over two years ago I seemed always to be in California, taking part in the celebrations surrounding the release of the film I'd written of Michael Cunningham's novel "The Hours." While the creative team was giving interviews and being mildly feted, more than half our minds were on rather more urgent matters: The impending invasion of a sovereign territory by the world's only superpower.
I was heading for Los Angeles, by chance, on the day the bombing began. And just a few days later, I was in Row E at the Kodak Theatre for that weird Oscar ceremony at which actors and directors struggled, mostly without success, to find a tone remotely fitting to the circumstances. So it seems appropriate that the American premiere of "Stuff Happens," my play about the diplomatic process leading up to the war of 2003, should be given here in L.A., the farewell production at the Mark Taper Forum of a director, Gordon Davidson, who for some decades has represented the highest ambitions of American theater.
I had no idea at the time that I would one day write about
. It was not at my suggestion. Not many months after the fall of Baghdad, I was approached by the National Theatre in London, whose incoming artistic director, Nick Hytner, had conceived the revolutionary idea of summer seasons in the 1,200-seat Olivier Theatre for which 60% of the seats would be available for just 10 pounds — call it $18.
In its first season, this policy had begun to have a startling effect both on the repertory and on the audience. People were already coming to the theater in greater numbers and in better spirits than anyone could remember. It was clear to Nick that the shows they most craved were not genteel classics or emetic musicals. No, there was a palpable thirst in the newly young audience for large-scale plays that addressed the historic issues of the day. How, asked Nick, in what I had to admit was an unanswerable question, could there be something called a National Theatre that didn't offer a play about Iraq?
What followed were probably the most intense months of my writing life as I struggled at once to master the huge amount of background, to talk to the relevant people (or at least to those who were willing to talk to me), and to begin the work of discovering a dramatic approach that would be in any way adequate to the scale of the events.
It was obvious immediately that this could not be a
play. It was simply not possible. Although I planned to stud my narrative with some of the real-life remarks that the principal characters had made in public, I had to acknowledge the obvious fact that once the doors closed on Bush, on Blair, on Blix, on Powell, on Rice and on
, nobody on Earth truly knew what they had said behind them. It was up to me to invent. First and foremost, this was going to be a work of the imagination. I was going to speculate, but — to be clear — the speculation would be based on what I hoped was impeccable research.
You may ask what right I had to try to represent encounters and arguments of which self-evidently I can have had no firsthand knowledge. And the answer to that question goes to the very heart of the claims of art over journalism. There is after all a compelling precedent: The man who did this sort of thing best was
(Schiller close behind). It is highly unlikely, historians agree, that Henry V did indeed proceed into battle having asked his troops to go once more into the breach. And as far as we can tell, the real Richard III never paused in life to make high-flown comparisons between glorious summer and the winter of his discontent. But the audience accepts. They believe. Why? Because of the story itself. As long as the heart of the story seems true, and the manner of its telling has evident integrity — this is something the audience feels, something that can't be faked — then the whole exhilarating leap of poetry is to take you to a place reporting can't: to the psychological heart of the characters involved — their motives, their deceits, their manners, their wiles and their ways.
I embarked on the project knowing full well how artistically hazardous it was. I was clearly aware that plenty of historical and biographical dramas take liberties that are, frankly, unforgivable and that cause deep offense by their cavalier attitude to event and character. And I was well prepared for the likely objection, which was indeed made in advance, that any play on how and why we went to war was bound to be superfluous, or already outdated, because journalism had already done such a thorough job of covering a process of which we were by now all heartily sick.
But in my contention, it is not until you actually settle down in a theater to watch the whole passage of the tragedy in one evening — from Bush's first National Security Council meeting in January 2001 through to the fall of Saddam's statue more than two years later — that you realize how different it is to participate in the shared scrutiny of theater than to sit, as most of us do most of the time, picking like vultures at quickly digested shards of fact and opinion. Another way of putting it: This is an epic story. It demands an epic medium.
Happily it's not for me to judge the success of the venture. In London, "Stuff Happens" was sold out from the day it opened. Inevitably, it was also assumed in advance that since I had made no secret of my own personal horror at what I believed to be the needless death of tens of thousands of people, so my play was bound to be a one-sided piece of propaganda. But, significantly, the reported experience was mostly otherwise.
The power of theater is its unpredictability, the strange alchemy of response that happens only when a group of people examine something together. It's a bad playwright who seeks to demand a particular reaction. Everyone knows that in performance unpleasant people may begin to acquire charm through energy. Good people, it is said, may seem dull. It was interesting how often members of the audience came out of the show saying "Goodness, I never knew that." But even more often — and this is where theater really comes into its own — they emerged uneasy to have found their view of the leading players not quite the one they might have anticipated.
For myself, I admit I went into the writing of the play already doubting the received wisdom about
. I had never thought that an inability to handle language was quite the same thing as being stupid. If Bush was really that dumb, why has he come out of Iraq with a number of his policy goals arguably achieved, even if at the most terrible cost? Bush's standing, at least with his own electorate, seems to have suffered nothing like the damage you might think it deserved, given the terrible scale of the killing and the shocking incompetence of the occupation.
Compare him then with my prime minister who has, by contrast, endured the opposite fate. Not only has
been decisively stripped of his popularity and his enviable reputation for plain dealing, so he has also achieved none of the collateral benefits he had promised the British people — most notably, American pressure for progress between Israel and the Palestinians. One way of looking at "Stuff Happens" is as the eternal story of how a supposedly stupid man can always get his way with a clever one — at least if he is cunning and ruthless enough.
Yes, I do, as it happens, have a fresh take on the story. But that's not the point. Hytner observed at one packed matinee that it was theater itself that was doing its job here — animating the themes of history, showing you the people and seeking, perhaps, some universal resonance beneath the particular narrative.
In school, I never really understood why shooting an archduke in Sarajevo should unleash the most savage bloodbath of the 20th century. What was that about? Historians, I suspect, will argue about the origins and morality of this most contentious of wars for just as long. If journalism offered the first draft of history, here's a modest stab at the second.
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Opens June 5. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Call for exceptions.