Lynndie England wants to explain what really happened at Abu Ghraib. At least, that’s how playwright Judith Thompson imagines it. Thompson opens her three-part play, Palace of the End, with a monologue featuring England stamping files at some dull desk job the day before her military trial. Defiant and also desperate to be liked, Thompson’s England chatters with a cocky amiability, telling the audience about her past (an escape into the Army from making Dairy Queen Brownie Explosions), her dreams (living happily ever after with Charles Graner and their child) and her politics (contempt for liberals, disgust for feminists and abiding certitude in the American mission to “break down the terrorists” in Iraq who are “planning another 9/11″). Complaining about her lawyer early in the scene, England remarks, “He says I’m a scapegoat. And he won’t let me up on the stand because I won’t act like I’m retarded, which is what he wants me to do, so I won’t be held accountable. I’ll tell the truth. And that is not what anyone wants to hear.”
Does it matter that the “truth” Thompson gives us about Lynndie England is almost complete invention? Should we care that England was not really the one who came up with the idea to stack naked prisoners into a pyramid, as Thompson has her boast? Though the playbill lists the character as “Lynndie”–with quotation marks–should a note explain the specific liberties taken? Theater, after all, is the art form most baldly based on a big lie. Nobody reasonably looks for just-the-facts exactitude from this dodgy genre any more than they expect Lynndie England to be holding forth on the stage instead of an actor. (It was Teri Lamm in the production that just completed a three-week run at the Epic Theater in New York.) Who isn’t thankful that Shakespeare messed with Holinshed?
I’ll go so far as to say that theater can play with questions that efforts at more objective representation can’t touch precisely because it is so self-consciously phony. By keeping the artifice of illusion constantly in front of us–“the spectators are always in their senses,” as Dr. Johnson long ago observed–the stage lets audiences question how “truth” is constructed even as they buy into it. That’s why Brecht thought theater had such radicalizing potential: not because didactic plays could convert audiences to Communism, as he’s often misunderstood to have meant, but because watching certain kinds of plays could help viewers practice the critical attitude so necessary to understanding, and changing, the world. When dealing with the Iraq War, itself built on misrepresentation, theater’s illusion-baring strategies ought to be especially effective.
So why did Thompson’s loose regard for the facts bug me so much? If theater has the potential to bring more texture, ambiguity and critical framing to complex issues than straight reporting typically delivers, it’s not clear why a celebrated play addressing the war would be far less compelling than good journalism. George Packer’s Betrayed is another case in point. I was riveted by his reporting on Iraqis who served as translators and “fixers” for Americans and then were abandoned, but less emotionally engaged and intellectually challenged by his adaptation of the material for the stage. Like Thompson, though not as damagingly, Packer hews to staid conventions of dramatic storytelling that limit the potential power of the work.
Thompson is a fine writer who can infuse a poetic strain into realistic dialogue. And she is tackling big, urgent questions in Palace of the End: the murkiness of moral dilemmas, the reach of accountability, the limits of human empathy. Indeed, this ambitious play won the 2008 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize–a $10,000 award given annually to a female playwright–and finally put the successful Canadian writer on US theater’s radar.