On-line resources from the
American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University

Letters from
New York
By Lenny Quart

Lenny has lived in New York for most of
his life, and here he presents a varied selection
of letters expressing his own
unique take on city life.
Lenny QuartAmerican Studies Today Online

Front Page

New for 2014

An Elite Liberal University
Going to an Elite School


A Victory in the Culture Wars?
An East River Island
A Plethora of Police Scandals
Facts and Intuitions
Exploring a Queens Neighborhood
The Bronx: For Better or Worse
The City in Flux


Brooklyn Writers
Whatever Happened to America's White Working Class?
Once More about Obama
Political takes
An ennui-free city
Comfort Food for the Literate
A Unique Street
Election aftermath
Back to Obama
Transit Follies
An Economically Beleaguered City
Oscar Tedium
Prose and poetry
A Painful Conclusion to 2008
A Celebration of Two Writers
The Political Process
Growing Up in New York
Oscars 2008
Celebrating the Forward
A Bohemian Oasis
A Word from a Convention Demonstrator
Election Post Mortem
Sidney Lumet: New York Director
The New York Subway
Times Square: Past and Present
New York on the eve of 2005
A Cheer for Self-Doubt
The Working Poor
A Vale of Tears
Spike Lee's New Orleans
Hasidim in Brooklyn
Slavery in NYC
A Cornucopia of Stories
A Painter in the City
Altman's Oscar Night
Bob Dylan: American Icon
Brooklyn Changing
Diane Arbus
Political Theatre
The New York Post
Public Life
Surviving the Inner-City
Transit Strike
Three Political Takes
The Sixties Redux
Memorials and Oscars

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Political Theater

When my wife and I lived in London in the 70s and early 80s, we were  astonished by the profusion of trenchant, stirring political theater (a  rarity in New York). One could see a first-rate political play almost  every other week. They employed a wide range of theatrical styles, from  documentary realism to extreme stylization, written by people like  Howard Brenton, Howard Barker, Trevor Griffiths, David Edgar, and Caryl  Churchill. Of these English playwrights, one of the few whose plays  transferred to New York and built an American reputation is David Hare,  whose Stuff Happens is now playing at New York's Public Theater in  Downtown Manhattan until May 28.        

Over the years Hare wrote such literate, intricate, dramatically  alive political dramas as Plenty and A Map of the World, which, though  written from a left perspective, avoided any touch of shrill  polemicizing. While his plays may have favored the left, they created  compelling, eloquent right-wing characters whose points of view were  never caricatured.        

In 2004, Hare's Stuff Happens opened at London's Royal National  Theater. In Hare's own words, it was not live-action documentary drama  but a history play, which happens to centre on very recent history.  Its main characters are George W. Bush and key members of his  administration: Paul Wolfowitz, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Donald  Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, plus a solitary Bush ally, British Prime  Minister Tony Blair. The play's title derives from the blindly arrogant  Rumsfeld's two-word cavalier dismissal, uttered to reporters in April  2003, in response to the post-occupation looting in Iraq. Hare sees in  those heartless words a direct expression of American hubris and  imperial contempt.    

Less than one quarter of Stuff Happens quotes the public statements  of various politicians verbatim, but for the rest - the behind closed  doors political interactions - Hare deploys his dramatic imagination,  though he asserts that nothing in the narrative is knowingly untrue. Stuff Happens is not about a government that impulsively and  unthinkingly invaded Iraq, but one that had a coldly calculated plan  that involved facts being continually twisted and truth made  irrelevant. The play presents a step-by-step depiction of what led to  this misbegotten, unending war.

Stuff Happens is a familiar story to anybody who has painfully sifted  through the many books and magazine articles on the war, or simply  followed the newspapers closely during the post 9/11 years. I share  much of Hare's political analysis and his sympathies, his revulsion  with the war is the same as my own, his villains are my villains. And  though there may be a tinge of the cartoon in his representation of  Cheney and Rumsfeld, he has caught the duo's mixture of onerous  ruthlessness and callous complacency. They are unscrupulous men driven  by a goal - regime change in Iraq, and nothing, neither the UN nor old  Europe, will move them from their inexorable and murderous course.  

Hare's portrait of Bush is a touch more complex. The smirking Bush may  mangle the English language, and play the role of a bumbling,  slow-thinking Texas rancher, but this supposedly stupid man uses power cunningly, and is very much in control. In Hare's version Bush should  never be underestimated. In his words, Bush got everything he wanted  out of an operation, and Blair, a supposedly clever and gifted man, was destroyed by it.

The play's central and most complicated character is Colin Powell, who  Hare views as a reflective, reticent, decent man, who has intense anger  towards Bush and his cohort. In a more internal play he would emerge as a classic tragic figure, a man trapped between what he perceives is  right, a commitment to diplomacy and the UN rather than a rush to war and his loyalty to those who hold power. However, Hare has written a play about public events, resolutions, meetings, and press conferences, not about a political figure wrestling alone with his  doubts and his conscience. So we never quite know what moves Powell to compromise his convictions, and cravenly provide cover for the administration by offering a disastrously misleading account of evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

Stuff Happens is a play written for the historical moment. It's hard to  divorce its emotional impact from one's antipathy to both the war and  to Bush and company.  But despite its anti-war bias, again the play is  not agitprop, Hare provides some space for intelligent pro-war arguments, and avoids turning Blair and Bush into mere figures of heavy-handed parody and satire.    

It's no easy feat to produce sophisticated political theater. There's  the danger of simply pressing the right buttons and getting a reflexive  response from the audience. Hare does press those buttons, but he does it with skill and intellectual nuance. Now that there is talk (plans?)  of a US attack on Iran's nuclear installations, a play like Stuff  Happens should be a cautionary lesson about the rush to war before all  diplomatic options are explored. But that's wishful thinking, even the  most powerful political works of art usually end up preaching to the already converted.

L. Quart