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The Theatre Of War Journalism

February 2, 2009

What is it with all these modern war plays written by journalists? Why do some journalists feel compelled to make dramas out of their articles? And what is it that makes them think that they can write well for the stage?

I've been thinking about these questions over the last couple of days quite a bit since seeing journalist George Packer's play, Betrayed. The drama, which is currently receiving its west coast premiere at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, can pretty much be summarized by a couple of lines from the March 26, 2007 essay that Packer wrote for The New Yorker: "The arc from hope to betrayal that traverses the Iraq war is nowhere more vivid than in the lives of these Iraqis. America's failure to understand, trust, and protect its closest friends in Iraq is a small drama that contains the larger history of defeat."

It's easy to see why Packer thought his essay entitled "Betrayed: The Iraqis Who Trusted America The Most" would make a good basis for a play. The arc of the story -- from the initial jubilation of many pro-American Iraqi's about their country's bright future in the wake of the U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein, to their eventual disillusionment and fear as their lives become more at risk and the American occupation falls apart -- is strong. The essay is full of emotional dialogue and pithy storytelling. There's plenty of confrontation. It's possible to visualize many of the scenes clearly in the mind's eye. The characters, particularly the Iraqi translators who put their lives on the line to help U.S. forces in their country, are vividly drawn.

For a novice playwright, Packer certainly understands how to tell a story through dialogue and how, at least in the case of the three main Iraqi characters in his play drawn from real people he met during his many visits to Iraq, to create full-fledged characters.

Thanks to the efforts of director Robin Stanton and Aurora's sensitive cast, Betrayed makes for a moving and informative experience. It's a shocking revelation or reminder -- for those who either hadn't heard or had forgotten about the U.S. forces' treatment of its Iraqi workforce -- of American colonialist naivete, ineptitude, bureaucracy and callousness.

But for all the play's merits, it doesn't fully work as theatre. Packer, alongside such authors of recent war plays as Gillian Slovo and Victoria Brittain (Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom), have a journalist's eye for storytelling and ear for dialogue. But what these writers lack is a true sense of theatre as an art form. Neither Betrayed nor Guantanamo has a strong sense of visual metaphor or dramatic irony. The language in both plays isn't particularly rich, unusual or interesting. No matter how compelling their plots and characters and strong their messages, the memory of these works fades fast.

Compare these journalist-written war plays with the likes of Gregory Burke's Black Watch and David Hare's Stuff Happens. Crafted by writers steeped in the theatre, these plays are full of powerful visual images and haunting language that stand out in the mind long after the final curtain descends.

As the most intimate of performance mediums, the theatre is an ideal format for the telling of war stories. The stage, more than any other medium, has the power to take a huge, abstract concept such as global conflict and make it personal. Through spending time on the front lines and asking difficult questions, journalists have important insights to share. But they need to immerse themselves in the study of stagecraft before putting pen to paper. Perhaps it's time for professional media training organizations like Mediabistro, the Columbia Journalism School or one of the country's top playwriting programs e.g. Brown University, to run a workshop or series of classes on the art of theatre for journalists?

Betrayed plays at the Aurora Theatre through March 1.

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