Writing Plays about the Military

Posted by Tammy Ryan, May 16, 2013 1 comment

Tammy Ryan Tammy Ryan

“Every artist worth a damn in this country was terribly opposed to that war….We formed sort of a laser beam of protest.  Every painter, every writer, every stand-up comedian, every composer, every novelist, every poet aimed in the same direction. Afterwards, the power of this incredible new weapon dissipated. Now it’s like a banana cream pie three feet in diameter dropped from a stepladder four feet high…”     

-  Kurt Vonnegut http://progressive.org/mag_intv0603

It’s been over forty years since the Vietnam War, the time of protests in the streets underscored by the visceral antiwar response that erupted from artists in the 60s and 70s. Now at the end of a decade of war, critics have complained about the dearth of new American plays about Iraq and Afghanistan, but it isn’t because they aren’t being written. Many American playwrights have been taking this subject on since the first Gulf War and while war stories still feel very much part of the male mythology grab bag, women playwrights, such as Naomi Wallace, Karen Malpede, Arlene Hutton, E. M. Lewis,  Andrea Stolowitz, Jami Brandli, Caridad Svich, and many others are writing plays that dig into this grab bag in personal and political ways.

Given the climate for politically minded plays in this country, I asked myself as I was about to write a play about rape in the military: why would I do it? Plays take a long time to research, write and get produced.  I was looking at a commitment of three to five years maybe longer and I had a number of roadblocks, not the least of which was the fact that I knew next to nothing about what it was like to be a woman in the military. What do I have to say – and maybe more importantly what good does it do? Given the coterie nature of the theater in this country, we often feel like we’re preaching to the choir. 

So what do our voices add to the narrative as artists outside the military experience? Do we offer protest, criticism or simply acknowledgement and does any of it make a difference especially when it’s so hard to get any play produced, much less one that might criticize the government? If a playwright writes a play about war in a forest and no one hears it does it make an impact? I’ve been described by a local critic as a writer who looks at history through a microscopic lens. At the time this was not meant to be a compliment, but it’s true. As a playwright and a mother my way into this play about war and its aftermath was through the lens of being a parent.

The inspiration came to me on a fall afternoon in 2007. As I was waiting outside my daughter’s school, a classmate’s Mom stood next to me in combat boots, desert storm fatigues, her hair pulled tight in a bun. My first surprise was that she was a Marine in the Reserves (I didn’t know this when we worked together at the book fair a few weeks before) and my second surprise was that she was being deployed to the Middle East. While she wouldn’t be in harm’s way (she said) she would miss the entire nine months of kindergarten. None of us other mothers standing there with her, waiting for our children would be impacted in this way.  Hers was the only family military family and while her child’s classmates drew cards and sent care packages to her during her deployment, she went through this apart from her community. Our ability to look away, to go on with our own lives, made it so.  Around this time, I read an article in New York Times, describing the growing epidemic of rape in the military. Armed with facts and the face of a friend going off to war, I couldn’t turn away.

In the time it has taken me to research, write and develop my play, the documentary The Invisible War, brought this subject to the nation’s attention and directly to Congress affecting policy change in terms of how charges of rape will be dealt with going forward as well as instigating the lifting of the ban on women serving in combat in a remarkably short amount of time. What more can a play do? As playwright Caridad Svich, in an interview in 24 Gun Control Plays says “while a play or poem in and of itself may not effect immediate change, the effort to speak out and up, to raise the voice with power and feeling and artistry and passion, does matter. Otherwise why are we artists? We make things, we throw light on our culture and its troubles because we do think it matters to someone somewhere down the pike….”

With any luck my play Soldier’s Heart will play to audiences in the city where I live. My book fair buddy, now a Captain whose daughter is in the fifth grade with my own, may be seated next to me in the audience. What she thinks will mean more to me than any critic and in talkbacks with audiences the real conversation begins.  In another forty years when someone is looking for the response of today’s artists to these wars, they might find my play alongside the work of other American Playwrights, a choir who added their voices to the (her/his) story we’ll be left with. I have to believe that will have more impact that a banana cream pie.

1 responses for Writing Plays about the Military


May 17, 2013 at 12:46 am

Thanks for this post, Tammy. I've so appreciated the humanity of your plays, and the fierceness of them, as I've begun to become familiar with your work.

I love the Flannery O'Connor quote, "I write to discover what I know." I've often felt that. If I understand something completely, I don't have any need to write about it. It's the things I don't get that haunt me, and what haunts me is what I end up writing about. I've never been in a war. I've never been in the military. But some of the largest questions of our times live in the intersection between the two. Some of my biggest questions. So I've found myself chasing down the answers through writing plays about them.

I guess all of us who write about this must have *some* way in. For you, it was your daughter's classmate's mom. For me, it was my husband, who proudly served four years in the USMC. One of our favorite writing teachers, Ben Masselink, was a Marine, too. My Dad and my uncle served in the Navy. My father in law was a Seabee. Really, where I come from (rural Oregon), a lot of people, mostly men, serve in the military in some capacity. I have a great respect for people who choose this sort of public service, even if I do sometimes have large questions about where they're sent and what's required of them.

But when I've written about war, it has more frequently been from a civilian perspective. Four civilian Westerners held hostage during the war in Iraq. A Cambodian man who is still reeling, forty years later, from the loss of his family to the genocide there. A boy who signs up for the military in the wake of 9/11 and his veteran father, who cannot bear to see him go. And two men on a plane, also after 9/11, whose actions result in the death of a third, but who couldn't not act, not after what had happened to America.

I'm interested in the large, messy, human questions. And in wartime, in all the most difficult of times, we find ourselves wrestling with those questions, like Jacob and his angel.

My favorite short story is "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. My favorite memoir is "Dispatches," by Michael Herr. Both of them seem to ask, "with everything we carry, and everything we've lost, who are we now? I've never been in a war, but still... that is one of *my* fundamental questions.

I have a note taped over my desk. It says, "Keep asking bigger questions, and demanding better answers." I think of it as my Playwright's Job Description. I try to do that when I sit down to write, whatever the topic.

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