Within a day of the announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been captured and killed came the first wave of articles predicting “what this means for America”. Almost a decade after 9/11, Bin Laden had become more an emblem of terrorism than an active practitioner of it, so the effect of his death may be more representational than actual. (The actual effect, if any, remains to be seen.) From the perspective of theater however, the question it raises is “what does this mean for war-related drama?” There have been numerous plays sparked by the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, running currently on Broadway. Many of the Iraq-based plays focus on the atrocities of war and point a well-aimed finger at the American government for entering in the first place. But what is the effect or resonance of these works when our exit from Iraq is now visible and the instigator of our fight against terrorism is dead? It doesn’t render the plays pointless; after all, the wars continue. But it does soften the portrayal. And it makes the artistic response less urgent.
A play like Stuff Happens (which had its world premiere in 2004 during the thick of the Iraq war) was so timely, it approximated a dramatic reenactment of news headlines. And the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch poetically captured the pain, loss, and memories of soldiers in Iraq (though its first production at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2007 arguably struck a more powerful chord than its third run in 2011). At this point, our escalation to war feels almost historical. And we view it with a certain distance, a critical acuity that comes with retrospection.
The strength of war plays (or films for that matter) depends largely on the time of their release. Our political and emotional responses to world events shapes the mindsets we bring into the theater. The Broadway production of Time Stands Still in 2010 was incredibly powerful not only due to its writing and actors but also due to its ability to look back on Iraq so far just as we in the audience were doing the same.
Regardless of one’s reaction to Bin Laden’s death, there’s a general acknowledgement that the chapter on Iraq is coming to a close. War plays that are situated in a precise political moment run the risk of becoming dated after the fact. (Stuff Happens would be almost cartoonish today.) But when a play captures that moment in the right time, it’s something extraordinary.