- Vietnam Protest Theatre: The Television War on Stage
Norma M. Alter identifies Vietnam protest theatre as a genre according to three characteristics: it is live, it is a protest (unlike other kinds of narratives about the war), and it was made while the war was still being waged. Alter sees this theatre as staging two inter-related protests: one against the war in Vietnam and another against images of that war produced by the mass media. For her the plays are, therefore, an important antecedent to postmodernism, in that they raise crucial questions about complex issues of representation. These questions are, for Alter, particularly relevant to the question of the efficacy of political theatre. If theatre can and must participate in a spectacularized society, how is it to retain its critical edge? Are technologically mediated images a somatic enrichment of theatrical experience or do they anaesthetize the spectator? What happens to theatrical representation when the real becomes indistiguishable from the production of the spectacle and the war in Vietnam becomes one more televisual commodity?
Part I—“Negotiating National History Through Vietnam”—focuses on the comparative documentation of productions from the United States, Britain, Austria, Germany, and France. These include, among others, Megan Terry’s Viet Rock, Daniel Berrigan’s The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Peter Brook’s USA, and Rolf Hochhuth’s Soldiers. Each playwright’s productions, issues, and changing strategies for political theatre are described in detail. According to Alter, “Vietnam” formed a semiotic field within which different nationalities were able to negotiate their own agendas and contestations; she offers a detailed comparison of the ways in which different plays from different countries assign blame for the war.
Part II, “Mis/representing the Inappropriate/d Other,” looks first at the way in which the plays of this genre negotiate the relationship between the representation of horror and the “complex moral issue of responsibility” (111) for that horror; and then at the way in which the plays, in trying to represent the Vietnamese “other,” usually are able to represent her only as an absence or at a moment of total erasure. In Part II, Alter more successfully integrates the documentation of historical performance with a theoretical inquiry into issues of representation and the efficacy of political theatre. Fuck Nam, performed in West Germany, England, and Sweden in 1967, was one of the few plays of the genre which emphasized images of obscene sexuality and behavior. In the British poster for the production, the American flag is coupled with an ejaculating penis. Staged before the atrocities in Vietnam were well-known to the world-wide community, the play is a brutal portrayal of sadistic, bestial American GIs who subjugate the Vietnamese “victim.” The play depicts these soldiers masturbating while watching children die, and raping and sodomizing Vietnamese women in a cafe. It also stages an event from 1965 in which marine troops burned down a village by igniting it with their cigarette lighters. While Alter speculates that these staging strategies and brutality may have overwhelmed Fuck Nam’s political message, she does state that
The historical interest of Fuck Nam goes, however, beyond its formal innovations and its political prescience. It lies mainly in its uncanny vision of the postmodern archetypal “other” in whom coalesce all particular “others”: To be an “other” for Kupferberg is to be taken as an inferior and passively to accept it—in life, in death, and obsessively and submissively, in sex. In sum, a truly inappropriate/d other is felt everywhere in Kupferberg’s sub-missive way of staging Vietnam Protest Theatre—everywhere, that is, in its absence.[129–30]
In “Conclusion: Re-Acting to the Television War,” Alter returns full force to the issues of media and spectacle. She concludes with an analysis of Adrienne Kennedy’s An Evening with Dead Essex, as an exemplary use by the theatre of media production and images. By using a play within a play, Alter says, Kennedy is able to produce a critical perspective on the media represented onstage. It...