Staged Reading

Staged Reading

How Judith Thompson’s play about Abu Ghraib falls short.


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.

Palace of the End has been described as a triptych because it juxtaposes three sequential monologues by characters who don’t know one another or interact: Lynndie England is followed by the British weapons inspector David Kelly and then by Nehrjas Al Saffarh, an Iraqi Communist killed during the first Gulf War. I see the form more as a sonata. In the first movement, Thompson jauntily sets out the themes. In the second, as Kelly awaits his death in the woods, she offers melancholic variations. In the third, she gives us harrowing twists, with Al Saffarh recounting her ordeal as a torture victim of Saddam Hussein. Al Saffarh was raped and abused and forced to watch her young son brutalized, and ultimately refused to give up her activist husband’s location, thereby dooming her child.

Thompson, I think, wants us to regard the two self-justifying women as mirror images of each other reflected across Kelly and his suicidal remorse. And, through our ironic distance–our ability to recognize things about each character that she doesn’t see herself–we are meant to realize how ideology drives and constrains them both. Trouble is, Thompson explains too much. She gives her actors (all of them top-notch in the Epic Theater production) extensive, airtight, easily grasped motivation. And she falsifies reality in order to do so. The issue isn’t that Thompson changed the facts but why: to emphasize character and to make the stories tidy.

She takes the most liberty with England. Onstage, Thompson’s England describes taking part in vicious childhood pranks on a neighborhood girl with a wooden leg. Regarding the infamous real-life image of England appearing to yank an Abu Ghraib prisoner by a leash, the character says, “He called me a fuckin’ dog so for once in my life I could fuckin’ give it to him. ‘You think I’m a fuckin’ dog you monkey? Fuckin’ let’s go for a fuckin’ walk’…. And Charley and them is laughing and I never got laughs before…and wow, man, getting laughs is the best high. The guys was laughing dudes, they loved it, so they go: ‘Put him on the leash.’ And I do like a sketch, like Saturday Night Live.”

Having written Palace of the End a few years ago, Thompson didn’t have the advantage of consulting Standard Operating Procedure, Philip Gourevitch’s recent devastating account of what really happened at Abu Ghraib. Nor was she able to draw on the Errol Morris documentary of the same name, which presents interviews with Abu Ghraib soldiers (the basis for Gourevitch’s book) along with stagey, downright Brechtian re-enactments of the depraved scenes they describe. The brilliance and importance of both works is that they lay bare a culture, authorized and encouraged by policy and top brass, in which even the kindest personality could quickly come to regard mayhem and mistreatment as normal. What’s more, Gourevitch and Morris show how the snapshots that so horrified the world were evidence of only a slice of the brutality that had become routine–much of it even worse than what the photos depicted.

Gourevitch argues that the photos, unhinged from their context, are easy for viewers to project on and misinterpret. For example, a recalcitrant prisoner being forcibly removed from a filthy cell–horrible as the yanking and picture-taking were–was not being humiliated as a dog on a leash. Such misreadings, he suggests, helped contain the crisis of Abu Ghraib because they let spectators hold themselves in the morally superior position of recoiling from the images and rejecting any identification with the perpetrators. Thus they support a bad-apple theory of wrongdoing in which viewers–citizens–are not implicated. Gourevitch writes, “There is a constant temptation, when rendering an account of history, to distort reality by making too much sense of it.” That “making too much sense” is precisely what goes wrong with Thompson’s rendering of Lynndie England: tying up loose ends into a coherent story of a slightly sadistic, love-hungry young woman, Thompson conceals the larger, far more unruly story of a whole sorry system.

Sad to say, Thompson is in esteemed company here: modern American drama from O’Neill to Miller to LaBute offers personal revelation as a means of explaining events. Even when those events center on family woes or sexual intrigues, linear, confession-based plotting fails to account for the multiple and even unknowable forces that govern individual actions. When the subject is political, that tradition of dramaturgy simply can’t rise to the task.

This doesn’t mean that narrative drama is useless when it comes to the Iraq War. Naomi Wallace’s The Fever Chart and the late John Belluso’s The Poor Itch–just the latest examples–prove that such material can spark fresh feeling and insight onstage. If, that is, you’ve got characters whose contexts matter more than their lousy childhoods. Even Bush’s daddy complex doesn’t suffice as an explanation for the war. The truth is often far messier than the facts.

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