British dramatists skewer U.S. pop and policy
The play, "Stuff Happens," by David Hare, explores the interplay of ideology, idealism, ignorance and ego that joined Britain and America in a war against Iraq.
In addition to a Texas-talkin' Bush, the characters include Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, an anguished Colin Powell, a bossy Condoleezza Rice, a bumbling George Tenet and Paul Wolfowitz ("The word `hawk' doesn't do Wolfowitz justice," says one administration colleague. "What about velociraptor?"). There's also Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Kofi Annan and Saddam Hussein.
Bush is portrayed by actor Alex Jennings as the amiable and inarticulate accidental president who says he is "in the Oval Office because of the power of prayer." But just when the audience members start to snicker at Bush, Hare slaps them down.
"What is the word, then, for those of us in the West who apply one standard to ourselves, and another to others? What is the word for those who claim to love democracy and yet who will not fight to extend democracy to Arabs as well?" wonders a journalist who serves as Hare's Greek chorus.
"A people hitherto suffering now suffer less. This is the story," he says.
If the real Rumsfeld and Cheney were to see this play, they would probably applaud their characters. The words are their own, after all, and delivered with considerable zest by professional actors.
What they might not appreciate--Cheney, in particular, who rarely ventures outside the bubble of like-thinking conservative Republicans--is the way the audience laughs at them.
National Security Adviser Rice, somewhat unfairly, is painted as the manipulative Richelieu of Bush's War Cabinet, the ambitious nanny who flatters and protects the inexperienced boy-president.
"In her office Rice keeps two mirrors, so she can see her back as well as her front," a colleague in the play says.
Colin Powell is Hare's tragic hero, a man torn between a soldier's sense of duty to his commander in chief and an abiding mistrust of politicians so eager to send someone else's children off to fight their wars.
The behind-the-scenes debates leading to Powell's United Nations Security Council address in February 2003 provide the play's richest moments, especially when the Powell and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin characters square off over an elegant lunch at New York's Hotel Pierre.
"Push me too hard, and you'll end up with an outcome the opposite of what you want," Powell warns his French counterpart. "This is a two-way street. Your good faith is to be tested as much as mine."
"If anyone is stupid enough to think this is payback time for whatever grudge they happen to be nursing against the U.S.--be it Kyoto or the Criminal Court or, I don't know, how they hate McDonald's--then what they'll be doing in effect is condemning Iraqi women and children to the sort of bombardment which is going to make them wish they had never been born. ... That's what I'm trying to avoid," Powell says.
But Powell loses his power struggle with the White House hawks. And he fails to win the support of the UN Security Council. Afterward, when no weapons of mass destruction of are found in Iraq, Powell's reputation and credibility are tarnished.
A journalist asks him if, knowing then what he knows now, he still would have supported the war, Powell smiles coldly, shakes the man's hand and says, "It was good to meet you."
Interviewed about another of his history plays--this one dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--Hare said it was enough "just to listen to people who know far more than you and arrange their thoughts in a certain way."
In "Stuff Happens," he lets an Iraqi exile have the final word.
"Iraq has been crucified. By Saddam's sins, by 10 years of sanctions, and then this," the man says. "Basically it's a story of a nation that failed in only one thing. But it's a big sin. It failed to take charge of itself. And that meant the worst person in the country took charge. Until this nation takes charge of itself, it will continue to suffer."