Iraq's Drama: An Easier Sell On The Stage?

A soldier in the play "Black Watch." i

Black Watch follows a famous Scottish military regiment through combat hell in Iraq. Manuel Harlan hide caption

itoggle caption Manuel Harlan
A soldier in the play "Black Watch."

Black Watch follows a famous Scottish military regiment through combat hell in Iraq.

Manuel Harlan
'Surrender' Audience Room Raid i

Audience members dressed in military fatigues serve a "tour of duty" in the Iraq war simulation drama Surrender. Spencer Gordon/International WOW Company hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Gordon/International WOW Company
'Surrender' Audience Room Raid

Audience members dressed in military fatigues serve a "tour of duty" in the Iraq war simulation drama Surrender.

Spencer Gordon/International WOW Company
Playwright and solo-performer Heather Raffo in the 2006 production of "9 Parts of Desire" i

Playwright and solo-performer Heather Raffo in 9 Parts of Desire. Raffo based aspects of the play on her own family's experiences in Baghdad. Scott Suchman hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Suchman
Playwright and solo-performer Heather Raffo in the 2006 production of "9 Parts of Desire"

Playwright and solo-performer Heather Raffo in 9 Parts of Desire. Raffo based aspects of the play on her own family's experiences in Baghdad.

Scott Suchman
'Surrender' Stage Drill i

Jason Christopher Hartley, a 19-year National Guardsman, drills the audience in Surrender. Spencer Gordon/International WOW Co. hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Gordon/International WOW Co.
'Surrender' Stage Drill

Jason Christopher Hartley, a 19-year National Guardsman, drills the audience in Surrender.

Spencer Gordon/International WOW Co.

Movies about the war in Iraq always seem to flop: Stop Loss, Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Body of Lies, Grace Is Gone — the list goes on and on. All were box-office disappointments.

But a number of plays about Iraq have been critical and commercial successes. No fewer than seven such dramas have come to New York stages this season, including Black Watch, Beast, In Conflict, Circle of Fire and The Language of Trees. This raises the question: Why does Iraq work on stage but not on screen?

Simulated 'Surrender'

One particularly innovative off-off Broadway drama called Surrender has audience members dressing in military fatigues, undergoing an hour of basic training, and "raiding" a faux Iraqi village to find insurgents.

The sergeant — an Iraq war veteran — explains how to handle an M-4 carbine and drills the audience on clearing rooms and how to search prisoners of war for concealed weapons. Actors playing officers lead squads of audience members though what might be best described as a sort of war-themed haunted house — a series of dark cramped rooms filled with actors playing dead Iraqi men and screaming Iraqi women. It's an unsettling experience that forces its generally downtown, arty crowd to rethink its assumptions about military culture.

A Unique Spotlight

Plays about Iraq may have found more success than movies because their audiences are more affluent, better-educated and less risk-averse. But Susan Feldman, who brought the Scottish hit Black Watch to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, says there's more to it: Theater is inherently abstract and metaphorical, which may make it easier to confront painful, violent topics such as a current war.

It's also easier for theater to explore perspectives hungered for by audiences but overlooked by Hollywood. 9 Parts of Desire, by Iraqi-American playwright and performer Heather Raffo, is based in part on the experiences of her family in Baghdad. That show sold out for months in New York, and Raffo toured it around the world for three years.

Raffo played nine characters, ranging from a despairing exile to an excitable teenager, in what is now the fifth most-produced play in the U.S., according to American Theatre magazine. Raffo has been thrilled by the extent to which college performers, in particular, have thrown themselves into researching and becoming her Iraqi characters.

'Terrifying And Exhausting'

Theater offers actors and audiences a uniquely intimate and immediate exchange. Surrender — the Iraq war simulation now playing in New York — is an extreme example. After their "tour of duty," audience members finds themselves in a fake Kuwait International Airport, with loud rock music and strippers. Their "officers" hand out beer.

"It was terrifying and exhausting," says audience member Brigit Huppock.

That's exactly the response the creators of Surrender hoped for. Jason Christopher Hartley is a National Guardsman, author and blogger. He plays a drill officer in Surrender and hopes to communicate the paradox he experienced while serving in combat in Iraq.

"I've been searching for some sort of warrior philosophy," Hartley says. "How can I be a good person, and how can I be a good soldier? ... I would love people to come to that same point, even if it's just on the intellectual level in theater."

War may be in theater's DNA. The oldest extant script in Western civilization is The Persians, by Aeschylus. It's about a military defeat that took place 2500 years ago. It's set in the Middle East.

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