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Critic’s Notebook

Missing in action: War dramas

Theaters of war abound, except onstage

Robin Williams (left) and Glenn Davis in the Broadway production of “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” one of the few contemporary war-themed plays to have been staged there.

Richard Perry / The New York Times/file 2011

Robin Williams (left) and Glenn Davis in the Broadway production of “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” one of the few contemporary war-themed plays to have been staged there.

During a decade when the United States was mired in two wrenching, costly, and divisive wars, the only combat drama to win a Tony Award as best play was a heartwarming, puppet-driven tale about a British lad and his beloved steed in World War I: “War Horse,’’ which opens Wednesday at the Boston Opera House.

In fact, if you scan the list of plays, musicals, and performances nominated for Tonys in the past 10 years, you’d barely know we were at war at all.

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Granted, the Tonys, which honor Broadway productions, don’t give us the whole story of the American theater. But they’re an important barometer, and the disheartening tale they tell is that no contemporary war drama has really penetrated the wider public consciousness, certainly not enough to stand as definitive.

By contrast, consider the worlds of television and film. The psychological and political fallout of the Iraq war is central to Showtime’s “Homeland,’’ which two weeks ago swept the Emmy Awards in the categories of best drama, best actress, and best actor. When it came time to hand out the Academy Award for best picture of 2009, the Oscar went not to “Avatar,’’ James Cameron’s 3-D blockbuster, but instead to “The Hurt Locker,’’ Kathryn Bigelow’s drama about an Army bomb squad in Iraq.

Yet for a host of reasons that have to do with changes in the country and the theatrical landscape, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had a relatively low stage profile.

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It wasn’t ever thus. From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, as the Vietnam War convulsed the country before dragging to a bloody close, a brilliant young playwright named David Rabe turned out a series of dramas that added up to a scorching indictment of US involvement in Southeast Asia. The producer Joseph Papp, an unstoppable force, threw his weight and that of his Public Theater behind Rabe, making sure those plays got seen.

One of them, “Sticks and Bones,’’ won the 1972 Tony Award for best play and was later described by no less an authority than Brooks Atkinson as “the play that made the most devastating case against national policy.’’

No drama about the protracted wars in Iraq or Afghanistan has landed with an impact comparable to that of “Sticks and Bones,’’ or, for that matter, Rabe’s “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel’’ and “Streamers.’’

No recent, explicitly antiwar musical has become a big Broadway hit like “Hair’’ did in 1968, and no political satire spawned by our 21st-century wars has ignited as much controversy as Barbara Garson’s “MacBird!,’’ a ferocious 1967 takedown of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

And no producer has shown a determination to achieve the impact that Papp did by championing Rabe.

That’s not to say the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been absent from contemporary stages. Politically engaged playwrights have made honorable efforts to address the issues arising from our protracted military engagements, resulting in trenchant works like Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.’’ Slated to open later this month at Company One, it is one of the very few war-themed plays that made it to Broadway, complete with a requisite big-name star, Robin Williams.

Truly provocative work is usually produced off-Broadway or at regional theaters, and that’s been the case with most of the plays inspired by our recent wars. Quiara Alegria Hudes’s “Water by the Spoonful,’’ a play about a young Iraq war veteran struggling to cope with the challenges of civilian life that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, premiered last year at Hartford Stage Company. It is the second play in a trilogy by Hudes that began with “Elliott, A Soldier’s Fugue.’’ Hudes may come closest to Rabe in attempting to forge a body of work that systematically focuses on war, though she isn’t yet on the cultural radar to the extent that he was, her Pulitzer notwithstanding. She remains unfamiliar to Boston audiences.

Other works that have explored aspects of the Iraq or Afghanistan war include British playwright David Hare’s “Stuff Happens,’’ Bill Cain’s “9 Circles’’ (recently at Gloucester Stage Company), Donald Margulies’s “Time Stands Still’’ (at Lyric Stage Company last season), Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City,’’ Craig Wright’s “Lady,’’ and Tony Kushner’s playlet “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy,’’ which was seen locally at Zeitgeist Stage Company last year as part of “Tiny Kushner,’’ a collection of five one-act works.

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s “Aftermath,’’ a powerful piece of documentary theater about the impact of the war on Iraqi citizens, came to ArtsEmerson in 2010. The National Theatre of Scotland production of Gregory Burke’s “Black Watch,’’ a drama about a Scottish army regiment in Iraq, has toured widely, though not to Boston.

But the American theater community as a whole has not seemed driven by a mission to shape our perceptions of the conflicts and use them to train a searchlight on the nation’s soul. Nor have theater audiences (or movie audiences, or TV audiences) exactly been clamoring for representations of contemporary warfare and its costs in an era when the personal stakes for the average American have been greatly diminished by the absence of a military draft.

Once the US economy tanked in 2008, the nation seemed to turn increasingly inward, shifting its focus to casualties of the economic kind. There has been no shortage of stage productions that reflect pervasive recession-era anxiety, from David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,’’ now at the Huntington Theatre Company, to this year’s Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.’’ But the wars, which arguably were not in the forefront of the public consciousness after their early phases, receded still further from the minds of the more affluent, whose children are unlikely to enlist. With a volunteer military doing the fighting and dying for us, it has been possible for playwrights and audiences to maintain a safe, detached distance.

That wasn’t possible for Americans in the Vietnam years, no matter their class. Rabe’s talent is such that he would have broken through one way or another; he is much more than an antiwar playwright. But there’s no gainsaying the fact that he found his great subject when he was drafted in the mid-1960s and stationed with an Army medical unit in Vietnam. The conscience-searing dramas inspired by that experience spoke urgently to a generation that was questioning and protesting the war on campuses across the country.

The draft was literally a life-or-death issue for young Americans, including playwrights and college-age theatergoers, and the theater of the time reflected that fact. Look at “Hair.’’ For all its hedonistic hippie hijinks, a fierce opposition to the war courses through the self-proclaimed “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.’’ In one scene, several characters jubilantly burn their draft cards. At the end, the party atmosphere of “Hair’’ turns haunting when gentle Claude, who has wrestled with whether to defy the draft but eventually chooses not to, is sent off to war. No similar threat of conscription hung over the young theatergoers who saw the 2009 Broadway revival of “Hair,’’ directed by Diane Paulus, or the national tour that came to Boston last year.

The wider cultural context in which theater operated was different in the Vietnam War era. Consider one tide-turning moment in public opinion: the on-air assertion in 1968 by “CBS Evening News’’ anchor Walter Cronkite that “we are mired in stalemate.’’ Today, with our attention diffused across many media platforms rather than just three major television networks, no news broadcaster comes close to wielding Cronkite’s moral authority. The idea of a single voice speaking for multitudes has far less currency today, a fact that may not be lost on contemporary playwrights. It is simply harder to capture America’s attention.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, regional theater was young and eager to establish itself as an alternative voice by staging edgy, topical new works, while off-Broadway had thrown down the welcome mat for provocative young writers. Garson’s fury at LBJ over the Vietnam War inspired her to write “MacBird!,’’ a blistering satire that premiered at the Village Gate in New York in 1967. It suggested Johnson had had a hand in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Today, within the theater world itself, playwrights and producers are operating in a more play-it-safe environment.

The Diane Paulus-directed revival of the antiwar musical “Hair” resonated differently than the 1967 original, produced when there was a draft.

Joan Marcus/file

The Diane Paulus-directed revival of the antiwar musical “Hair” resonated differently than the 1967 original, produced when there was a draft.

Papp’s approach was anything but play-it-safe. The Public is where “Hair’’ premiered in 1967 before transferring to Broadway in 1968. He produced “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel’’ and “Sticks and Bones’’ at the Public in 1971, taking “Sticks and Bones” to Broadway the next year; “The Orphan’’ in 1973; and “Streamers’’ in 1976, at Lincoln Center.

In an afterword to the second volume of his collection “The Vietnam Plays,’’ Rabe acknowledges that his relationship with Papp was a stormy one, rife with “altercations, disappointments and rifts,’’ but adds: “I also recognize that, in all likelihood, I owe my life as a writer to him.’’

Important and definitive work about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could well be in the pipeline, not yet known to us: In 1947, two years after the end of World War II, Arthur Miller won a Tony Award for “All My Sons,’’ a drama that reckons with the moral cost of war to one family. The play’s director, Elia Kazan, also won a Tony.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of dramatic material for contemporary playwrights. Just a week ago, a US soldier was killed in Afghanistan, bringing to 2,000 the number of American military deaths there in the past 11 years. The figure has since gone higher. There are plenty of stories that deserve the kind of concentrated focus and visceral, in-your-face presentation for which theater is uniquely equipped.

So here’s hoping there are some new David Rabes out there, playwrights who are poised to deliver the onstage electricity that will help illuminate what it all means, what it all adds up to, and they will gain the wide audience they deserve. And here’s hoping for some new Joe Papps, too — producers who’ll bring us those writers. It’s not too late for the American theater to help us make sense of our decade at war, but first, as Willy Loman’s wife Linda says in another context, attention must be paid.

Don Aucoin can be reached at
aucoin@globe.com
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