America doesn’t lack for pundit reactions to the Iraq War, be they "What a mess the government’s lies got us into," or, conversely, "Better a messy war than an evil dictator holding sway in a post-9/11 Middle East." Nor do we lack citizens who call President Bush either an idiot beholden to special interests, oil companies and the religious right, or a plain-speaking, God-fearing Texan who cares more about maintaining a secure America than soft-soaping our allies. And heaven knows that from talk shows to theatrical stages, easy jokes bashing Dubya’s incompetence, Rumsfeld’s arrogance and Cheney’s aims are as plentiful as pretzels. But where’s the Fox interviewee, the CNBC documentarian, the Comedy Central comedian who can look at where this country was in 2000, then at where we are now, and reconstruct, step-by-step, how the U.S. was guided into its current quagmire?
I guess it takes a foreigner-specifically a foreigner with intelligence, political savvy and dramatic craft. Enter David Hare, whose dossier includes three decades of plays about Communism, the Church, the Troubles, sexual politics, English Law, the Intifada and religious extremism. Hare’s response to the Iraqi conflict is Stuff Happens, a quarter-verbatim, three-quarter fanciful docudrama about how Bush and company used international diplomacy not as a last-ditch strategy for peace, but as a vicegrip to make European nations choose sides in an inevitable and pre-planned war.
Hare’s task is tricky in that he limns a President who is crystal clear about what he expects yet simultaneously clueless about world affairs-that is, beyond the certainty that God put him in charge. One senses from the script that Hare wrote Stuff to express his anger at the way eloquent, idealistic and left-leaning Prime Minister Tony Blair was manipulated and outmaneuvered by the laconic and savant-like Bush. In fact, until the play’s angry last moments, which descend into a Brechtian litany of statistics that aren’t worthy of the measured political intrigue that has gone before, Stuff Happens is less about the machinations of a war-driven administration than about the way potential heroes can be whittled into hypocrites by attrition. Angst-ridden Blair (the ever masterful Byron Jennings), though a pacifist at heart, places all his bets on Bush; which means that when Hans Blix can’t find any weapons of mass destruction, Blair must settle for uncorroborated sources who fudge the truth.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell, a decorated veteran who knows the cost of battle, operates under the assumption that his job is to avoid war through diplomacy. Nagging at his conscience, however, is the realization that his true mission is to rubber-stamp an invasion. How does the administration reward Powell for putting his honor and worldwide popularity on the line? By sending him to the U.N. with false data and bad-faith resolutions.
Some will complain that Hare’s rose-colored depiction of Powell doesn’t jibe with the historical record (My Lai misdirection anyone?), but in purely theatrical terms, the character of Powell here is tragic, especially with Peter Francis James capturing the man’s anguish over his own crumbling nobility.
If Stuff Happens still holds the stage a half-century from now, it will be because of these human arcs and because of its cynical, yet not wholly one-sided, look at the compromises, mistakes and desperations that are the backstage of history. Stuff may also be the most quotable play in ages, if only because Hare has a cornucopia of verbatim soundbytes to choose from (e.g., the play’s title comes from Rumsfeld explaining why the quick disintegration of post-Saddam Baghdad should not be exaggerated by the media). Granted, the focus wanders at times, and some subplots are left hanging (we’re primed for a showdown between Po