Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Guardian Unlimited | Arts features | Attack!: Playwrights have always challenged governments for going to war. But has today's theatre lost its fighting spirit? By Adam Thorpe

"Dramatists have been inveighing against war ever since Aeschylus called it a "devouring folly" in his play The Persians (472BC) - one of the earliest surviving plays in western theatre. Its description of the battle of Salamis, which took place eight years before, and in which Aeschylus probably took part, was intended to be a celebration of the Athenian victory over the ransacking invaders; through the eyes of the Persian messenger, reporting to King Xerxes' mother, it comes across as an "ocean of disaster". The flower of Persian manhood ends up being hacked and stabbed in the flotsam of their ships like "tunnies or some netted haul". Expansionist dreams end, not in heroic deeds, but in a bloody, undignified mess.

When the tattered Xerxes finally enters, blaming "doom", we are left in no doubt as to who is principally responsible: neither the gods, nor fate, nor even the saving mettle of the Athenians, but the Persian king's own pride and stupidity. The victory at Salamis was historic - it secured the flowering of Greek liberty for at least half a century, until Athens' own imperialist hubris led to her catastrophic defeat at the hands of Sparta in 405BC; yet this is a play about defeat.

The Persians was used as an anti-Vietnam protest piece in the 1960s, as were the "anti-war" plays of Aeschylus's successors - Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. The Bosnian conflict led to another revival of the Greek greats, particularly as the real horror for their original audience was (after invasion) civil war. The sight of macho, gun-toting amateurs burning, massacring and pillaging in former Yugoslavia encouraged new English-language versions of plays featuring angry women - the peace-loving, sex-withdrawing heroines of Aristophanes' bawdy Lysistrata, or Euripides' Hecuba, showing the queen of Troy turned by grief into a bloodthirsty avenger of her children's pointless deaths. The most direct response to Bosnia among British playwrights, however, came from the late Sarah Kane, whose brilliantly shocking Blasted (1995) took all the nastier bits in the Greeks and in Shakespeare (including eyeball-removal) and set them in a plush hotel room.

The recent West End production of RC Sherriff's poignant dugout drama Journey's End (1929) was the first in a series of major revivals. The current production in Sheffield of Willis Hall's ambiguous The Long and the Short and the Tall (1958), about a bewildered platoon in the Malayan jungle faced with a sympathetic Japanese prisoner, and the national tour of Philip King's classic vicarage farce, See How They Run (1945), in which an escaped Nazi wreaks less havoc than the locals themselves, are symptoms of a nation at (albeit distant) war. Even timelier, though, would be a fresh production of Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie, rejected by the Abbey Theatre in 1926 - WB Yeats claiming to be "not interested in the great war".

We get a lot of brutality, but not much actual fighting, in 20th-century plays, including Willis Hall's - in which a single on-stage machine-gun "burst" offers a technical headache. The shock-and-awe method used by Sarah Kane comes in many theatrical forms, some subtler than others. Harold Pinter claims that the peculiar "menace" in his plays stemmed from his experience of the Blitz in London's East End - his Nobel prize acceptance speech was rooted, one feels, in a particularly direct awareness of war's horrors. John Arden's masterpiece Sergeant Musgrave's Dance (1959) has something of the same rage: its troubled, visually macabre, depiction of a 19th-century colonial soldier returning the violence to its root feels permanently topical. Like the fierce Hecuba, Musgrave begins as an avenging angel and ends as a terrorist, turning the gun on the bemused civilians in the name of peace and his God-inspired "Logic".

Edward Bond is the most consistent modern chronicler of what Aeschylus called "the reckless waste".

Bond is revered abroad, but his difficulties with mainstream British theatre led to an estrangement after the massive post-nuclear play Great Peace (1985). A work like Eleven Vests (1997), written for young people, is a lean parable showing a murderous schoolboy becoming an efficient soldier, while Human Cannon (1984) - withdrawn from the National Theatre - explores the justification for violent resistance during the Spanish civil war through one family's tragedy."

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