May 27, 2007

Drama: Another Casualty of War

Check out this insightful article exploring Time's theater columnist, Christopher Isherwood's, "certain impatience" with "Journey's End," a critically well-received play now on Broadway written by a WW I survivor about British solidiers waiting for a German attack.

From the article:

[As to why "Journey's End" is flopping with audiences]:

"A potential conclusion: War in the newspapers isn’t necessarily good for war on movie screens and stages. The conflict in Iraq (and Afghanistan) is so much with us these days that maybe audiences have no inclination to engage with stories from old battlefields.

"Can you blame them? We absorb images and information about the current strife every time we turn on the television, listen to the radio or pick up a newspaper. Obviously not much of the news is good. As the steady drumbeat of grim statistics rolls on — the rising death tolls, the roiling sectarian violence — Americans can perhaps be forgiven for failing to warm to entertainment that underscores what journalism is making brutally plain every day: War is a cruel and destructive enterprise that maims or destroys the lives of people on all sides, even when fought for a noble cause.

"Perhaps right now audiences don’t need to — or can’t bear to — revisit testimony from the past, however artfully and honestly it is presented, to experience the range of emotions that an encounter with the ugly realities of war elicits. Compassion for human suffering, dismay at man’s brutality, understanding of both the moral beauty of courage in the face of danger and its often painful inefficacy: We can cycle through these again every time we read or see detailed accounts of the everyday human costs of the conflict — in life, in prosperity, in dignity and happiness. Art can evoke little more pity and terror, to use those old Aristotelian words, than the immediate news of the waste going on in the world today, intimately taken account of in the best journalism.

"If the freakish success of the recent movie “300” is any indication, a lot of Americans are hungry for narratives that offer escape from the uncompromised truths of the world as it is today. This luridly silly epic offers refuge from the increasingly unavoidable idea that war is always an ethically complex enterprise that can be as demoralizing — and dehumanizing — for the apparent victors as it is for the subjugated. War as a cartoon battle between good guys and monsters more easily satisfies a taste for vicarious excitement after all."


So, I'm with all of this, especially the success of "300," which I haven't seen, but a friend of mine whose judgment I trust says she just laughed her ass off the entire movie because it was just so over-the-top, melodramatically masculine.

What I'm disappointed with in Isherwood's article is his comparison of previous wars to the current:

"...Several years into a confusing war with complicated foes and several years after the Sept. 11 attacks, we may have finally reached a point where the old forms of war fiction are no longer capable of giving us the solace and understanding we look for from this kind of material. Stories of noble sacrifice amid the comparatively uncomplicated moral climate of the two world wars seem so remote that emotional indulgence in them seems too much like escapism, a turning away from the truths that we need to keep our eyes sharply focused on."

Indeed, the reason our current "foes" are our foes is very "complicated," as is the reason why we're in Iraq in the first place (Afghanistan isn't so hard to understand, intially, since that's where Osama was shacking up). BUT to say that the first two world wars, from our historical perch, were waged in a "comparatively uncomplicated moral climate" is, if not historically farsighted, at least hubristic--to use another of Aristotle's dramatic terms.

What's wrong about it? Well, there was tremendous reticence to enter WWI. In fact, war was seen by many in the U.S. as barbaric, irrational, something of the past. The U.S. involvement in WWII was delayed, in part, by fears of getting involved in another war like the first. And it should be pointed out that in neither war was the "moral climate"--an unfortunate, inexact, yet smart-seeming po-mo phrase that has made its way into our lexicon as shorthand for the shifting attitudes of the people, that is subtly disapproving of "moral" as an ethical category--"uncomplicated" for untold numbers of conscientious objectors who went to jail for refusing to fight, or the many women involved in the pacifist movement.

Also, to say that the current war is more "confusing and "complicated" is to surrender to the post-modern tendency to see all contemporary situations as irreducible to any one set of analytical tools or cultural perspective. Indeed, it is important to try to understand the impulses that lead many young people of the Islamic faith to become suicide bombers. In fact, art is trying to pick up that slack with a rash of books dramatizing the lives of such people (Delillo's "Falling Man" dramatizes the last moments in the cockpit of one of the planes that hit the WTC on 9/11). But of what use is such fine rhetorical gesturing, concentrated cultural analysis or artistic exploration if we (and I mean everyone), at the end the day, can't agree, or just plain refuse to pass judgement, on whether or not violence is a workable solution to conflict?

If we really want truly complicated drama, we need to start looking more closely at those who refuse to fight under any circumstances, who would turn the other cheek, not just as a thought-experiment but as an ethic to live by, no matter the consequences. My guess is that such drama would strike audiences as tragic, but in that contemporary sense of the word, wasteful.

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