September 24, 2007
Theater Emory: Please join us on the battlefield
Tim McDonough is Theater Emory’s artistic director, resident artist and associate professor of theater studies.
In 1967, the year that graduate school deferments for the Vietnam War were suspended, my senior class went into shock, then into high gear. Those of us who weren’t bound for medical school or seminary or teaching jobs — automatic deferments — scrambled: some acquired medical dossiers about impairments or researched strategies for flunking the induction physical; some studied how to present themselves to skeptical draft boards as conscientious objectors; some fled to Canada or went underground. The rest of us despaired. I’m sure some classmates chose to answer the call, but most of us were against the war, and we knew that our lives were at risk. So did our parents, whatever their politics; if they knew anyone who could pull strings, they made phone calls.
The government’s avoidance of a draft has insulated our students from the dangers that would mobilize them to protest. Perhaps their safety makes the rest of us feel safe. If we are not close to individuals at risk, we have no immediate, personal, daily cause for worry.
Efforts to control the flow of information from Iraq — by restricting “embedded” journalists, prohibiting images of military coffins arriving home, commissioning and planting stories with positive spin, etc. — assist us in escaping the war. There have been no new taxes, no rations, no war bonds, no enforced sacrifices.
We have excuses for forgetting that we are at war. Concerted efforts have been made to keep us ignorant.
Complicity in our ignorance
No doubt some of us would prefer to ignore the war, and it may be that all of us are guilty at times of complicity in our ignorance. But the real question is not whether we know the facts but whether we know the human consequences — which must be vicariously, empathetically experienced if they are really to be known.
Consider the periodic lists of new casualties: name, age, rank, hometown. Are the fallen anything more than statistics? Do we imagine their stories? Do we enter their lives — as actors enter the lives of their characters on behalf of audiences — and live through what has happened to them? Do these lists allow us to identify with the dead? Is it enough to read the occasional “human interest” story — about a grieving family, a wounded vet, or yet another victim of a roadside bomb — to know what is going on?
Theater is another way of knowing
Theater is another way of knowing. Its method of research is to ask performers — with the assistance of designers, technicians and a director — to take on the words and actions of other lives in other circumstances. This makes it possible for a play’s participants to experience events from the inside, and for audiences to have a vicarious, firsthand experience of those events. Along with the other narrative arts, theater can in this way contribute to the spectrum of investigation in the arts and sciences.
Last year I saw in New York an excellent production of “Journey’s End,” a play set in a World War I bunker as British officers brace themselves for a major attack. In the last act, the barrage begins with intermittent, distant explosions; these creep progressively closer. In the final moments of the play, a wounded man dies
all alone — save for the audience, the only witnesses.
When the curtain fell, the audience began to applaud, but artillery shells fell with increasing frequency and ferocity on speakers that wrapped around the theater. There we sat in the dark, inside the terrifying bombardment. It lasted perhaps half a minute, but it felt as if we were there — there — much longer.
Theater Emory is going to war this season
We will aim to take our artists and audiences inside many different aspects of war. We can do this because Theater Emory is in a privileged position in Atlanta’s theater community. We do not have to worry about offending subscribers: we have none. Since many theaters cannot afford a sustained focus on difficult issues, we have a responsibility — to our campus audience and to the larger community — to research what other theaters cannot.
You might fear a dreary progression of material with the same message. This season’s plays in fact have a wide range of tones, styles and perspectives: tragedy, film noir, documentary, expressionism and even musical comedy.
Our present haunts the past
Last spring my colleague Michael Evenden sent me a passage from an article in New York’s Village Voice by theater critic Michael Feingold:
“The theater, with one eye always cocked on the past, can jolt you at any moment with another reminder that today is just a version of yesterday; tomorrow’s headlines will be built out of the problems we haven’t solved from last year, 1950, 1900, or, for that matter, the 5th century B.C. The past used to be thought of as haunting the present; it might be more accurate to say that the present haunts our view of the past.”
During last year’s spring break, as I stared at Iraq-bound soldiers in uniform at the airport, I realized in a flash that Theater Emory’s production of “The Final Hours of Troy,” adapted from Robert Fagles’ new translation of “The Aeneid,” should be performed by young men and women in desert fatigues, so that we can watch our present war haunt the ancient one.
What effect this will have on our experience of the sacking of Troy is something we will discover in rehearsal — and in performances made complete by you, our audiences, who are the raison d’être and the completion of every production. Please join us on the battlefield.
Theater Emory confronts war in 07–08 season
Theater Emory’s season delves into the causes and consequences of armed conflict, beginning with “The Trojan War” and leading to a new work about the current war in Iraq. For tickets and information, visit www.arts.emory.edu or contact 404-727-5050 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Trojan War, Program A:
“Iphigenia and Other Daughters”
Oct. 4, 6, 10, and 12, at 7 p.m.; Oct. 13 at 2 p.m.
Theater Lab, Schwartz Center. $18; $14, faculty/staff; $6, students. (Oct. 10 is pay-what-you-can-at-the-door night.)
The Trojan War, Program B
“The Final Hours of Troy and The Trojan Women”
Oct. 5, 11, and 13 at 7 p.m.; Oct. 6 and 14 at 2 p.m.; Theater Lab, Schwartz Center. $18; $14, faculty/staff; $6, students. (Oct. 11 is pay-what-you-can-at-the-door night.)
365 DAYS/365 PLAYS
Oct. 22–28 at varies times. Free.
For more information, visit arts.emory.edu.
Nov. 8–10, Nov. 14–17 at 7 p.m. Nov. 11 and 18 at 2 p.m.; Munroe Theater, Dobbs University Center. $18; $14, faculty/staff; $6, students. (Nov. 14 is pay-what- you-can-at-the-door night.)
“What I Heard About Iraq”
Feb. 13–March 6. For more information, visit
“Bury the Dead”
Feb. 21–23, Feb. 27–29 and March 1 at 7 p.m.; Feb. 24 and March 2 at 2 p.m. Munroe Theater, Dobbs University Center. $18; $14, faculty/staff; $6, students.
(Feb. 27 is pay-what-you-can-at-the-door night.)
“Oh What a Lovely War”
April 17–19, April 23–26 at 7 p.m.; April 20 and April 27 at 2 p.m. Munroe Theater, Dobbs University Center.