Category Archives: war

Wind: 40 Years After the Fall of Saigon

Fall of Vietnam HelicopterThe empty streets. Stunned faces. The last helicopter swings over the trees. And Saigon, for a moment, stops. A city that never stills. The Americans have gone, taking but a few Vietnamese with them. Left behind, men and women who had worked with and lived among and fought with and fought against and loved and hated the Americans. That ends, leaving a space between waves…running over sand. Drawing patterns that last but an instant.

What was that like? That stillness? The wreckage, the debris. People wandering. Stealing things they couldn’t possibly use, just to have something left. And the North Vietnamese, rumbled along the city perimeter. Not everyone was sorry to hear them. Others were beyond terrified.

April 29, 2975. Forty years ago today, and Saigon was no more. It would become Ho Chi Mihn City. The streets got new names—as did some people. Hotels and bars and restaurant took on new owners. But, in truth, Saigon never ends. You can no more snuff it out than you can Paris or Cairo. Only the Americans had gone.

In the weeks, months, years to come, America would turn away. Turn inward. Deep. It would take years before we turned back again. Oh, within a few years the films began—marvelous, harrowing films: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Coming Home. Really though, they focused on the height of the American war, during the mid to late Sixties, and some of that was already a decade ago. But displacement, bewilderment, loss: for some time, those things would be too painful to revisit. Except for some determined to rewrite history. Sad news for them: history would not change, and new wars would not refute the old.

The helicopters. That soft whop-whop-whop. It still catches the ear. Such an indelible sound from the time. Coppola used it so evocatively in Apocalypse. So tied to the era. In a way, they wrote the final chapter, fading from the Vietnamese skies and arriving in swarms, commandeered by terrified South Vietnamese pilots, who crammed them full of their families and flew out over the ocean. Not even certain where the fleet sailed: they just flew west until the fuel ran out. Some found the ships (some certainly did not), landing where and how they could. The flight decks grew so crowded with aircraft that sailors had to shove choppers over the edge of the aircraft carriers. They would hang for second, rotors turning as through trying to catch air, before they fell, hit the water, and vanished.

I watched it. Not even knowing what I was looking at. Me and my dad—a World War II vet. He was a journalist, I was one in training. We couldn’t look away from the television, except to briefly glance at one another. I’m sure my face was stunned; my father’s was stone. My mom stayed away, working in the garden—her way of dealing with grief. I didn’t know enough to even feel the loss. To me, it was a fantastic news story. History, right in front of you. I felt something, but I didn’t know what. I think I’ve spent much of life trying to figure it out. Years later, as a writer, I dove into it—maybe too deep for my own good, at times. Some things, learned, cannot be revoked. Hell, I still don’t know anything. I read some books, talked to some vets (always a gift), and did some heavy imagining with some incredibly gifted artists, who gave me a lot more than I ever gave them. But, in context, with those who were there, it’s nothing. I haven’t even lived. Even if I had, Vietnam’s a moving target: it not only changes with each person—it changes as each person does.

Doesn’t everyone have a war story? Whether they’ve served or not. War enwraps us, becomes a touchstone: a clue as to where we are, who we are. Age divides us. Young men and women who served—or remembered—World War II looked at that war in a very different context than those who nervously watched their draft numbers—or those of their husbands, brothers, sons—during the Sixties. If you were below 30 (or thereabouts), you learned you couldn’t believe things. What you heard, saw, felt. You not only began to question the government—not a difficult stretch, after a certain point—but you began to doubt your parents, relatives, and their friends. All the people who, for so long, had been mentors, trusted advisors. Who had loved us. Now, you’re weren’t so certain they did. And the reverse was true.

Some who lived through World War II spoke movingly of the era’s camaraderie, even if they wouldn’t discuss the ghastly reasons for rearranging their lives. Those who lived through the crucible of Vietnam spoke of a different camaraderie: a dividing into tribes—for or against, served or ducked or protested, saw combat or a desk. And those were not static categories. The young man jacked for war by movies and fantasies could well come home to stand with protestors. Like that was easy.

When it was over—for America—the tribes never really came together again. There’s always been a split here between left and right, for reasons that fill thousands of books, and it might take another generation or more to as least partially repair that rupture, if indeed it can be bridged. Maybe World War II was the anomaly and division has been the actual nature of those supposedly united. For a country that worships liberty, we’ve spent a good part of our history throwing chains around one another.

Now, we’re farther away from the fall of Saigon than our fathers were from their war when the first Marines shipped off for Da Nang. Beards and ponytails have a lot of gray in them. Once overwhelming new singles, flashing with brilliant, fresh sounds and ideas—they’re oldies. Crazy books people fought over are standard fare in college. People look upon peace signs and doves as quaint artifacts, not as a button that once could get you worked beaten to hell. Wars get old too, the rough edges get sanded down, sanitized. Unless you’re in select company. Get in the right space with the right people, and the blood’s still fresh. It’ll never dry.

And in Saigon—forever Saigon—the girls in ao dais still ride their bicycles up the wide boulevards, and they smile behind their hands at old men who cock their heads and pause whenever they hear a helicopter.

 


The Modular Play: An Act of Faith

19442In 25 years of writing plays, I’ve generally worked from beginning to end. I may have a final scene in mind—sometimes an image that spurs the play’s creation. Sometimes, for tightly plotted stories, I work from an outline. Even so, when actually writing the piece, the process opens with “lights rise” and closes with “end of play.”

About a year ago, an idea came to me arising from images and voices I’d carried around for almost aa decade: American soldiers during World War II basically trying to talk themselves calm the night before a battle.

The time and locale fluctuated. D-Day seemed a natural, but also had been extensively covered, from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan. I considered the Anzio or North African landings, but those required explanation—and exposition. More and more, I thought of the lousy winter of ’44 and ’45, when war’s end loomed but hadn’t yet arrived.

Then an actor friend suggested I write a Christmas play, which made me laugh at first. No one would immediately associate my dark, sometimes sardonic plays with presents and cheery lights. Plus, could anything new be said of Christmas? Still, I liked the idea of writing a non-sentimental Christmas play for adults. All too often, between Scrooge, nutcrackers, and elves, the holidays seemed a reason to stay home from the theatre. Not because the existing plays were bad—simply because they were tired.

Then somehow the long-smoldering World War II play latched onto the Christmas Eve, finding the German-besieged town of Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. I’d long been fascinated by the town’s heroic effort to stave off Panzers as ammo, food, and medical supplies ran low.* And another image came to mind: a wounded civilian, a woman, in the midst of men trying not to fall apart. And If the Fates Allow took shape.

Or rather, it took shapes. I didn’t have an ending or a beginning. All I had were voices and a setting. The play stalled. I couldn’t find a way into it. I figured, what the hell, I’d write what I had—little scenes, snapshots, snippets of conversation. I had no idea where it was going. All I could do was rely on faith that I’d written a bunch of plays—too many maybe—and I could write another, hoping a piece would find its form as had happened so many times before.

It didn’t. A nervy process ensued, where, at any time, the play might go sideways. Plays do sometimes. You get into them and find out they have an unfixable flaw or they run dry. But increasingly, I began to feel comfortable with the characters. I could feel them pushing to have their stories told. So I started thinking of scenes—some so brief as to be blackouts—as pieces of a mosaic. I’d just keep writing until I exhausted the time and place, or until the play’s form revealed itself. No matter how it turned out, I was having a great time writing it. I liked hanging out with the characters and you couldn’t beat the circumstance for drama.

Siege plays—where a penultimate event shapes the action—have a form all their own. You just keep moving forward, and they get increasingly tense. The possibility of disaster colors everything, lending weight and urgency to otherwise ordinary conversation. If a character speaks of missing home, the question hang as to whether he’ll ever see it again. Sharing a cigarette carries a sense of communion—a rite to stave off emotional collapse.

Then, as if illuminated in a camera flash, the ending appeared to me, and it completely startled me—as I hope it will the audience, and I found most of the material written previously supported the resolution. Though my conscious mind seemed to float from place to place, my unconscious had been doing its job. I still needed to properly sequence the pieces and build transitions, which essentially meant rewriting the play from beginning to end, but a great deal of the original material survived the rework, and the beginning found itself. It said: start here. I’d just been warming up to that point.

I can’t say it’s the most relaxing way to work, but it wasn’t boring, and the results worked. I think.

Would I used the “modular play” technique again? Maybe. Plays have a way of telling you how they want to be written, and there’s something satisfying in taking your hands off the wheel and letting your instincts do the driving. In a way, it’s what writers do anyhow. Even when you’re carefully laying out a piece using an outline, you have to step back and let the imagination run. We’re never much more than nominally in control of a first draft. The rewrites demand all the writer’s craft and cunning.

Putting pen to paper is always an act of faith—faith in one’s self, in your intuition, and your need for discovery. Whether you leave the diving board with your eyes open or closed, you’re still going to hit the water. And you still have to clear the rocks.

*Despite my efforts to find a fresh World War II event to write about, after completing the play, I discovered that Band of Brothers had explored the same time and place, although they looked at if from a very different angle.

(At noon, January 26, “If the Fates Allow” meets the public as a concert reading at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, produced by Playwrights West as part of the Fertile Ground New Works Festival.)


Commencing Bombardment

Back in the early Nineties, we had ourselves a perfect little pocket war, known as Operation Desert Shield, the only U.S. war, so far, to sound like a feminine hygiene product. It was a swift, unforgettable thing, with CNN broadcasting live footage of Scud missiles falling on Tel Aviv, our wealthy friends, the Kuwaitis, getting looted by another one of our wealthy friends, one Saddam Hussein. Back during the Cold War, we weren’t always too choosy about who we took up with, and, as often happens, some of our relationships ended badly.

Seriously, it was a terrible war, with real bombs, blood, and bodies, and there was nothing amusing about it. I keenly remember feeling an awful sense of despair, as it became readily apparent the violence was inevitable, with no true certainty how it would turn out. Just as with its sequel, Operation Desert Storm (like most sequels, even more of a bummer), there were legitimate fears the war would set the entirely Middle East ablaze and completely destabilize the world economy. We’d have to wait another decade for that to happen.

History felt like an irresistible wave, a tsunami that rolled over everyone, no matter where they lived and how much money they did or didn’t have. The sense of fear and helplessness haunted me long after we’d tucked everyone back in their boxes, and I dealt with it the way writers do: I picked up the pen. In this case, I wrote a two-act drama called Bombardment.

At that time, I’d become friends with some wickedly clever artists running a new Portland Theatre Company, Stark Raving Theatre, and I asked them if they’d take a look at it. You know, just to see what they thought. They said, sure. And the next thing I knew, we were building a set. That’s the way theatre ought to be done–by the seat of your pants, with absolutely no idea what you’re getting yourself into.

The four-actor play–two men, two women–was directed by the very talented Kyle Evans, and ran for six weeks. It took a typical trajectory for a new play by a then-unknown playwright: a great opening (when everybody’s friends and family showed up), struggling weeknights, but stronger weekends. Reviewers were puzzled, dismissive, or both, but word got around that the play was a wild little beast, and really different from anything else running in town. Weekend audiences began to grow, and we closed strongly.

A year later, I tried to hide myself in a plush theatre seat at the Oregon Book Awards ceremony (Oregon’s top literary prize), absolutely terrified that Bombardment, one of three Finalists, might actually win, and I’d have to say something in front of a bunch of writers much more distinguished than myself.

It didn’t win (it’d be almost 20 years before I’d finally bring the OBA home for Lost Wavelengths), but the Bombardment experience really set the hook: I wanted to keep writing plays. For good or ill (depending on who you ask), I’ve been doing it ever since.

So I’ve always had kind of a soft spot for Bombardment, even though it totally screwed up my life. The play was just so . . . out there. I was so new to playwriting, I didn’t even know how many rules I’d blithely shattered. Bombardment was like letting the horse loose, holding on, and just marveling at its power while trying not to worry about getting killed.

Over the years, as I’ve honed my craft (supposedly), I’d dig the play out of the files, work on it a bit, maybe shop it around to a few theatres, maybe put it back in the folder. I came to accept it just wasn’t the kind of play for bigger theatres–the kind afraid of possibly alienating their subscription base. It was just too jagged, non-linear, brutal, and, frankly, weird. It’s a play for theatrical buccaneers.

And that’s why we’re here.

[To be continued]


Another Shade of Dark

My plays have never been known for being especially frothy. Blue is, apparently, my favored color–in clothing, language, and music. I suppose that reflects my outlook. Humor, however, serves an an antidote to the blues, on-stage and in life, so I try to find it even in the heaviest work. Another requisite in tackling the serious is to do it very, very well. I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in that, but, believe me, I have tried. Serious themes deserves the best, and I’ve spent many sleepless nights wondering if I’ve done the work justice.

The last few years, I’ve largely focused more on the fantastic: plays exploring the psyche or utilizing magic realism or alternate realities, and I’m turning, also, to exploring the human condition through our relations to the arts, of late writing about music and photography. But, for a good number of years, I was known as the “war guy.”

That is, I wrote a series of plays–four in all–about war and its aftermath. Three explore the subject through the characters of journalists: Waiting on Sean Flynn (Vietnam); Liberation (Bosnia); and Depth of Field (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and 9/11). Reporters, serving as our eyes and ears during conflicts open a breathtaking, immediate window into war narratives. Plus I used to be a reporter–never a war correspondent, though (I get asked)–and I have great admiration for those who put themselves at risk to the show the world the cruelties of which we are capable. They’re also damned interesting people, which makes them fun to write about.

Flynn and Liberation have been successfully produced multiple times (and Liberation has been published by Original Works Publishing). Depth of Field remains in progress. I’ve finished a number of drafts, but I still haven’t quite cracked the code on that one. I haven’t given up, either.

The fourth play, Next of Kin, stands as a sort of coda to the trilogy, shifting the focus from reporters to soldiers and their families, whose vital stories I felt remained somewhat unaddressed by the other plays. Next of Kin, looking at Iraq, is also the most contemporary work. It’s a good, strong play, I think, which had a very successful staged reading last year with the splendid folks at Portland Theatre Works; I’m currently shopping the premiere to theatres around the country.

Though I never planned it, the plays developed their own arc. Flynn asks why we’ve come to war, and whether we should stay or go? Liberation, acknowledging we’re trapped in war, asks how much do we sacrifice to tell the story? Depth of Field asks whether, after surviving war and paying the price, why return. And Next of Kin asks what we do and who we are when its over.

Writing these plays has been, I think, a substantial, unique accomplishment. (I have kind of a dream of having them collected in a single volume someday. Maybe it’ll happen, though it’s hard to say, given the state of both theatre and publishing these days.) I didn’t set out to do it: it just happened. They’ve made me a few bucks along the way–not very much. But they have rewarded me, however, so richly in terms of experience, introducing me to people and places I’ll never forget (and never want to, even when the memories are ghastly).

They’ve given me a chance to work with brilliant directors, actors, and designers on a subject that seems to bond artists they way soldiers and reporters bond in the field: everyone knows this is a serious, important issue that demands our best, and the subject tends to strip away our bullshit because, let’s face it, it’s about living or dying, killing or being killed. When you work like that, you get down to the core of your collaborators, exposing who you really are, and it’s one of the primary reasons I have such deep affection and admiration for those who work in this tough, sometimes ephemeral business. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn to like your colleagues, and they become your friends; if you’re really lucky, you’ll come to love them.

The plays have also afforded me some of the most intense audience interactions of my career. During ther performance, the theatre feels beyond electric, the air supercharged. Total strangers, speaking to me after shows, have told me stories they may have never told their families. After a performance of Liberation, a Bosnian woman told me how she walked, barefoot, away from her hometown as its men and boys were being systematically slaughtered. And then she thanked me for having the courage to tell the truth. Never, ever have I felt so simultaneously honored and humbled. That moment remains a treasure I will carry to my end.

Finally, this subject has allowed me to talk to and exchange letters and e-mails with with veterans and war correspondents, which has been worth every minute of sweating through the work, worry, and heartache that comes with making theatre.

I feel these plays have deepened my soul. When I pick up the morning newspaper and read so-and-so many have been killed or wounded wherever they’ve been killed or wounded this day, the pictures and feelings that come to my mind may be different than yours. Not better or worse, just…different. If you have a heart, you can’t write about war without it changing you, and you can’t write about war effectively if you don’t have a heart. Sometimes I think it’s damaged me, you know? Just a little. Knowing a little too much about the worst humans can be and the most terrible things that can happen to us. Whatever I’ve learned and kept inside, It’s nothing compared to those who have been there, and it’s paid me back more than I could ever imagine.

This Memorial Day, as we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I just want to take a moment thank all those who have served–and those who have reported the world’s self-inflicted catastrophes–for putting your very lives at risk. That’s it. A small and quiet acknowledgement that’s but a pebble in the ocean compared with your experience. With a special thanks, from as deep as I can reach, for those who have been so gracious to share your best and worst stories with me.

Here’s to the day when all our work becomes obsolete.


Flynn


A couple days ago, the news broke big that a couple investigators may have found Sean Flynn’s remains in Cambodia. As quickly as the story arose, doubts began. Tim Page, Flynn’s close friend, expressed his doubts, backpedaling began, and conflicting reports arose. The bones are headed for a forensic laboratory. Perhaps we’ll have an answer. Perhaps not. Here’s a link to one of the better stories on the discovery (by the very talented journalist Tim King, who’s put in his own time in war zones):

Sean Flynn’s Remains Possibly Found in Cambodia

It’s fitting somehow, this blurring, part of a story with so many reflections, fading memories, wishful thinking. What we do know is that in 1970, Sean Flynn, Errol Flynn’s son, was working as a photojournalist covering war in Cambodia along with fellow photojournalist Dana Stone. They sped down a road on red motorcycles, and they never came back. The rest is hearsay.

I learned about Flynn and Stone from Michael Herr’s brilliant book “Dispatches.” Years later, I had a sudden idea for a play juxtaposing Flynn’s story with the fall of Saigon. The result was a two-act drama, “Waiting on Sean Flynn” which went on to be produced in Chicago, Portland, Tampa, and Detroit. Though not readily apparent, the title was a play on “Waiting for Godot”; like Godot, Sean never returns.

Flynn’s sudden reappearance in the news has left me conflicted. I never knew the man—he disappeared when I was 10 years old—though I’ve spoken or corresponded with many who have known him. (And thanks again, to all of you, for sharing your time and stories.) But, in writing a play, you immerse yourself, creating a world in your head that feels, tastes, smells real, and it does you a strange kind of damage. You come out the other side changed. Some plays more than others.

“Waiting on Sean Flynn” was one of those plays. The world it created became so real to me that sometimes I pine for it. I find myself missing Flynn, which makes no sense at all, but the sense of loss and grief is real, a credit to the power of the imagination. Whatever I wrote is but a wisp of smoke compared to the accounts written by those who were there, such as Page, Herr, and Perry Deane Young, who wrote the very good “Two of the Missing.” Their Flynn breaks my heart, but it’s my Flynn that twists inside my chest when I see those familiar pictures of the handsome young guy in the boonie hat. That’s the trade-off you get for the gift of, for a moment, opening the doorway.

I hope the remains turn out to be Flynn’s or Stone’s, for the sake of their friends and family. But my Flynn will never be found. He’s forever riding that motorcycle down that road. He always disappears in a barrage of explosions and smoke.

And then the lights fade.


Now is The Time to Act

Danger splattworks readers: a long post on a serious subject follows.

In this morning’s Sunday New York Times, the Week in Review section included a chilling article about increasing tensions in Bosnia and Europe’s sleepy non-involvement. The entire article follows below, but it’s an issue I’ve been following for at least the last year, as political and ethnic tensions have risen in that troubled country, leading keen observers to fear a resurrection of the hostilities that marked Europe’s work outbreak of violence since World War II.

In case you’ve forgotten or were too young to remember what happened, after Yugoslavia’s strongman Tito died, ethnic factions–largely Serbian and Croats–where whipped into anger by self-serving ideologues, exploiting centuries-old divisions betweeen Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, the result being a ghastly three-way civil war that claimed over 100,000 lives and was marked by ethnic cleansing (i.e., wholesale murder of ethnic groups), systematic rapes, torture, and other atrocities, and the utter ongoing destruction of Sarajevo, one of the world’s great cities, which suffered a horrible, protracted death at the hands of Serb snipers and mortars as the rest of the world–Europe and the United States included–wrung their hands and dithered. Finally, NATO stepped in with airstrikes at Serb positions, and, in a short time–magic!–the warring factions hammered out an cease-fire arrangement in Dayton, Ohio (since known as the Dayton Peace Accords).

The suffering of Sarajevo and it’s people, who prevailed heroically (and sometimes not-so-heroically) under the most appalling conditions, and the inability of the world’s leaders to act, drove one playwright–me–into an utter fury, resulting in the drama Liberation, which premiered in 1999 at Portland’s Stark Raving Theatre the week NATO bombs began falling on Kosovo, another Balkan flashpoint. The play was celebrated by critics, both in Portland and, especially, in its 2003 production at Rude Guerrilla Theatre Company in Santa Ana (Los Angeles area). It went on to be published by the good folks at Original Works Publishing.

Now, as theatres are looking at their 2011 seasons, I urge them, implore them, to consider Liberation for possible production, not only because I feel passionately about the play–which, of course, I do–but because unless voices speak out to remember the all-too-recent past, we may be condemned to repeat it…which, trust me, is not something we want to do.

Below is the article published in today’s New York Times. You’ll also find links to Original Works Publishing’s Liberation page and Rude Guerilla’s archive page on the play, which includes reviews and production photographs. Also included is a link to Vice President Joe Biden’s office, as Biden has been instumental in fact-finding missions to the Balkans. If you want to contact a politician to express your concerns about the detiorating situation in the Balkans, his office is a good place to start. I’m also creating a Facebook group dedicated to Liberation: a link to that is also included below. Below the New York Times article is a review from the Rude Guerrilla production.

Please also pass this information on to theatre companies you feel may be appropriate homes for this play. I know this all sounds terribly self-serving; in many ways, I’d just as soon count Liberation as a historical piece that serves as warning lesson on the dangers of “looking the other way” in a dangerous world where our lives are interlinked by globalism. But I’m afraid the situation is more serious than that, and we’re again entering a time when the play may again serve as a protest against the inhumanity of war, in a small, very bloody piece of the world.

I know this blog has readers all over the world. I’m stepping outside of my usual, tongue-in-cheek snarkvoice to urge you take this post seriously.

A final note on Liberation: it’s a very tough, uncompromising play–I wrote it to be as strong an indictment of war as I possibly could–and it’s tough going for audiences, akin to the theatrical equivalent of the film The Killing Fields. Producing it takes commitment, passion, and nerve. I hope, however, that both theatre companies and audiences can find the piece deeply rewarding.

Once again, we are being called upon to act.

Thanks very much,

Steve

Original Works Publishing: Liberation

Rude Guerrilla Theatre Company: Liberation

Vice-President Joe Biden

Liberation Facebook Group

—————–

WHILE EUROPE SLEEPS, BOSNIA SEETHES

NEARLY 14 years after peace for Bosnia was hammered out in Ohio, the hills rising up around Sarajevo can still lead a visitor to uncomfortable thoughts about sightlines for snipers.

As I stood there in person on a visit back in May with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the violence of the ’90s didn’t feel so far away. Mr. Biden barnstormed through the Balkans on Air Force 2, also stopping in Serbia and Kosovo, with the goal of trying to draw flagging attention back to the region, delivering his sternest lecture to the Bosnian Parliament, warning against falling back onto “old patterns and ancient animosities.”

Mr. Biden is not alone in his warnings. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, under the headline “The Death of Dayton,” Patrice C. McMahon and Jon Western write that because of ethnic divisions that refuse to heal, widespread corruption and political deadlock, “the country now stands on the brink of collapse” and “unless checked, the current trends toward fragmentation will almost certainly lead to a resumption of violence.”

Whether or not that happens, the peacekeeping force meant to crack down on any outbreaks now has fewer than 2,000 troops. And the American contingent, a promise and a deterrent to those who justifiably doubt the European Union’s resolve if force is needed, has left entirely.

These circumstances might be cause for widespread alarm, if anyone had noticed them in the first place. It didn’t used to be that way. It used to be that you didn’t have to shout to get heard on the subject of Bosnia. The name alone was enough to evoke the rape, torture, burned-out homes and mass graves that marked a three-and-a-half-year war in which roughly 100,000 people were killed, a majority of them Muslims.

But that was a long time ago. For much of the Western world Bosnia is an all-but-forgotten problem, far down the list of priorities after countries like Iraq, Iran and North Korea. As if to drive the point home, the chief architect of the Dayton peace accords in the Clinton administration, Richard C. Holbrooke, now a special envoy in the Obama administration, has his hands full with the war in Afghanistan and the even more complex situation in neighboring, nuclear-armed Pakistan. Mr. Holbrooke has complained in recent years of a “distracted international community.”

If the drift of public attention away from Bosnia is a result of more pressing issues in an age of terrorism and rogue nuclear states, it is also a function of the simple fact that this ethnically divided country finds itself in the middle of a far more united, stable and at times downright boring Europe than in the days of the civil war.

Bosnia could well return to violence, but it has lost a large measure of what might be called its Franz Ferdinand threat. For all of the moral and humanitarian arguments for getting involved in the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia, there was also the severe lesson from Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914, which provided the spark for World War I. That lesson was simple: conflicts start in the Balkans, but they do not necessarily stay there.

The end of the cold war brought elation but also trepidation. In hindsight, the march of countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania from the Warsaw Pact into NATO and the European Union may appear steady and all but predestined, but the paths of those newly freed countries were anything but certain at the time. Bosnia was a starkly destabilizing factor in a far more unstable continent. The fighting that began in the spring of 1992 was not quite three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and less than a year after the attempted coup of August 1991 in Russia, and came hard on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, the picture has changed again. Now that Europe is no longer the fault line of a divided world, it looks ever more like a retirement community with good food and an excellent cultural calendar. Spies cut from the George Smiley cloth could really come in from the cold, retiring with legions of their countrymen to the Spanish coast, with no more to worry about than the decline of the pound against the euro and the sinking value of their condos.

The European Union has its share of problems, including a rapidly graying population projected to shrink by 50 million people by 2050 and deep troubles in integrating the immigrants — particularly from Muslim countries — it so drastically needs to reverse the demographic slide. And the union’s energy security depends on its often capricious and at times menacing neighbor to the east, Russia.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia last summer served as a stern reminder that things can still get rough outside of the gated community, and certainly made newer members like Poland and Estonia nervous about the sturdiness of the fence.

Renewed fighting in Bosnia may not launch World War III, but it could well spread to other parts of the former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. Kosovo declared independence last year, and the United States Embassy in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, burned at the hands of angry rioters. I walked the streets in the aftermath, interviewing Serbs, and found rage, sadness and desperation even among the most pro-Western elements of society.

It was something of a pleasant surprise, then, to return with Mr. Biden this year and find average Serbs on the same streets sounding deeply pragmatic about the visit by an American politician who not only represented the superpower that had bombed them but was personally an early and staunch supporter of Muslims in both Bosnia and Kosovo. While there were holdouts, most said that jobs and freedom to travel trumped old enmities.

With any luck the sentiment will find more traction in neighboring Bosnia too, drowning out the extreme voices and their loose talk of war. Given how far the world’s attention has wandered, supporters of peace in the Balkans will have to hope they find their own path to moderation. Otherwise the crack of snipers’ bullets and the whistle of mortar shells could herald the terrible spectacle of a preventable return to bloodshed.

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Theatre Y2K: Liberation Review

review
“liberation”
rude guerrilla theater co.
at the empire theater
santa ana, ca
18 april 03
reviewed by mark jonas

Imagine a dazzling, cosmopolitan city — a city of chic stores, good-looking
people, great shopping, hot bars and coffeehouses, where the latest cars,
movies and designer labels are all around.

Now imagine it shelled, and people bleeding in the streets, and going to work amid gunfire, driving past the ruins of places they used to know and love.

The city was Sarajevo; the time was the early 1990s. If you study photos of
Sarajevo during the warfare of that time, you’re struck by how “western,”
even how “American” parts of it look. In the right light, the offices, stores
and avenues could pass for Brooklyn, Boston, Cleveland, or Oakland or Los Angeles…even Orange County, CA.

Orange County is where you’ll find a powerful new play about Sarajevo: Steve Patterson’s “Liberation”, now at Santa Ana’s Empire Theater. It’s brought to you by Rude Guerrilla Theater Company.

Patterson is not Bosnian; he is Oregonian. He is from Portland, where
“Liberation” was produced by Stark Raving Theatre. According to the program biography, he has worked as a reporter, and that has probably given him the ability to “shape” a story and to see and interpret different points of view. Appropriately, his play is set in a newspaper office. It’s an exciting choice, a useful “neutral ground” from which to explore the psychology of warand ethnic conflict.

It’s no ordinary day for the reporters and editors at one of Sarajevo’s major
newspapers. Paper and ink shortages threaten tomorrow’s edition. And
suddenly, so does the arrival of a Serb army deserter, Tuna (Justin L.
Waggle). Tuna wants to come clean on the Serbian army’s atrocities — the
ethnic cleansing, rape and murder of Bosnian Muslims, and Croats. It’s a
scoop for reporter Petar (Kristian Capalik); it’s a path toward asylum for
Tuna and his sister Lana (Jami McCoy).

It is January, and the Serbs have been shelling the city for months — a
campaign that will eventually kill more than 10,500 of Sarajevo’s
half-million citizens, and wound tens of thousands more physically and
psychologically. Trying to hold down the fort of the fifth estate are Zlatko,
the publisher (David Rusiecki), and his secular Muslim wife Vedrana (Deborah Conroy), who edits. Four other staffers continue to work: Milena and Ismail (Luz Violeta Govill, Craig Johnson), and Sasha and Dado (Melita Ann Sagar, Andrew Nienaber).

There are problems enough harboring a deserter from an enemy army, but things get worse. A Serb general parks tanks and troops up the street from the office, and spreads propaganda painting Tuna as a Muslim terrorist holding the paper hostage. When the building is shelled by the army, blood runs and hope escapes.

“Liberation” does not present an audience with poetic transcendence, comic
relief, fantasy sequences or satire. There is simply more of the same awful
situation, and this is one of the play’s strengths. Its characters attempt to
publish a newspaper because there is nothing else to do; they become noble
because the situation demands nothing less.

More than any other quality, “Liberation” conveys the despondency and
resignation of life in wartime; its characters feel deadened by degrees.
Everyone has a story (“we are pincushioned with stories,” Ismail ruefully
notes) of seeing people killed, or shellshocked or maimed. The play’s first
and last lines come with a signature irony — one of the only good weapons
left.

Director Jody J. Reeves has pulled some strong performances from her cast.
(One of her actors, Kristian Capalik, actually spent his childhood in
Sarajevo.) Waggle is clearly a very dedicated and very good young actor,
playing Tuna with notable presence and nuance. As Vedrana, Conroy projects
real dignity and ready compassion. Govill gets to handle the play’s best
prose (an extended recollection of the old Sarajevo) and the play’s most
wrenching scene, which really does make you want to leave your seat and grab
a first aid kit. Reeves could have kept a closer rein on some things. Govill
(playing a Croat) uses what sounds like a thick Russian accent in an
otherwise accent-free production, and Rusiecki has been permitted to turn in
a placid, almost mellow performance that is out of touch with the emergency
of the story. Still, the cast (and script) do collectively resonate.

There’s little happiness in “Liberation”. It’s a heavy, often grueling play.
It’s also a good one.

“Liberation”,
presented by Rude Guerrilla Theater Company
at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.
Th-Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 2:30pm thru April 27. $15, $12 for students, teachers & seniors. 714.547.4688.


The Real Thing

I was in Seattle this weekend, and, driving the way home to Portland, I passed Fort Lewis, a major U.S. Army base, also located near the huge McChord Air Force Base (as well as near a V.A. hospital). It’s the home of I Corp and includes the 3rd Brigade/Stryker Combat Team, which at one point relieved the legendary but then exhausted 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, being some of the first Stryker’s deployed over there. Stryker’s are these eight-wheeled light-armor vehicles. Despite their high-tech shielding, electronics, and armaments, they’re still prey to IEDs, particularly the “shaped charges” used to penetrate armor.

Fort Lewis is a relatively old base–I think it was built around the first World War, with some of those military buildings that look like they belong on a faded 4″x4″ color print (the kind with the edges that seem to have been cut by Pinking shears). This being the Northwest, the area’s very green and lush, though somewhat suburban, homes and businesses peeking behind tree trunks, and you see signs in the strip malls like “Military Loans” and “Tactical Tailor.”

At one point, an overpass crossing Interstate Five connects what appears to be two sections of the base, and just as the car was about to slip into the bridge’s shadow, I looked up to see that, along the entire span, flowers have been tied or wired to the pedestrian railings. Long dead, the bouquets have dried to a hard, brittle black, but no one has taken them down. The entire overpass.

And then it was gone, receding in the rear-view mirror.


Liberation, at Last

Original Works Publishing is now taking pre-orders for:…my play about a newspaper office trying to stay open during the siege of Sarajevo. Dark, violent, full of gallows humor, and very well received by the critics over the years. “Liberation” premiered in 1999 at Portland’s Stark Raving Theatre, where it was directed by the fabulous Lisa L. Abbott (who, coincidentally, directs the upcoming “Dead of Winter”…see how I carefully worked that plug in? That’s art, baby.)

You can check out their write-up/order form on Original Works

Or you can check out Original Works MySpace page.

Steve


Thinking About "Bombardment"

In 1991, at the start of the first Gulf war and in a terrible fury, I sat down and began work on “Bombardment.” I wanted to write something that would examine the divide-and-conquer “cultural war” politics going on at the time, where the powerful and wealthy played upon the predjudices of the poor to frighten them into acting against their own interests, as well as the real war in the Middle East, which I could barely beleive was truly happening. At the same time, I also wanted to capture the feeling of history rolling irresistably over all of us, no matter what our status was.

On the other hand, I didn’t want to write some beat-them-over-the-head message play; I was much more interested in how these things made me feel and, in turn, made the characters feel. So I ended up placing these half-archetypical/half-realistic, wounded, suffering people in this sort of dreamscape, where a battle ensued between masters and servants, played out both in terms of power through status and sexual domination.

In terms of action, the play goes like this….

Corno, a sort of wounded king/strongman, has been cast from his home by Arethea, his queen/wife, because he has been caught being sexually indiscreet with Arethea’s maidservant, Carmelita. As Corno plots to recover his position, Althea seduces Placid, Corno’s hit man/fixer, to plan to murder Corno. By the end of the first act, one learns that Carmelita and Placid have planned a double-cross all along and murder Corno and Althea, assuming their power.

In the second Act, Carmelita’s personality begins to disintigrate as power begins to paralyze her, and when she tries to break Placid from the cycle of power, betrayal, and fall, Placid’s paranoia takes over, and in fear, he implores the ghosts of Corno and Althea to return to resume their power and protect him. The play ends with Corno, Arethea, Carmelita, and Placid physically entangled in a web in which none of them can break free.

As The Clash wrote: anger can be power. Bombardment went on to be nominated as a Finalist for the Oregon Book Award.

So why does the play haunt me now? Are we back to where we were? Do we have to set the Middle East aflame every time a Bush gets in office? Santayana famously said those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, but it seems all of us, in thrall to those who cannot remember the past or refuse to heed its lessons, are doomed to see these savage kabuki dramas endlessly repeated.

At the time, I wondered if the ending of Bombardment was too pessimistic. Now I’m afraid I got it exactly right.

Paul Tibbets died today. He was 92. He was the commander of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was reported he had no regrets and slept well at night.


Two Links on the Honor Roll

I wanted to point out two interesting links on my page’s “The Honor Roll” (a phrase I blatantly stole from Hunter Thompson’s book dedications). One is “Gunner Palace,” which is a documentary about Iraq well worth seeing. It doesn’t have a particular political axe to grind; it simply shows what life is like for one company of grunts operating around Baghdad.

The other is “Fight to Survive” which is a blog compiled by guys serving in Iraq and, as a kind of companion piece to “Gunner Palace,” tells of their average days, from the mundane to the absolutely ghastly. It’s been quiet of late, but it’s worth going back to read past posts. Soldiers’ voices are always worth listening to and ring much truer than the noxious rhetoric that flows unendingly from politicians and talking heads.

“Happiness is Iraq in my rear view mirror.”

Indeed.

Steve