Black Watch, a Scottish creation imported to DC’s Shakespeare Theatre (through October 7), tells the story of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as one recent sordid chapter in the story of the iconic Black Watch regiment. It starts out asking what it was like to fight in the military–but ends up asking what it was like to join the military.
It’s a kinetic, surreal, self-aware, and thoroughly researched show, which combines dance, song, and acting. An actual Iraqi is mentioned once, I think; mostly Iraqis are treated as projection screens. An embedded journalist speculates that porn on tanks might “play out” badly “in the Islamic world,” and a soldier’s reply suggests that it’s really more the bombing than the porn that bothers people, but both of them are speaking about imagined Iraqis rather than known ones.
All of these characteristics are by now fairly typical of Iraq/Afghanistan artwork. The guilty conscience of the civilian and the creepily reverent, grabby longing to hear war stories; the technique of using dance to interrupt “prose” staging, suggesting the absurdity of military life and the interruptions of violence; the ostentatious research; the lack of interest in the lives and stories of Iraqis–all of that comes with the war-theater territory. Time Stands Still and Home of the Soldier each had some of these elements, for example, although Black Watch is better than both of them.
It’s framed as the story of a researcher meeting and interviewing a bunch of crass and damaged ex-soldiers in a pub, so there’s a lot of self-consciousness about civilians as the audience of war. (There’s a really sharp little bit where the Scottish soldiers stand around and watch the Americans blowing a town to hell, spectating and Monday-morning quarterbacking somebody else’s war even while they’re in the middle of their own.) There are some fierce insights I haven’t seen elsewhere, like the way the standard-issue military cynicism can become a way of justifying war rather than challenging it: When the military thoroughly mistreats its soldiers one of them responds blackly, “If you canna take a joke don’t f—ing join.” The cynicism gets turned against the possibility of change, like building a gallows out of gallows humor.
Where Black Watch really surpasses other similar works, I think, is in the way it depicts the glamor of war. Other bitter artworks have noted the contrast between the glorious imagery and the gore. But Black Watch tries to make the audience feel the soul-stirring call of war-songs, while simultaneously indicting those forms of folk tradition and art as one of the engines of modern war. Toward the end a soldier asks why they all joined. “Maybe we’re just f—in’ stupid. Maybe we just liked f—-in’ fighting.” The play, though, suggests that they were called as much by tradition and glamor, the old proud songs, as by those baser motives. (Is it anti-American to suggest that the Marine Corps version of this show would replace traditional Scottish songs and dances with imagery from The Dark Knight Rises?)
There’s no attempt at an alternative, by the way, no attempt to make pacifism or any form of civilian life look beautiful. The only civilian we see is the theater researcher and I do not think anyone would be wooed by his dark glamor. This may be an unfair generalization, but my impression is that a lot of what we might think of as contemporary “anti-war” art or pop culture–movies, TV–is actually more like the soldier’s useful cynicism. It’s unhappy with the military and the wars, but it’s thoroughly uninterested in finding stories which suggest alternatives for anchorless young people seeking an identity.
In the final moments of Black Watch, the music gets so overwhelming that it’s physically painful. It’s just pounding and wailing, as the actors throw themselves around on the stage, and all you want is for the music to stop. When it finally does stop, there’s just a black silence, the end of the play.