Jesse Kornbluth reviews David Hare’s “Stuff Happens”.
Boots or no boots? That is the question. The last time we were on the verge of going to war in the Middle East, 36,000,000 people marched in 3,000 protests around the world to shout “no.” But the White House stood firm on “information” from a bogus “expert,” a New York Times reporter amplified the lies, then a much-decorated general sold the lies at the United Nations. It was great drama, farce and tragedy combined.
In recent months, as we have tried to figure out how best to stop the mad killers of ISIS, there’s been a very different conversation about the advisability of another land war in the Middle East — like: none, unless you count marginally informed chatter on cable TV from pundits who were, most of them, wrong the last time. Congress? AWOL. We’ll have ground forces once again in Iraq or we won’t, but one thing’s certain: whatever the decision, this President won’t have Congress behind him. So we won’t have the kind of drama like the one David Hare — the playwright who penned Skylight, everyone’s favorite play of the 1990s — created in “Stuff Happens.” If you care about such matters, this is a good time to look back.
“Stuff Happens” — the title comes from Donald Rumsfeld’s famous line about looting in Baghdad: “Stuff happens and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things” — opened in London, where it caused a stir. No surprise: the play is about the run-up to the Iraq War, and all our favorite villains are in it. Naturally, when it came to New York, People Like Us rushed to see it.
At the Public Theater, the stage was set up like an indoor stadium, as if there were bleachers on both sides of a basketball court. In the center, the actors sat in executive swivel chairs , as if at a board meeting. An all-star board meeting: Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Rice, Tenet, Wolfowitz, Paul O’Neill for the Americans, and, for the Europeans, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Dominique de Villepin and Hans Blix. Among others.
“I wanted to write the story of how a supposedly stupid man completely gets his way with two supposedly clever men — and wins repeatedly.” That’s Hare’s synopsis of his play. Bush-haters may find that Hare has made the President more cunning and clever than the idiot they believe him to be; Bush supporters may conclude that Hare’s President is wrongly depicted as a simpleton who’s manipulated by his advisers. And what about Colin Powell? Is he a tragic hero who tries to do the right thing and is exploited at every turn — or is he so desperate for a powerful job that he tell tells what she should know is a lie to the United Nations? And Tony Blair: staunch ally or idealistic schmuck? Any way you slice it, the results are grim. In “Stuff Happens,” Bush neuters Powell and makes Blair look ill-equipped for real-world politics.
To see if ‘Stuff Happens” is as good as I thought it was, I read the 117-page book of the play. I commend it to you. And to your college-age kids who are looking for something meaty but short to read. And, if you’ve got a high school student with an interest in current affairs — this is just the ticket. [To buy “Stuff Happens” from Amazon, click here.]
It’s an exciting read because, unlike most political dramas, it’s intensely psychological. It’s not always clear what anyone wants. (Well, Cheney is not exactly opaque.) And characters make statements for effect — indeed, for such obvious effect that other characters can’t believe they’re supposed to believe them. It’s boardroom chess, and it sucks you in, even though you know how it all worked out.
It starts with Colin Powell. “War should be the politics of last resort,” he says. And then Dick Cheney enters: “I never met a weapons system I didn’t vote for.” (The play, while “historical,” does not religiously stick to the public record.) We learn that Condi Rice has two mirrors in her office, “so she can see her back as well as her front.” And that Blair came to politics late, “fired up by an original mix of theology and social duty.” At last we meet George Bush. “My faith frees me,” he says. “Frees me to put the problem of the moment in proper perspective. Frees me to make decisions which others might not like. Frees me to enjoy life and not worry about what comes next.”
Anybody see a collision dead ahead? 9/11 has just happened. America must capture Osama. But some are already looking beyond the Taliban — to Iraq. They have many reasons; you’re invited to take your pick. Will our allies go along? “The coalition will not determine the mission,” Rumsfeld says. “The mission will determine the coalition.” Translation: Forget France and Germany, is Blair’s Britain with us? Enter Blair. Flummoxed. The Brits had Osama in their rifle sights. The United States ordered the Brits to pull out. Now Osama has escaped. Why did this happen? Who made the decision? Bush responds in monosyllables. “We don’t ever not hear you,” he says. Disturbing, both in the play and as a matter of historical record.
It gets worse. Europe wants an invasion of Iraq to be a United Nations decision; Cheney recasts the issue so the question is whether the UN has the guts to make a tough decision. Rumsfeld prepares for war; Blair and Powell are not told until they’ve aligned themselves with the mission so completely they can’t back out gracefully. The play becomes a series of show-downs. The French vs. Powell. Blair vs. Bush. Powell vs. Rice.
The talk is fast and smart, the issues huge. What are the limits of power? When you say you’re “responsible,” what does that mean? Those questions can explode your head. So you find yourself backing off, to these: What’s true in this documentary play? What’s made-up? Who can I believe?
Hare is too gifted to write propaganda. He plays fair: The case for the war is as fairly presented as the case against. Which only makes it harder for you to know what you think. You like intellectual thrillers? Read “Stuff Happens.”
This article originally appeared Head Butler.
Photo credit: World Economic Forum/flickr