarchical power, betrayal, and, finally, death. While Stuff Happens implies that Bush’s plot to invade Iraq and his ever-changing justifications for war constitute a simulacrum that is mirrored in the dramaturgy of Hare’s plot itself, it is only Bush’s simulacrum that has led to disastrous consequences in political actuality. The discrepancy between the benign function of postmodernism on an aesthetic level and its negative implications for the realities referred to in both plays results from a major denial that haunts the military world of Pugilist Specialist as well as the self-enclosed universe of the Bush administration in Stuff Happens—namely, the incapability to accept decenteredness, heterogeneity, and multiplicity as facts of 21st-century existence. The disintegration of meaning, identity, purpose, etc. leads to the cynical outcome in Pugilist Specialist because the characters inhabit a world that is unable to confront the fact that, despite Colonel Johns’ claim to the contrary, no “strong narrative arch” (200) justifies the marines’ individual actions, their group mission, or the general operation of American troops in Iraq. The protagonists of Stuff Happens completely disregard the language games of political discourse (informed decision-making, the honoring of contracts and laws, the rules of diplomacy, etc.) in their creation of a new reality, while insisting that they are merely serving the most traditional justification of American politics (“Rumsfeld: I’ll tell you what’s legitimate. […] The authority to act comes from the people. […] Power in this country doesn’t come from its institutions […].” [101]). Pugilist Specialist and Stuff Happens are successful and relevant examples of postmodern drama in the post-9/11 period because they convincingly employ postmodernist devices to demonstrate that the actual “situation on the ground” depicted in both plays (the planning of the Iraq War by the Bush administration and the execution of a clandestine mission by American special forces in Iraq) is still inherently marked by postmodern ambiguity, fragmentation, and unreadability. The plays also imply that their grim endings result from the denial of those postmodern conditions, as well as from the ideological adherence to self-generated metanarratives that are completely out of tune with the fragile realities that they supposedly serve to legitimize and explain.

 

 

Endnotes

 

[1]Adriano Shaplin’s Riot Group has performed Pugilist Specialist in New York (where it opened at 59E59 Theater in September 2004 before moving to The Culture Project at 45 Bleecker St. the following November), San Francisco (Magic Theater, December 2004), and Burlington, Vermont (Flynn Space, May 2006). The first American production of Stuff Happens opened at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in May 2005 (dir. Gordon Davidson), followed by a New York production at the Public Theater in March 2006 (dir. Daniel Sullivan).

[2] Ashley Woodward provides the following information on Lyotard’s adoption of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language games. “The theory of language games means that each of the various categories of utterance can be defined in terms of rules specifying their properties and the uses to which they can be put. […] Lyotard presents a postmodern methodological representation of society as composed of multifarious and fragmented language games, but games which strictly (but not rigidly—the rules of a game can change) control the moves which can be made within them by reference to narratives of legitimation which are deemed appropriate by their respective institutions. Thus one follows orders in the army, prays in church, questions in philosophy, etc., etc.”

[3] In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard suggests that scientific research in the West, instead of being autonomous and universal, has always depended on political powers and “the legitimation of the legislator since the time of Plato” (8). Consequentially, the delegitimization of traditional political metanarratives also entails the loss of legitimacy for the traditional paradigm of scientific discourse (with its “conditions of internal consistency and experimental verification” [8]). It could be argued that the Bush administration accepts one of Lyotard’s key statements at face value (“In the computer age, the question of knowledge is now more than ever a question of government” [9]) and that it interprets the delegitimization of Western science in their own favor, by granting legitimacy to discourses that had been considered unscientific before and by only acknowledging those findings of scientific research that fit their ideological agenda.

[4] Fish also refers to an interview from 1996, in which the Intelligent Design advocate Phillip E. Johnson admitted his misappropriation of postmodernism. “‘I’m no postmodernist,’ he declares […], but ‘I’ve learned a lot’ from reading them. What he’s learned, he reports, is how to talk about ‘hidden assumptions’ and ‘power relationships,’ and how to use those concepts to cast doubt on the authority of ‘science educators’ and other purveyors of the reigning orthodoxy. […] [T]he strategy he borrows from the postmodernists—the strategy of claiming to have been marginalized by the powers that be—is, he boasts, ‘dead-bang mainstream academia these days’” (71).

[5] On September 22, 2006 Op-Ed contributor Lawrence Wright wrote in The New York Times: “The fifth anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone, but there was a conspicuous figure missing from the retrospectives and commentaries: Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda’s founder has clearly been marginalized even in his own movement […]. Meanwhile, Pakistan has negotiated a truce with tribal chiefs promising to keep troops out of the Waziristan districts, where the leadership of Al Qaeda may be hiding, and the C.I.A. has closed Alec Station, the unit devoted to finding Mr. bin Laden. He is the forgotten man.”

 

 

Works Cited

Primary Literature:

Hare, David. Stuff Happens. London: Faber & Faber, 2004.

Shaplin, Adriano. “Pugilist Specialist.” Three Plays. London: Oberon Books, 2004. 155-228.

 

Secondary Literature:

Fish, Stanley. “Academic Cross-Dressing: How Intelligent Design Gets Its Arguments From the Left.” Harper’s Magazine. December 2005. 70-72.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. “Postmodernism: Extension of End of Modernism? Theater Between Cultural Crisis and Cultural Change.” Trans. Josephine Riley. Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodernist Controversy. Ed. Ingeborg Hoesterey. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. 216-228.

“George W. Bush: America’s First Postmodern President?” Editorial. Perspective. November 2003. http://www.digitas.harvard.edu/~perspy/issues/2003/nov/staffed.html

Hamilton, Carol V. “Being Nothing: George W. Bush as Presidential Simulacrum.” Ctheory. 13 Jan. 2004. Eds. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=427

Lyotard, Jean-Franćois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

—. “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” Trans. Régis Durand. The Postmodern Condition, 71-82.

Malkin, Jeanette R. Memory-Theater and Postmodern Drama. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999.

de Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Owens, Craig. “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism, Part 2.” Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. Ed. Scott Bryson et al. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.

Schmidt, Kerstin. The Theater of Transformation: Postmodernism in American Drama. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2005.

Suskind, Ron. The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

—. “Without a Doubt.” The New York Times. October 17, 2004.

Woodward, Ashley. “Jean-Franćois Lyotard (1924-1998).” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/l/Lyotard.htm

Wright, Lawrence. “The Trials of the Century.” The New York Times. September 22, 2006.

 

 

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