Bush's Iraq War, seen through a British lens in ACT's compelling Stuff Happens

A former White House aide who watched the Nixon administration unravel casts an experienced eye on the Bush White House as portrayed in the fascinating drama by Sir David Hare. The play traces the way a character's soul slips through his fingers under the pressure of high office.
Crosscut archive image.

The war council (top) of <i>Stuff Happens</i>: From left, David Pichette (ensemble), Richard Ziman (George Tenent), R. Hamilton Wright (George W. Bush), Tim Gouran (Ensemble), and Charles Dumas (Colin Powell). And Powell (bottom). (Chris Bennion)

A former White House aide who watched the Nixon administration unravel casts an experienced eye on the Bush White House as portrayed in the fascinating drama by Sir David Hare. The play traces the way a character's soul slips through his fingers under the pressure of high office.

Good stuff happens with compelling theatrical power and verve in David Hare's play, Stuff Happens now playing at ACT in downtown Seattle. It's a night of very good theater, raising very interesting questions about our times. The production runs through July 22. Written primarily from the British point of view, the play updates an earlier version of 2004. It is a kind of docudrama, synthesizing the public and private crisis points in the diplomatic build-up to the Iraq War. Fast-paced movement throughout is maintained by forcefully delivered snippets of actual speeches as well as private conversations that Hare imagines took place between the principal British, American, and French leaders. The director is Victor Pappas, and the ingenious scenic design is by Robert Dahlstrom, two familiar figures in Seattle theater who are joined by many beloved Northwest character actors in the large cast. Cheers to ACT for the ambition of the production, here given its Northwest premiere. As one who once spent considerable time in the Oval Office and environs, under President Nixon, I was intrigued in part to see how well the play "gets" that intoxicating, heady atmosphere, crackling with personal rivalries and ideological swordplay. The British cast consists of Prime Minister Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Jeremy Greenstock, and other advisers. The American counterparts are President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and George Tenet. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin almost steals the show, almost derails the war. Hans Blix is the other voice of restraint and seasoned wisdom. One central theme of the play is Colin Powell's gradual descent from the moral high ground, where his understanding of the extreme risks of going to war enables him to speak passionately about the dangers ahead. But under relentless pressure from his soldier's code of duty as well as attacks from Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the president, Powell allows himself to be dissuaded from his profound doubts about the war and into the pit of mendacity, where he is deputized as the president's spokesman-in-chief for going to war. The sad truth is that Powell's personal loyalty to the president and his colleagues overrode his loyalty to his conscience and doing the right thing. As a former member of the Nixon White House staff who, at a time of crisis, put loyalty to the president above loyalty to conscience, I empathized powerfully with Powell, played by Charles Dumas. As I watched the performances of actors playing people I know personally, I winced at how closely the dramatic characters matched the real-life men. The persona of Cheney was particularly on target. Cheney in this play is cold and efficient, but with an added dimension of ruthlessness not apparent in the younger real-life man in his 20s I knew. Rumsfeld's character comes across edged with cruelty, but it does not also show the subtlety of his nuanced mind that goes along with his arrogance and brilliance. While President Bush might not "do nuance," I can attest that Rumsfeld certainly does in his personal interactions with people. Hare's dialogue scintillates with laser-sharp observations, true to the speaker, and often very funny. For example, Powell's assessment of Hans Blix: "He's as reliable as a Volvo." Rumsfeld comments on his hunger at Camp David while slurping chicken noodle soup with Bush's war cabinet: "I could eat a baby through the bars of a crib." Rumsfeld gives the play its title when he responds to press questions about the looting in Baghdad following the U.S. invasion: "Stuff happens." I found myself lamenting the inability of the American characters to match the linguistic clarity, polish, and creative passion of Tony Blair and his British colleagues. When the Americans do speak, they are often pompous, crude, and contemptuous. Sir David Hare is British, and he sees the Americans through the lens of Blair's group and other Europeans. He gives his countrymen the better lines, but the play manages to suggest that Bush, somehow, takes the measure of the far more articulate Blair. The casting for the most part does not try to impersonate the physical characteristics of the main figures. George Bush, played by the much shorter R. Hamilton Wright, is unrecognizable in some senses and is played as a low-dimensional man of messianic faith in himself, despite limited abilities. "My faith frees me, so I can enjoy life and not worry," he says. (Well, at least there's one of us who can.) He has the president's strutting Texas "macho" and verbally challenged manner of speaking down pat. Mark Chamberlin plays Tony Blair with extraordinary intelligence, power, and grace. Blair is the dominant intellect in every scene in which he appears. I enjoyed immensely David Pichette's portrait of Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, who comes off French to the core and impatient to enjoy a fine lunch. Charles Dumas captures the essence of Powell's doubts and frustrations and paints a moving picture of a man giving his all to his president and watching his soul slip through his fingers in the process. The direct quotations help provide a sense of authenticity for this historical time. However, when the very real characters speak their minds, the actors launch into dialogue which is purely a construct of Hare's imagination. With fine actors speaking finely honed words, their characters can be made to look very devilish indeed. Perhaps too devilish to be convincing? When Bush, portrayed against physical type as blond, wiry, and weak, speaks lines which present the lead horse of the free world's "hell bent for leather cavalry team" as something of an ass, the play becomes very entertaining, ingenious in putting forth Hare's point of view. But it's hard not to feel that Stuff Happens is his story but not really our story. The play raises intriguing questions. Were the British Special Forces actually ordered to stand down by the Americans when they had Osama Bin Laden cornered in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan which allowed him to escape? If so, did the Americans pull the British back because they wanted the political score of bagging him on their own? An intriguing conjecture, but is it just a dramatic device or possibly true?


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