Whether it’s deemed of cultural significance or not, Donald Magulies’s Time Stands Still, ostensibly about the Iraq war, is the only American play on the subject that has made it to a commercial Broadway run (nominated for Best Play in 2010 at the Tony Awards, it has recently reopened at the Cort Theatre, starring Laura Linney, Brian d’Arcy James, Eric Bogosian, and Christina Ricci). Even adding the musical, based on previously recorded songs, American Idiot, as another work about the Middle East wars on Broadway, the subject has hardly been on the cultural radar at theatre’s higher mainstream levels. Nevertheless, we’ve been seven years in Iraq; nine in Afghanistan (it’s the longest armed conflict in U.S. history). In Iraq, an estimated 5,000 U.S. military lives have been lost; there have been more than 100,000 civilian deaths in that country; and the cheque you and I are writing for our involvement comes to a total of $709 billion dollars or $3 trillion dollars (depending on your source).
Not compelling enough arguments for bringing such a show to Broadway?
American artists and producers who despair about how irrelevant they are, how theatre doesn’t matter, are absolutely correct—even as they make it so. Let’s say we only believe this is an oversight, an anomaly—and we congratulate the deserved work in a progressive musical like Next to Normal—no one could reflect back to our society regarding wars of these lengths and the cost to our future generations? Margulies does present an excuse, through a writer named Jamie (Brian d’Arcy James, thoughtfully showing the characters internal contradictions), whose stories of refugees and war zones inevitably seem to be rejected by magazine and book editorial boards—he’s the boyfriend of a photographer, Sarah, who has been wounded in Iraq. Recalling a long, bad evening of monologues, hopefully Off Off Off Broadway, he doesn’t feel people need to be informed about the war: “They read the paper, they listen to NPR. . . . The ones who should be seeing it, the mujahideen and the Taliban, let’s face it, don’t get to the theater much. So it’s that favorite lefty pastime: preaching to the choir! They sit there, weeping at the injustice, and stand at the end shouting Bravo!–not for the actors, for the victims–congratulating themselves for enduring such a grueling experience. . . . ”
It’s not such an unusual defense: People who care about theatre hear how the lives of audiences have become so complicated that they can’t possibly bear to see more (even with an intermission in ten minutes). Yet, with regard to our society’s involvement and reaction to our current wars, we’ve been left in a void (no matter which side of the political divide we fall on). Noam Chomsky has said that “more needs to be done, clearly,” although theatre probably can’t really stop a war. He even explains that, at its current levels, the Iraq antiwar movement was stronger than that of the protest movement regarding Vietnam. Richard Nixon, no matter how despised, however, did realize that the war had become so unpopular it was unwinnable. Is there much doubt, then, that artistic witnessing helped elucidate this point and aided the country’s thinking on the subject? In addition to a vital Off Off Broadway movement, the nation was validated in its rightful concern through Hair, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones on Broadway—and maybe even Moonchildren, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, The Me Nobody Knows, Pippin, and Kennedy’s Children, which to varying degrees also spoke to the situation. Today, the fear may be even larger: that even as we are leaving one conflict, we are, nevertheless, in a perpetual state of war, which won’t end, as Afghanistan becomes the war in Iraq; as Iraq becomes the war in Iran (?); as the Iran war becomes the war in Pakistan (?); as the Pakistan war becomes the war in . . . ? Forms of free speech—including internationally known mainstream theatre–may be a vital component to peace, even if it is only a part of all that must happen to ensure it (while we’re discussing free speech, in the context of the so-called American malaise regarding Iraq, too, remember that the Drudge Report, way back in 2006, was getting 10 million page hits daily, according to the Guardian—today, however its outrageous figures have grown, Iraq is tracked all the time.
Who said art shouldn’t be grueling anyway? Who decided it couldn’t explicate injustice? Drama has always been used as an essential way to understand societal crisis issues such as drug addiction (Long Day’s Journey into Night), the American dream (Death of a Salesman), AIDS (Angels in America), and race (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) to name just a few areas examined and pertinent works. One of the most disturbing, horrific, emotionally violent recent plays about war, Blasted by Sarah Kane, may be one of the best because it won’t go soft; you do think about the cannibalism well after it's over (here really is a play you’ll be talking about for years). But, in Time Stands Still, the people Jamie’s line of thinking most probably would offend are the ancient Greeks, where it all began. To them, drama took war as its major subject, as Karen Malpede writes in her introduction to Acts of War: Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays (it’s a collection of dramas I coedited with her and Michael Messina–it will be released by Northwestern University Press in April). As she explains, “The playwrights were combat veterans (Aeschylus and Sophocles were generals, Euripides also fought). The majority of their plays are about the effects of war on its victims and, equally, on its victors.”
The real effects of war don’t seem to emotionally register with the characters in Time Stands Still, though—Sarah does suffer a flashback, but we only hear about it in an intellectualized monologue, no matter how well written it is. Her trauma is largely physical and–despite a hardened exterior–for someone who has witnessed so much violent death, we don’t see enough of the toll it has taken on her psyche (to put the behavior of survivors into perspective, Michael Anthony, author of the memoir Mass Casualties, tells us that there have “been more veteran suicides than there have been those killed in action or injured” during the Iraq war—one would think, at least in private moments, the photographer would show some rather out-of-control reactions). Margulies also doesn’t embroil us in opposing national or international points of view in his play. He may have been cautious due to the relatively short run of David Hare’s play The Vertical Hour in the States, which lasted 117 performances on Broadway (that story also concerns a strong woman who works in the media and is employed in Iraq). There are differing opinions on what went wrong with that production, but audiences may have been put off by hearing a sage Englishman debate interventionism with a younger woman of neocon leanings–American audiences may simply take umbrage at being analyzed by the Brits, no matter the quality of work (witness the New York failure of Enron, too). In any event, policy explication doesn’t come up in Time Stands Still–or soldiers or military personnel for that matter. Margulies seems willing to let us interpret whether Iraq was the good enough war we felt should be staged at a time when it seemed right for us to wage war; or whether it was a way to guarantee access to oil; or maybe it was a way to stabilize the Middle East; or, perhaps, it was a mistaken calculation regarding Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or lack of them; or it could have been a smarter war choice than Afghanistan; or even George W. Bush’s revenge for the assassination attempt on his father’s life after Kuwait; it might be that it really didn’t make much sense no matter how we look at it.
Actually, I think Margulies’s use of a severely injured photographer is a metaphor for the “walking wounded” he infers to be in contemporary society, in New York, in America—those who are still upholding liberal principles, feminist principles, in a society that simply wants to be “comfortable.” If Sarah is indicting us at the end, by taking our picture—is Margulies actually the real photographer?– it’s over domestic complacency more than international empire building (actually, she’s like a Mother Courage regarding the conflict, all for heading back into harm’s way because that’s the job, that’s where the money gets made. It’s also where she believes she finds meaning in life). This may, additionally, be a way to say, for you, the audience, here is the play that, according to the conventional wisdom, had to be written in order to be successful on Broadway (no matter where Margulies really stands on the policy issues of our wars in the Middle East, or where he might have wanted to take the work, if there were other possibilities for him). Maybe he, his director (Daniel Sullivan), and his producers (the show comes to us in New York via Manhattan Theatre Club) decided it really wasn’t the hour for time to move forward in terms of the writer and his franchise: Margulies gives us an older woman-younger woman friendship, as he did in Collected Stories—one savvy and one naïve (Laura Linney plays the tough cookie here; Linda Lavin starred in Collected Stories; Christina Ricci is the neophyte, Mandy, in Time Stands Still)—all have been effective, strategic choices for keeping the women’s audience (in this play love interests are also present on the stage). Additionally, in both works, the playwright uses people who really don’t worry very much about cash (is this for identification purposes? People who go to Broadway shows have money?)—Sarah’s father has dough, even if his conservative money doesn’t make her have to agonize too much about where her next job is coming from. Margulies is reminding us that he’s playing to a liberal crowd when he calls the father an “asshole,” who might make a donation to the Christian Coalition—even if he’s willing to make Christians wince. But the playwright does know how to construct a story, no matter our wish for its being more specific, and he keeps the stage moving and the dialogue flowing (although you may get the rather strange feeling, as I did, that you don’t really know these kinds of people in real life, but probably should). Ensuring the writing’s success seems to have been his only limiting factor, as it is for the photo editor, Richard (hiply played, of course, by Eric Bogosian), as well as James:
JAMES: Who are you really? Huh? My friend? Or just another “suit”!
MANDY: STOP IT!
(THEY look at her.)
Richard agonized over this!
RICHARD: Honey . . .
MANDY: He was sick about it! For days! He couldn’t sleep! He loves you. Why would he want to hurt you? I mean, really. He’s only doing his job. They have a magazine to put out. And it has to have different things in it, not just stories about how miserable most of the world is. So they’re not going to print your story–too bad. They’ve already got a “bummer” story running that week.
JAMES: Now wait a minute . . .
MANDY: No, I mean it, I’m really sorry, I bet you worked really hard on it.
JAMES: That’s not the point. It’s a story that needs to be told. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. That’s why I write these fucking things. People need to know.
(And just a little later . . . )
MANDY: It’s not like I can do anything. Besides feel bad, and thank God I was born in the half of the world where people have food to eat and don’t go around hacking each other to death. The people who are killing each other have always been killing each other, and the world has always watched while terrible things happened, and terrible things are always going to happen, so . . .
JAMES: You can stop whining and do something!
JAMES: Do something, for crissake!
We have a play about Iraq on Broadway, written by a foremost American playwright. Time Stands Still may not be the play we expected. It may not be the play we had hoped for. But it’s something.
© 2010 by Bob Shuman
Excerpts from Time Stands Still are copyrighted by Donald Margulies. All rights reserved.
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Time Stands Still
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