War Stories

Does reality trump fiction? Are there some experiences so close, so raw, that they need to be made into art only by those who experienced them?

In early February, a student veterans' group at the University of Oregon produced a show that was very much based on "reality," a show that might be called a work of nonfiction. The play, called Telling, featured the stories of the actors and other veterans who were students at the UO. More than 20 student vets spent the summer talking about their experiences with two writers (one staff member and one grad student). The students then took a fall-quarter course on stage movement and acting with the chair of the theater department, who signed on to direct the play. They started off winter quarter with intense rehearsals of the script the playwrights produced. The play ran for three performances in Eugene's Veterans' Memorial Hall (where Ken Kesey used to hang out, back in the day, or so they say).

Some of the veterans who acted in Telling were anti-war when they entered the service, and some are anti-war now (but certainly not all of them). Some of them didn't serve in Iraq or Afganistan. Their politics aren't cohesive, and there's a range of ages, experience levels and backgrounds. They told me that the recorded play would eventually be up on their website (though I haven't found it yet), where you can also read more about each actor and her background, should you want to.

I wrote a cover story in advance of the play for my paper. I attended three or four rehearsals, read the script and interviewed the students, the playwrights, the director and a writer who acted as a "consultant" for the process. Though the play itself had a variety of rough moments -- thanks to the demands of melding two dozen veterans' stories into some sort of narrative to be performed by 10 people, few of whom had any acting experience -- I found the entire experience both infuriating and moving.

A week and a half ago, journalist David Wright published an essay about the play on Inside Higher Ed. Although in my piece I record two actors jokingly referring to taking the play to D.C., I now hear this may not have been a mere rumor. And the goal of the playwrights and some of the student veterans is to export the model to other campuses -- to help other student veteran groups find some way to connect with the rest of campus. I'm glad they're getting some national attention for this process of producing art as a way to build community dialogue, But as a theater reviewer, I wonder if I have been in some way spoiled by my immersion in this story for other plays about the Iraq War.


I say that Telling changed my perspective because when I attended Julie Marie Myatt's Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (yep, I'm still writing about that weekend), I felt a visceral objection to the ways the playwright paralleled one vet's trauma with the mental illnesses and oddities of "freaks" around her.

I know there were veterans in the audience at Jenny Sutter because during the play, there was a half-amusing, half-poignant rendition of the Marines' Hymn, and several quavery voices from the audience sang along. Everyone, especially the 50 high school students from Sacramento, stood up to applaud at the end of the play. After the play ended, it became clear that several people in the audience had friends or family serving with one branch or another, or knew someone who hadn't made it back from one of the wars or police actions of the past half-century. The OSF set up a "remembrance tree" in the lobby of the New Theatre, and people were writing names on the "leaves" and attaching them to the "tree."

So it's entirely possible that I am wrong, wrong, and more wrong, and that the playwright, who did a lot of research, gets it all right. As I said in my former post, my freelancer and I disagreed strongly about two of the plays, one of which was Jenny Sutter, so just as I wrote a short response to with her review of The Clay Cart, she wrote one for Jenny. (Read all of that and more here.)

I did think, based on talking with the veterans and the writers for Telling -- and based on war books I've read, like Louise Steinman's Souvenir -- that Myatt made quite plausible Jenny Sutter's aimlessness, shock at being in the U.S., reluctance to talk about her experiences and quick physical reactions to noise or stress. But the main emotional portion of the play focuses on the wacky/poignant woundedness of the characters around Jenny Sutter, the drifters who end up in Slab City, Calif., hurting and needing others to help smooth some rough edges and fill in some missing stories.

Comparing their lives to Jenny Sutter's experiences in Iraq, where the U.S. asked her to offer up her flesh and her future, seemed wrong to me. Perhaps it seemed wrong because she's freshly returned and everything for her is so raw, and then in the action of the play, her trauma has to become a catalyst for the healing of those wacky/poignant folk around her. That felt not only cheap but also rather insulting to veterans -- we'll take your service, your time, your energy, your blood, your limbs, possibly your life, and if you make it home, you can serve as a touchstone for the pain of others.

Er, blech.

(Also, and I pointed this out in my review, the trauma that Jenny sustained, the story she has to tell, is one of those "These Iraqis aren't human! They'll strap bombs to anything!" types of tales that turn out to be fairly unverifiable. The relative weight of Jenny's experience could easily have come from a more usual, if not at all normal, event in Iraq: the IED.)

But. Maybe I misread the play (I snagged a hot-off-the-presses script at the OSF's shop to check out some of the stage directions and sound design suggestions). I would like to know how recent veterans respond to this play. Also, I haven't seen any other  new plays that directly address the war or veterans of it, and I'm sure there are others out there -- Black Watch, for instance, or George Packer's Betrayed -- that deal with some of the gazillion issues related to the war(s) and that have garnered excellent reviews. But I wonder if the nonfictional strength of the veterans' stories in Telling trumped fiction so strongly that the fiction felt offensive. Or perhaps just this fiction.

*Photo of student veteran/actor by Lisa Forster, hosted by ImageShack.
March 31, 2008 4:15 AM | | Comments (1)

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I'm one of the two mysterious 'playwrights' Suzi refers to here - my name is Jonathan Wei. And I found this an utterly fascinating article. If I am reading correctly, I'm seeing Suzi as struggling with the paradox of what is or might be poor craftsmanship (acting, staging, writing) which, due to the subject matter and the fact that it is not fictional, somehow results in a powerful or moving experience.

This is something that Max Rayneard, my co-author and I also struggled with in the creating of "Telling" - repeatedly. What became consistently clear to us was that our job as authors was to listen; to find the narrative arc that was natural to the stories of the veterans and allow that arc to carry the play. Beyond that, we had to have faith in the power of the veterans - this became very evident during the interview phase of the project, when we were gathering the material of the play. The play is not a collection of stories, though stories undoubtedly comprise a significant portion of the text. The play isn't 'character' driven either - this would imply a level of artifice in the veterans self-portrayal that is simply not merited. The play is not about anything in particular; the play is the veterans and their families - it is an attempt, actually, to break the mediation that surrounds veterans upon returning to civilian society. This mediation is an unavoidable side-effect of these folks participating in what is being, in the moment of their participation, perceived as history. These people are not history, nor, to them, are their lives monumental or static, but that is how, moving from military to civilian life in a time of war, they are seen.

One veteran related to me a sentiment common among folks who have served in Iraq - that you don't deploy to Iraq and come home to the US; you deploy to the US and come home to Iraq. There are many reasons, no doubt, for this apparent inversion, one of which, I believe, is that wartime reality in this country is very, very far from the reality of war. Coming home is, for many veterans, confronting a populace to whom they aren't entirely real any longer; where they have been, what they have done and in fact who they are is, in the public mind, 'over there,' rather than here, among us, in flesh and blood and mind and spirit. "Telling" is trying to ameliorate this condition.

It was surprising to me, I have to admit, that the play was as compelling as it was - because, as Suzi, I am a writer and a craftsperson, and I have a fundamental belief in the process of making. I had to continually check myself in the creation of the play. In the end, I discovered something. Elegant language, a rigorous arc, expectations created and addressed, dazzling characters rendered by impeccable artists, all of the forms of the theater (or of fiction, poetry, or film) try to get at one thing: the truth. "Telling" shares this goal, not through refinement in the typical sense of the word, but through excavation, which requires courage and persistence, two qualities shared by good artists and soldiers.

It's not, I believe as Suzi frames it, a matter of non-fiction trumping fiction, or vice versa. It's a matter of what the times require. In this time of highly adorned unreality, we have a hunger for the truth in its raw state.

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This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on March 31, 2008 4:15 AM.

The New Art of Health Care: How a new hospital in Charleston signals the rise of art in addressing problems in 21st-century design was the previous entry in this blog.

Two Spoletos closer to reunification? is the next entry in this blog.

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