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By JONATHAN MANDELL
War is a reality in at least three dozen places around the world today, and that reality is echoed on many New York stages this season, from Broadway to Brooklyn.
"It’s interesting that all these plays are going on now," says Matthew Lopez, author of The Whipping Man, which takes place in the aftermath of the American Civil War and is running at the Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center through April 10th. "I guess it’s taken a lot of time to process what it means to be a nation at war."
Tom Morris, co-director of War Horse, a World War I drama that opens at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater on April 14, says he is not surprised; war is a powerful puzzle. "We seem unable to stop fighting wars; it’s quite possible that we’ve just started another one this week," he says, referring to the U.S.-involved military action in Libya. "No one seems to want war, but we sure as hell keep doing it. Artists and audiences want to find out why."
Rajiv Joseph, playwright of Bengal Tiger, suggests the theatre isn't suited for literal depictions of combat. "War movies are judged by how realistic they are," he says. "Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan get acclaim because they are thought to be close to what it’s really like. But you don’t need to do that in theatre. We deal in metaphor as a driving force."
Each of these productions offers a distinct vision of how the stage can evoke the nature of war.
BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO
Joseph’s play, now in previews at the Richard Rodgers on Broadway, was inspired by a small news story he saw in 2003 about an American soldier who tried to feed a Bengal tiger in Baghdad, only to have the tiger bite his hand off; another soldier then shot and killed the animal.
"It wasn’t my intention to write an anti-war play. I was curious about the animal," says the writer. "The play began as a ten-minute exercise."
He was moved to expand it by watching Errol Morris’s 1997 documentary, Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control, which focuses on four people with unusual occupations, including a lion tamer and a topiary gardener. One of the four main characters in Bengal Tiger is an Iraqi translator for the Americans who worked as a topiary gardener for one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. (Robin Williams plays the tiger, and then the tiger's ghost.)
"I see the play as more a ghost story than a war story, and a series of spiritual inquiries," Joseph says. "To the extent that it is taken as an anti-war play, any dramatic inquiry into a war is not going to wind up favoring it. Obviously, war is a place where horrible things happen."
Joseph says he did not feel qualified to write directly about the war, although he was "semi-obsessed" with it, and read all he could. "I knew in my bones that no matter what I read, there was so much of it that I could not understand."
THE WHIPPING MAN
The Whipping Man is a three-character play that takes place in the ruined Virginia mansion of a Jewish family shortly after the surrender at Appomattox. The son, a former Confederate officer, shares a Passover seder with two of his father's former slaves. In something of a twist, the shattered son Caleb has lost his faith, while the older ex-slave Simon, played André Braugher, remains a devout Jew: "War is not proof of God's absence," he says. "It's proof of His absence from men's hearts."
Playwright Matthew Lopez had always been fascinated by the Civil War, by its "unimaginable" rate of death and the nation’s recovery. "That we had to fight the war at all is a great national shame. That it didn't destroy us is simply miraculous."
But he admits that it wasn’t just history that inspired him; it was also current events.
"I did start to write the play soon after the invasion of Iraq," he says. "I don’t think the play was about Iraq. I’d always been fascinated by slavery and the Civil War. But what I was feeling as an American citizen influenced the chaos of my play, the feelings of the world turned upside down: That certainly played an important role in shaping the atmosphere of the play."
At one point, for instance, one of the characters defends his stealing by saying, "This whiskey was liberated and is now being occupied by me." According to Lopez, "[That line] was referencing the language I was hearing on CNN about the Iraq invasion, how we would be 'greeted as liberators.'"
For Black Watch, which on April 16 begins a third run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, Scottish playwright Gregory Burke interviewed soldiers from a centuries-old Scottish regiment named Black Watch, who had served a tour of duty in Iraq. In the play, a writer character asks a group of soldiers what it was like in combat.
"I thought it was going to teach me something about the meaning of life," one responds.
"But I was too busy shooting folk," another observes.
Burke says his play was partly inspired by Oh What A Lovely War, a 1963 British stage musical satirizing World War I, but mostly by war films, in particular borrowing the practice of using certain stock character types.
"War works best on film. Stage is best when it's intimate," Burke says. "I think in Black Watch's case, the intimacy of the depiction of the lives of this small group of men juxtaposed against the broader, stylized, geo-political and historical canvas is what makes the play a success. The specific politics of the imperial adventure in Iraq are ignored in favor of the historical context that this is merely the latest in a long line of similar actions by the West, and by extension, any power throughout history who has enjoyed global hegemony."
Based on a young adult novel written in 1982 by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the story of a horse owned by a farmer’s son who is sold into the cavalry during World War I.
Co-director Tom Morris says it is a challenge to stage "the enormity of the experience of living through war. You can’t do the close-up blood and guts so well in theatre as you can in film. But you can be just as vivid. I still remember Ed Hall’s production of the Henry VI plays, in which the actors hacked into a leg of lamb on the stage. That was pretty gruesome."
War Horse creates striking visuals by using life-sized puppet horses built of steel, leather and aircraft cables.
But if the production seems uniquely suited to the stage, the story of War Horse has a future that distinguishes it from the other three war plays: Steven Spielberg is adapting Morpurgo's novel into a film, due out in December.
Jonathan Mandell is a critic and journalist covering theatre for such publications as The Faster Times , Back Stage and American Theatre. He is on Twitter as @NewYorkTheater