With all due respect to Dame Julia Roberts, the theater season’s main event is already here. In 2004, the accomplished British playwright David Hare stitched together fact and fiction to create Stuff Happens, a play about the origins of the Iraq war. It is, he wrote, “a history play which happens to center on very recent history.” That a playwright would dare to tackle a subject so vital, with a reach so Shakespearean, makes it an important new play. And if it somehow were to work, it could give New York the timely political drama it has long needed. That is, of course, a very big “if.”
At the Public, the play’s opening moments live up to its promise. One by one, excellent actors step into the roles of our leaders: George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Colin Powell. (Gloria Reuben, with an unwavering coif and that indulgent little smile, becomes Condoleezza Rice.) Thanks to Daniel Sullivan’s apt staging—a kind of stadium layout, with the audience on either side of the actors—the show feels like a tribunal: Metaphorically, at least, we will hold our public figures to account.
Yet beyond its inspired premise, and the crisp aplomb of Sullivan’s production, Stuff Happens is a catalogue of disappointments. Hare wanted to show how Bush decided to invade Iraq and why Blair chose to follow him. Except for a few last-minute addenda, that means the story stops three years ago, before Abu Ghraib, Plamegate, and the other calamities of the occupation. The play’s action has been, as they say, overtaken by events.
The trouble has less to do with the incidents Hare dramatizes than the perfunctory way he goes about it. “The Iraq war started as a war of ideas,” wrote George Packer in The Assassins’ Gate. You’d think Hare, the author of Plenty, Racing Demon, and other cerebrally engaged fare, would thrill to the intellectual combat. But his script is a busy cavalcade of maneuvers and conferences and phone calls that leaves little time for thoughtfulness, character development, or big Shakespearean sweep; nobody changes. Some of the early scenes, in which Bush & Co. grapple with September 11, have a jangling energy. But as the tedious squabbles over United Nations resolutions consume Act Two—all of Act Two—the show’s title becomes a good description of its plot.
What went wrong? I sense the slight but unmistakable pressure of a playwright’s thumb upon the political scales. Hare seems unwilling to sympathize with the neocons, who were, after all, the chief architects of the war. Neither Donald Rumsfeld nor Paul Wolfowitz is permitted to make his strongest argument (for a revolution in military affairs or the promotion of democracy, respectively) in his own voice. It’s telling that the most resounding defense of the war comes not from one of the historical principals but from an unnamed Angry Journalist, who delivers his speech outside the action and is never heard from again.
That doesn’t mean that David Hare is Michael Moore, with his asinine pictures of Iraqis cavorting under Saddam’s pacific rule; or Dick Cheney, the world’s meanest Pollyanna, who sees bad news as merely the work of bad newsmen. His depictions of war-cabinet meetings at Camp David and clashes over British intelligence generally coincide with the accounts given by Bob Woodward and others. Yet for political and dramaturgical reasons, Hare can’t resist tinkering with the record.
To make him a credible protagonist, Hare has ennobled Powell, sending him into losing fight after losing fight with the bloodthirsty Cheney and Rumsfeld, essentially making him a would-be peacemaker for our time. Jay O. Sanders succumbs to the understandable temptation to play the president as halfway to Rosco P. Coltrane, but Hare has done his part as well, rearranging the transcript of a Bush-Blair press conference to make the Texan seem clumsier and more aggressive than he really was. Doesn’t the actual historical record suffice?
The part of the record that always resonated most strongly with me didn’t make it into Hare’s script. While testifying to Congress just before the war began, Wolfowitz dismissed the notion that it would take more troops to stabilize Iraq than to defeat it. “Hard to imagine,” he said. In fact, no imagination whatsoever was needed to read those projections; even if it had been, it’s the least we ask of our leaders. Those three horrible little words tell you the whole story of how a failure of mind, a collapse of the intellect, let the war go so badly awry. They’re why we should demand more from Hare’s play than he has provided.
If political drama has any purpose at all, it’s to sharpen our minds, upset our prejudices, tax our imaginations—in short, to help keep us out of these messes in the future. But Hare’s mechanical recap doesn’t level that kind of challenge, doesn’t arm us to think more rigorously about the world. It would be nice to think we’ll be just fine without more stories like Antigone debating Creon, Hal fighting Hotspur, or Laura Bush wrestling with her conscience about dead Iraqi children (in the one-act by Tony Kushner that may be, line for line, the best political drama of the Bush years). But the night I saw Stuff Happens, I came home to read that the administration is drawing up its plans for Iran.