At the college I attended, history majors were required to write a thesis in their senior year. I was interested at the time in early colonial (16th century) Latin America, and in particular the attempts by Spaniards and native peoples to make sense of each other’s cultures in their own cultural terms. (I was very impressed by Inga Clendinnen’s study  of this process in 16th century Yucatan, and had written a paper on Diego de Landa.) As I cast about for a thesis topic, I decided to write about the mysterious Taki Onqoy  rebellion in Peru.
But as I researched the rebellion (or religious movement – there’s still debate about the degree to which it was one and the degree to which it was the other, or whether that distinction is even meaningful), I became more and more aware that I really didn’t understand anything about it – that, indeed, nobody understood that much about it, the main reason being that our source materials were mostly Spanish ecclesiastical investigation records, and the Spanish didn’t understand what they themselves were investigating. At one point, I came upon a modern paper that declared that all previous interpretations of the Onqoy were incorrect because they were premised on the assumption that the rebellion was motivated by Inca revanchism, whereas in fact (the paper claimed), the religious roots of the rebellion lay in pre-Inca astrology, and a revival of practices that the Incas themselves had superceded when they unified the Andes. Well, upon reading this claim, which I had absolutely no basis for evaluating positively or negatively, I realized that I was going to get nowhere with my attempts to make sense of the Taki Onqoy. I resigned myself to writing a shorter paper about the difficulties of drawing conclusions from such source materials, and switched to a different topic (and a different continent and millennium to boot) for my senior thesis.
Taking in the current production  of Donald Margulies’s play, Time Stands Still, at Steppenwolf’s intimate upstairs theatre, I was reminded of my undergraduate dilemma. Not to disparage the play, which I thought was extremely finely crafted, nor even less the production, directed with great sensitivity by Austin Pendleton (eschewing the easy resort to satire that I am told marked the New York production) and designed with an exquisite attention to detail (I think I’ve actually been in that apartment in Williamsburg) by Walt Spangler, but there was something fundamentally unsatisfyingly critical and distanced about the experience that reminded me very much of my own struggles to see a world so far removed from my own, and through a glass darkly.
Time Stands Still is a drama about two couples and their relationship to each other and to the war in Iraq (and overseas dramas in general). The principal character, Sarah Goodwin (played by Ally Murphy with an expressive reserve reminiscent of Joan Allen) is a photojournalist who has just returned home from Iraq after being seriously injured, and nearly killed, by a roadside IED. The other characters are her longtime boyfriend and journalistic collaborator, James Dodd (Randall Newsome), her editor, Richard Ehrlich (Francis Guinan), and his new girlfriend and later second wife, Mandy Bloom (Kristina Valada-Viars).
But there’s also a fifth character, Tariq, Sarah’s Iraqi interpreter and, for a time, lover, who was killed by the same blast that nearly killed her. Tariq’s memory haunts Sarah, and, as a symbol, haunts the play, the purported locus of meaning that, like my Taqi Onqoy, ultimately becomes more the basis of hermeneutic dispute than a real source of understanding, for the characters on stage or for the audience.
The four characters we see, though fully rounded and real (Donald Margulies is almost Chekhovian in his skill at dramatic portraiture) also stand for a range of possible responses to far-away horrors (for which those on stage may or may not be understood to have some responsibility – we’re talking about four Americans and the horrors of Iraq, after all). At one extreme is Sarah, the photojournalist, has devoted her life to bringing news of these horrors home to a cynical and jaded American readership. Her boyfriend, who has begun to desire a more settled life and who fears for her safety (and who returned early from Iraq after a nervous breakdown – thereby making possible the affair with Tariq), semi-accuses her at one point of being an adrenaline junkie, but that’s not quite right. She doesn’t live for the thrill; she lives for the sense of meaning that she gets from her work. She cannot, she feels, stand idly by; she has to do something. Bringing the news home is what she can do – what she is good at doing.
Sarah derives meaning from being involved in something objectively important. She complains that James is wasting his time with a “trivial” book about horror films – fake horror created for entertainment – when there are real horrors going on in the world, and at the end of the play she leaves him, and the prospect of domesticity, to return to the war zones that he has abandoned. At the other extreme is Mandy Bloom, Richard’s new girlfriend, designated “lightweight” (though Richard is the real lightweight), an obvious “midlife crisis” relationship who turns out to be a considerably more serious commitment. She is, from a moral perspective, the localist. At the end of the play, she gives up her “trivial” job as an event planner to devote herself to motherhood; what could be more important? And early on in the play, she reacts with horror when she observes Richard and Sarah going through the gruesome photos of her most recent trip. How can she just take these pictures and not do something to help – get medical help, comfort the bereaved; something. How can she be so dispassionate? Sarah explains: she helps by doing her job, and her job requires dispassion. But that’s no kind of answer to Mandy. What kind of person wants to numb herself that way, even for an ostensibly good cause?
And how can we know the cause is that good? Later on in the play, when Richard finally admits to James that he has cut his piece on Iraqi refugees, and James explodes with fury about how important that piece is, Mandy is utterly dismissive: “they already had a downer article for that issue.” We can take this as another sign of her shallowness – except that she’s pretty representative of the intended audience for the news pieces James and Sarah are producing. If this is how their audience reacts, then just how much “good” are they really doing? How different is James from the people who put on a play about suffering Iraqis that James ridicules for making the audience feel good simply by having gone to a play, even though that action does absolutely nothing to change the situation in Iraq?
James’s bitter criticism doesn’t just redound upon himself; it redounds upon the author of the play. It was in the midst of this exchange, James critiquing the play about Iraq, that I realized just how “meta” this play was. It wasn’t just the obvious irony that we were watching a play about Iraq, so James is, on some level, criticizing us. Margulies was laying bare his own dilemma. How can you write about something like the Iraqi experience in a way that is at all meaningful? What can the audience possibly take home that will be of lasting meaning to us? Any such play, by definition, isn’t going to be about us, the audience. To make it about us, it needs to move us to action, which, in turn (if we are to agree with Joyce) it to make it a species of pornography. If, on the other hand, it moves us to contemplation, we can, in the end, only contemplate our the unbridgeable chasm of our remove.
So he wrote a play about that remove, and the results are fascinating but unsatisfying in the same way that I found the Taki Onqoy to be. There’s no answer, ultimately, to the question of how we “should” respond to far-from-home horrors. There’s a superficial satisfaction in both Mandy’s and Sarah’s answers, but only a superficial one. None of the criticisms of Sarah’s outlook are ever actually answered – her only answer is that she can’t accept any other answer than to go back to the zone, and we believe her. But the horrors haven’t gone away just because Mandy is good is not looking at them. Ultimately, the play has no forward movement: a problem is presented, and in the end the problem is the same as it was at the beginning, but the various characters have proceeded along their inevitable paths in their relationship to that problem. Their relationships to, in this case, Iraq, are about them, and the differences in their behavior are about the differences between them, and nothing to do with some kind of view of what is right or what is wrong.
Which brings me back to Tariq. Sarah’s affair with Tariq comes up over and over between her and James, but not because he won’t let go of it – she’s the one who holds on, who demands that the experience be accorded some transcendent meaning. He dismisses the affair as just one of those things that happens; she’s insulted, declares that she really loved him. Okay: but he’s dead. She’ll get over it. However intense, it was brief, and it’s over. And anyway, he wasn’t so much a person as a symbol of Iraq – she was in love with the Iraqi experience, a kind of colonialism of the left. She’s insulted again: James is the one who’s a racist, who can’t accept the idea that she could really have fallen in love with an Iraqi. Okay: fine: it was real. But it wasn’t central to their experience of the Iraq War. When James writes the copy for her book of photos, he’s perfectly justified in leaving out painful personal stuff that has nothing really to do with the subject. But no! She’s insulted again – Tariq was absolutely central to her experience in Iraq; her book is a memorial to him more than anything else; how could he whitewash Tariq out of the story? What is he – a member of the Politburo?
It’s not so much a case of the lady protesting too much, though it is that, too. What’s going on is that Sarah desperately wants to feel real, for her life to be about her, without also having to acknowledge its triviality in some objective sense. Whatever her experience was with Tariq, it was real, but it was also connected with that world away from her that has always, to her, seemed more real, more important, than the world at home. To deny its importance is to acknowledge the unbridgeable nature of that remove between us and them. She’ll sacrifice anything not to have to acknowledge that.
But we have to acknowledge it. We have no idea who Tariq is. We have learned nothing about Iraq. What we’ve learned is that it’s not clear how it would matter if we did learn anything about Iraq. Which is something to think about, but is a rather flat thing to be feeling as we leave the theatre, rather empty of catharsis.
I wonder what Brecht  would have made of it.