“History Happens” (David Hare’s “Stuff Happens”)
After the intermission, the lights start to dim. A lone woman is on stage. She waits for the audience to settle in. She is well dressed, well groomed. She begins: â€œFor the Palestinians, there is no other context. We see everything in the context of Palestine.â€
In the June 26 Los Angeles Timesâ€™ Art Notes, Don Shirley reported that this speech draws the most intense reactions â€” applause and boos â€” of any scene in â€œStuff Happens,â€ David Hareâ€™s play at the Mark Taper Forum about President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blairâ€™s path to war in Iraq. (The title comes from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeldâ€™s explanation of why looting occurred after the conquest of Baghdad.)
The woman who is described as â€œa Palestinian academicâ€ in the published play version (Faber and Faber 2004) asks, â€œWhy Iraq? Why now?â€ She explains that although there are many possible reasons for the war on Iraq â€” which she enumerates as â€œArab democracy,â€ â€œunfinished businessâ€ and â€œoilâ€ â€” she says that for the Palestinians, â€œitâ€™s about one thingâ€: Israel.
She goes on to wonder why Bush would enforce the U.N. resolutions against Iraq but not those against Israel. Why â€œterror is condemned, but state-sanctioned murder is green-lit.â€ She concludes that â€œthe victims of the conflict have become the problem. We are the Jews of the Jews.â€
At the performance I attended on the Wednesday after the Times story, I noted one person murmuring â€œyeahâ€ in agreement during the speech, no real boos (maybe one person saying â€œhold on, hold onâ€) and there were some moments of applause â€” when she cited such reasons for war as Bushâ€™s dad, Vice President Dick Cheney and oil. Those moments of applause seemed no stronger or sustained than several others throughout the show.
Her speech lasts no more than a few minutes, if that. We never see her again. Her concerns are not really addressed by any other character; nor is there truly a dramatic payoff in the context of the rest of the play.
In the Times piece, Gordon Davidson, the playâ€™s director, said the speech â€œtroubled me.â€ However, he added that his feelings â€œdonâ€™t necessarily have to be answered in the play.â€ Davidson chose â€œStuff Happensâ€ as his final directorial effort, part of his artistic farewell after a decade as the Taperâ€™s artistic director.
Personally, I did not find the speech troubling. I thought it an accurate representation of an opinion that would have been expressed at the time. It is not the playâ€™s strongest moment â€” or its weakest. (The weakest is when a â€œBrit in New Yorkâ€ says, â€œOn Sept. 11, America changed. Yes. It got much stupider.â€)
Nonetheless, let me list the reasons why â€œStuff Happensâ€ should be seen. (It runs through July 17.) First, you should see it as a work of drama. An incredibly deft and talented playwright has found a way to take the â€œstuffâ€ of recent history â€” speeches, press conferences, reports by the participants â€” and shape these fragments, moments and documents into a narrative whose dramatic tension is only increased, because we know the end result.
You should see â€œStuff Happens,â€ regardless of personal politics for the way the characters are drawn and for the acting. Although we all have our own impressions of the main players â€” Bush, Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Rumsfeld and their English counterparts, Blair, Jack Straw and David Manning, as well as Hans Blix and Dominique de Villepin â€” seeing them onstage speaking their words, as we sit in the dark and listen again more closely, reveals new dimensions to their characters.
Finally, I would argue that you should see â€œStuff Happensâ€ because of the Palestinian academicâ€™s speech. Israel and the Middle East conflict is a minor but interesting subtheme of the play. Hare calls attention to Bushâ€™s support of Ariel Sharon and to Bushâ€™s disengagement from Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian authority. Hare also puts forward instances when Blair suggests that attention to the Middle East conflict would help him gain support in England for an Iraqi incursion.
The Palestinian academic is never heard of again after the opening of the second act. Deliberately or unconsciously, that speaks to a truth that few have ever acknowledged, and fewer still appreciate: Israel stands on firmer ground today than it did four years ago.
Consider that at the start of the millennium, with the Mideast peace process a failure, with President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak out of office, with Bush and Sharon newly elected, Israel was facing an existential crisis. Intifida II was sending waves of suicide bombers into Israel.
At the same time, the vilification of Israel was becoming loud and brazen, particularly in European and academic circles. A new anti-Semitism seemed to be infecting the world, of which the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl became a prominent example. For the first time in my own life â€” certainly for the first time since before the Six-Day War â€” there were questions about Israelâ€™s future.
Around that time, I remember attending an Israel Policy Forum breakfast at which Shimon Peres spoke. Someone asked him if there was any basis for hope. Peres replied, â€œThere is always hope.â€ He went on to say that if you had told a Jew in Poland in 1944 that in four years not only would the Nazis be defeated but that there would be a State of Israel, he would not have believed it possible.
After Sept. 11, Bushâ€™s â€œwar on terrorâ€ and in light of his claim that â€œeither you are with us or you are with the terrorists,â€one heard less and less support for suicide bombers and justification for attacks on the Israeli civilian population. Simply put, Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq moved attacking Israel to the back burner, despite the attempts of persons such as Hareâ€™s â€œPalestinian academicâ€ to link the United States and Israel in this matter.
Hareâ€™s play is worth seeing, because we deserve to understand how history happens. And there is no offense in the speech of the â€œPalestinian academic,â€ because it reminds us that history cannot be hijacked by speeches. History occurs, for better or worse, in surprising ways. It is a reminder that â€œStuff happens.â€
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, heâ€™s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.