Bad Theater Happens

The problem with David Hare’s Iraq play.

Peter Francis James as Colin Powell, Gloria Reuben as Condoleezza Rice, Jay O. Sanders as George W. Bush

There are many wonderful reasons to spend an evening at the theater, but catching up on 3-year-old news isn’t one of them. That’s the conclusion I reached at David Hare’s Stuff Happens, which opened April 13 at New York’s Public Theater. The play tells the story of the march to war in Iraq, and the characters—George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, and an assemblage of other world leaders—will be familiar to Slate readers. Indeed, for anyone who has paid even casual attention to the news since Sept. 11, 2001, Stuff Happens is three hours of déjà vu—with a few unlikely speeches and dodgy accents thrown in to keep the audience guessing.

Hare is an anti-war leftist (albeit one with a knighthood; socialist theatricals can so rarely resist the touch of the queen’s sword on their shoulders), but the play’s problem isn’t ideological, it’s structural. At various points in his career, Hare has used a process bordering on the anthropological to develop material. In 1997, he turned a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories into a satisfyingly complex one-man show, Via Dolorosa. 2003’s The Permanent Way, a patchwork of direct quotes culled from interviews with real Britons, miraculously made the decline of the British railways seem like the perfect subject for a play—only a great writer could’ve turned a stack of transcripts into such a moving work. Unfortunately, Stuff Happens lacks the intellectual curiosity of the former and the emotional honesty of the latter.

In a “Playwright’s Note” in the New York production’s Playbill, Hare explains that nothing in the play is “knowingly untrue,” but “Less than a quarter of the play quotes the public statements of politicians verbatim.” In practice, this means that the big political set pieces of the last four and a half years are faithfully reproduced—Jay O. Sanders, as President Bush, even dons a groin-hugging jump suit to deliver two paragraphs of the USS Abraham Lincoln address. But the pols’ private conversations—the mutterings between Bush, Blair, Powell, et al., when the cameras were off—make up the bulk of the show and are scripted by Hare’s imagination.

Left to right: Glenn Fleshler, George Bartenieff, Brenda Wehle, Waleed F. Zuaiter, Armand Schultz, Lameece Issaq

Dramatically, the action of Stuff Happens swings from the over-familiar to the vaguely unlikely. To establish authenticity, administration officials are forever spouting post-9/11 clichés (“war on terror,” “axis of evil,” “regime change,” “dossier,” “old Europe,” etc.) or re-creating familiar scenes (Bush reading to a Florida kindergarten class, Powell briefing the United Nations, Rumsfeld making undiplomatic statements). These are words and images that we’ve already had our fill of; after all, they’ve been on Page One and all over the television news. Substituting an actor for a real politician isn’t enough to make the situation novel.

The cast are actors, not impersonators, but there’s an irritating unevenness to the attempts at verisimilitude. Powell and Rice are played by people of color; Jay O. Sanders has perfected the presidential smirk, and I’m pretty sure that Gloria Reuben wouldn’t choose that first-term Condi flip for herself. But then there are some clunkers: In the early preview I saw, former British Cabinet member Robin Cook, a Scot, spoke like a braying Ulsterman; Dominique De Villepin was a cartoon Frenchman, a mincing metrosexual. When a play concerns public figures that we’ve spent years scrutinizing on Meet the Press and C-SPAN, it’s hard to forgive such goofs. They make the whole project seemed preposterous, less authentic than the E! network’s daily reconstructions of the Michael Jackson trial.

It’s not just accents and body language. Many of the imagined conversations lack a fundamental authenticity. Take the scene in which Secretary of State Colin Powell expresses his frustrations to President Bush at a private White House meeting. Even if he were to address his commander-in-chief as “George,” it seems unlikely that he would complain about senior administration officials’ lack of Vietnam-era service to a man whose days in the Texas Air National Guard have always been controversial. Similarly, it doesn’t ring true when Tony Blair angrily asks the president why U.S. special forces ordered British troops who had surrounded Osama Bin Laden to withdraw, allowing him to escape. Maybe the incident did happen—Hare has lots of sources—but in the middle of so much old news, it seems implausible.

Cast of Stuff Happens

There’s no doubt that when there’s enough mystery left in the events being portrayed, history can provide dynamite dramatic material. (And you don’t have to go back to Shakespeare—just think of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and Democracy, for starters.) In Stuff Happens, the story is far too familiar, and the play becomes a positive feedback loop reassuring liberals that when the cameras are off, the Bushies and Blairites are just as shameless, scheming, and stupid as they always suspected.

Hare got the ratio of fact to fiction wrong in Stuff Happens, but Guardians, currently playing at New York’s Culture Project, a few blocks from the Public, found the winning formula. Peter Morris’ twin monologues—from “English Boy,” an ambitious journalist who spins a tale of faked abuse photos astonishingly similar to the scandal that brought down Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan, and “American Girl,” who bears a remarkable resemblance to Lynddie England—are just real enough to be entertaining but not so obvious that they’re boring.