War Fever

By Hornby, Richard | The Hudson Review, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

War Fever


Hornby, Richard, The Hudson Review


War Fever

GEORGE W. BUSH MAY BE THE MOST SATIRIZED PRESIDENT since Abraham Lincoln, yet as with Lincoln, the satire rarely seems to affect its intended victim. It is all too easy to ridicule Bush's shifty eyes and stumbling tongue, while his history of alcoholism and draft avoidance are a satirist's dream. The dim-witted zealots in his cabinet are even more preposterous than he is. Yet Bush strides on unscathed, cutting taxes for the rich, trampling on civil liberties, despoiling the environment, leading us into one foreign misadventure after another, while his approval ratings remain tolerable. In any other democracy the 9/11 disasters and the Iraqi debacle would have swept Bush from office, but in the United States they have become sources of strength. Perhaps he is so outrageous as to be beyond criticism, and certainly to be beyond satire.

Last summer in London, I saw two new British plays dealing with the Bush administration that were sober, thought provoking, and deliberately unfunny. Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, based on an idea by Nicolas Kent, opened at the Tricycle Theatre in May, transferring to the West End in June. (There was also a version in New York City, which I did not see.) Directed by Kent and Sacha Wares, it is a docudrama based almost entirely on public statements, letters, and interviews, focusing on five British detainees at the American Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Despite brief, incisive impersonations of Donald Rumsfeld and Jack Straw by William Hoyland and David Annen (Bush and Tony Blair do not appear), and despite the authenticity of the source material, the tone is as vacant and bizarre as in Kafka's The Trial. Miriam Buether's setting was minimal, a row of metal cages housing inmates in orange jumpsuits. They, or more often their family members, would simply step forward, identify themselves, and recite statements edited from the characters' actual words. The production managed to be both understated and terrifying.

Two years ago, Exonerated, an American docudrama about prisoners wrongfully on death row, depicted victims who were full of rage, as we might well expect. One would suppose that the victims and their fami lies in Guantanamo would be equally enraged, but instead they are dazed and confused. Swept up in a variety of locations during the Afghanistan War, the five British Muslims were shipped off to Guantanamo and placed, like the rest of the prisoners, in indefinite detention, with no access to lawyers, no formal charges, and little contact with the outside world. Except for their religion, the men had nothing in common, and had nothing to do with the war; one was working in Central Asia as a teacher, for example, while another was arrested as far away as Gambia, where he and his brother were harmlessly setting up a plant for processing peanut oil. We hear about some abuse in their confinement, but nothing so outrageous as the atrocities in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Instead, the mistreatment is simply in the whole shameful process that has stashed them away perhaps forever, shackled and forgotten, in an intentionally obscure location for no reason. "I do not plead for mercy," cried the father of one of the detainees on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. "I ask for justice." But is anybody in America listening?

An even more important London play than Guantanamo last summer was David Hare's Stuff Happens, which re-creates the events in the White House leading up to the Iraq War. With a huge cast and scores of scenes, the play includes not only speeches but also hypothetically reconstructed meetings in the White House, based upon what is known about them. Actors portrayed the real participants-Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz-often using their real words (even the title comes from one of Rumsfeld's press conferences), but they made no attempt at caricature. Alex Jennings' portrayal of Bush, for example, was nothing like the hilarious turns Will Ferrell used to do on "Saturday Night Live"; instead, Hare and Jennings astutely depicted a man who is shrewd, distant, and totally lacking in self doubt. …

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