"Hassan: Iraq on the British Stage"

Article excerpt

In the SAS (Special Air Service) headquarters in Hereford, England there is a regimental clock. On it is inscribed a verse from James Elroy Flecker's 1913 poem The Golden Road to Samarkand:

   We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
   Always a little further: it may be
   Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
   Across that angry or that glimmering sea.
  (Flecker, Samarkand 7)

Inherent in this epitaph is a spirit of travel and adventure, of conquering the natural world. But there is also potential danger--an unknown and unreachable goal. In recent years the SAS troops who completed their training in the shadow of this clock have been deployed in Iraq, a complex arena of war with its suicide bombers, rising civilian casualty count and tensions within the allied forces, both in the respective governments and in ground-level operations.

The British cultural scene has been responding to this war in a variety of ways. There has been a plethora of books, a number of television series, films and visual art exhibitions, all of which have attempted to represent this event. Unsurprisingly British theatre, too, has tried to understand the current situation in Iraq. There has been a particularly noticeable trend in self-proclaimed documentary theatre performances, with plays like David Hare's Stuff Happens (2006) and Called to Account, edited by Richard Norton-Taylor (2007). Both these plays, situated of course outside of the Iraqi landscape, attempt to negotiate the complicated political situation, to reappraise the decisions that were made in the lead up to the war. Outside of this dramatic genre, there have been a number of other plays that have made some attempt to bring Iraq on to the British stage. Mark Ravenhill's Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat (2008) is structured as a Greek cycle, containing a collection of vignettes that, in a variety of different ways, address the so-called "War on Terror". Further, plays like Black Watch by Gregory Burke, produced with great success by the newly established National Theatre of Scotland (2007, originally performed in 2006), and Colin Teevan's How Many Miles to Basra? (2008) explore the twenty-first century war-ravaged Iraqi landscape through the eyes of the soldiers. While both Burke and Teevan's plays imbibe the techniques of the documentary (and even verbatim) theatre movements, they also contain fictional narratives. While this is only an initial illustrative list, it is immediately clear that Iraq War plays have proliferated on the British stage.

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In this age of new theatrical representations of Iraq, it seems to be an appropriate moment to reassess a play that, fascinatingly, was written by James Elroy Flecker, the poet whose words are inscribed on the SAS clock. Hassan was written over the course of a number of years before the First World War, but its eventual development and production owed a debt to other practitioners and patrons. It was strongly influenced by the playwright's first hand experiences in the non-Western world and by his readings of Arabian Nights, and seems to exhibit a comparable problem of representation. While it is not an Iraq War play in any sense, its composition took place against a backdrop of personal illness for Flecker and ongoing international tension. (1)

Flecker was born in Lewisham in 1884. He was educated at Oxford and Cambridge, studying Oriental languages before travelling to Constantinople in 1910. He returned to England in 1911, his health already severely tested by his foreign sojourn. After some respite, he went back to Constantinople, journeying through to Smyrna before finally returning as an invalid to Switzerland. He died in January 1915 after witnessing those early months of a war that would go on to claim many millions of lives and cast a far-reaching shadow over the globe. Hassan, one of only two plays he wrote--the other a version of Don Juan--tells the story of the sweet confectioner title character who lives in Baghdad. …