‘Stuff Happens’ in the Theatre of War and Drama

I have just (belatedly) read David Hare’s highly praised, ‘provocative’ 2004 history play about events leading up to the invasion of Iraq, ‘Stuff Happens’.

It contains verbatim public statements made by Bush, Blair and other leading characters’ real life counterparts but Hare has stated that for the behind the scenes conversations he used his imagination, which is entirely acceptable as it’s a play not a documentary. But why, I’m wondering, did the author – who has also said that none of his dialogue is ‘knowingly untrue’, so declaring a commitment to portraying, as far as possible, the truth of events, choose to let the leading players (in real life and on stage) off the hook?

Blair is shown, in private, passionately extolling his ‘Blair Doctrine’ of humanitarian intervention as sincerely as Albert Schweitzer extolled his humanitarianism so that we are left in no doubt that Blair may have made some mistakes but his heart was in the right place. Thanks David. Contrast this with the verdict of historian Mark Curtis, author of several important books on British foreign policy all based on declassified government files:

‘Currently, many mainstream commentators would have us believe that there is a ‘Blair doctrine’, based on military intervention for humanitarian purposes. This is an act of faith on the part of those commentators, a good example of how the public proclamations of leaders are used unquestioningly to set the framework of analysis within the liberal political culture. If there is a Blair doctrine, it does indeed involve an unprecedented degree of military intervention – but to achieve some very traditional goals. The actual impact of foreign policies on foreign people is as irrelevant now as it ever has been.’

Hare has said, ‘I read fifty books’ during his research for ‘Stuff Happens’. It’s a shame none of them were Curtis’s.

Colin Powell is also portrayed sympathetically as the deeply humane, hand-wringing moral conscience of the play, warning of dire consequences of ill-thought out action (never a war crime) all the way up until he presented a pack of lies to the UN which made the Iraq invasion both morally acceptable and inevitable. Even the US government cabal of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are seen sincerely lamenting Saddam Hussein’s cruel treatment of ‘his own people’ as a central pillar of their decision to go to war. And this is what passes for challenging and brave political drama? The very fact that it’s been universally praised by the corporate press (rave reviews from both The Telegraph and The Guardian) should be a signal it’s nothing of the sort. All it does is confirm the narrow parameters which ring-fence the sphere of acceptable political discourse, even in theatre! The very place where anything should go, where the real motivations of our leaders should be unraveled and exposed.

The trouble is, I suspect, that ‘Sir’ David Hare is, himself, Establishment through and through. A company man, and, like the ‘sincere’ politicians of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, he stands ‘so completely within the institution, (he) never distinctly and nakedly beholds it.’ These men, explains Henry David, ‘speak of moving society, but have no resting-place without it. They may be men of a certain experience and discrimination…but all their wit and usefulness lie within certain not very wide limits.’

And that might also explain why, at the end of the play, we are shown Jeremy Paxman’s verbatim interview with Colin Powell in which the former is clearly presented as the keeper of the sacred journalistic flame of ‘holding power to account’ by grilling the latter on his UN presentation: you misled us is Paxman’s accusation. We thought we could trust you, is the clear message to Powell as Colin squirms in irritated discomfort. But how many audience members thought to themselves…it’s a bit fucking late now isn’t it Jeremy?!! Why did you – supposedly the UK’s most fearsome political journalist – simply accept Powell’s ‘evidence’ in the first place!? Why did you not test it?? We were on the brink of war for god”s sake! As Media Lens asked when examining Paxman’s role here: ‘isn’t government submission of evidence where serious journalism begins, not ends?’ Indeed, as John Pilger told head of ITN, John Mannion, in his documentary, The War You Don’t See’, if ‘mainstream’ journalists had done their job, the invasion of Iraq would not have been possible, and in a very real sense Pilger asserted, these journalists ‘have blood on their hands.’

‘Stuff Happens’ was shocking to many audiences when first performed. But that in itself is a sad reflection on the state of ignorance the majority of US and UK public are in concerning the saturnalian truth behind their governments’ nefarious foreign policy decisions. Now, if this extract from Mark Curtis’s book ‘Unpeople’ had been included in the play, the level of shock felt by those first audience members may have required stretchers and a line of waiting ambulances: Mark sets out the three principles he sees as ‘relevant when considering current events’. (the book covers the Iraq War):

‘The first is that British ministers’ lying to the public is systematic and normal. Many people were shocked at the extent to which Tony Blair lied over Iraq; some might still be unable to believe that he did. But in every case I have ever researched on past British foreign policy, the files show that ministers and officials have systematically misled the public. The culture of lying to and misleading the electorate is deeply embedded in British policy-making.

A second, related principle is that policy-makers are usually frank about their real goals in the secret record. This makes declassified files a good basis on which to understand their actual objectives. This gap between private goals and public claims is not usually the result, in my view, of a conscious conspiracy. Certainly, planned state propaganda has been a key element in British foreign policy; yet the underlying strategy of misleading the public springs from a less conscious, endemic contempt for the general population. The foreign-policy decision-making system is so secretive, elitist and unaccountable that policy-makers know they can get away with almost anything, and they will deploy whatever arguments are needed to do this.

The third basic principle is that humanitarian concerns do not figure at all in the rationale behind British foreign policy. In the thousands of government files I have looked through for this and other books, I have barely seen any reference to human rights at all. Where such concerns are invoked, they are only for public-relations purposes.’

Close curtain.


Alison Banville is co-editor of BSNews

One Comment

  1. Colin Smith

    British public life is full of superannuated Establishment journalists and commentators who quite unconsciously espouse the party line. I think of John Simpson in his dealings with Vladimir Putin as a leader of this tendency. The broadcast media is stuffed with them, both male and female. They host all the main current affairs and news shows, led by Andrew Marr. I haven’t watched or listened to these people for well over 10 years, and don’t plan to again. They embody the Establishment bias that has sieved the BBC and rendered it irrelevant. Better to stick to the internet, blogs and zines where real journalism is to be found.

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