- War as Performance: Conflicts in Iraq and Political Theatricality by Lindsey Mantoan, and: Performance in a Militarized Culture ed. by Sara Brady, Lindsey Mantoan
On 9 August 2018, an Israeli airstrike leveled the Said al-Mishal Center, destroying the heart of Gaza City’s theatre and dance world. The bombing was one of many outrages that upended the life of Palestinians following the start of the 2018 Great March of Return. Prominent voices in theatre from around the world swiftly condemned the attack; meanwhile, the Israeli Defense Forces justified their assault by erroneously claiming the building was a terrorist headquarters used by Hamas “for military purposes” (in Balousha and Holmes 2018). For most people, a theatre would seem a surprising military target; but for Palestinians, no infrastructure that supports their lives and livelihoods is beyond the threat of ruin. The Said al-Mishal Center’s destruction is just one example of the violent proximity between war and performance today.
To track other such relations of war to performance is the shared project of Lindsey Mantoan’s War as Performance and the collection of essays Mantoan has edited together with Sara Brady, Performance in a Militarized Culture. Some of the connections between war and performance these books trace are expected, such as how artists make theatre in response to war or how ensembles cope when displaced by war. The books tackle a wide range of other concerns as well, from the performance metaphors that hawkish politicians deploy when waging war to the [End Page 182] military technologies, like drones, that theatre artists increasingly use. But whereas Mantoan’s monograph concentrates almost exclusively on the most recent Iraq War, the 20 chapters that comprise Performance in a Militarized Culture cover an international assortment of conflicts, regions, and histories, using diverse methodologies including ethnography, archival work, and live performance analysis. Despite their differences, both books understand war to be simultaneously a performative process that shapes our world in globally uneven ways, as well as a performance in itself that relies on tactics of summoning and witnessing indebted to theatre.
Mantoan’s War as Performance emphasizes this claim nowhere more so than in her opening chapter on “the dramaturgy of the [Iraq] war” (20). Here she examines the public performances that US politicians devised to rouse the world to war and the actions that millions of people around the world performed to protest the invasion. The fact that the start of the Iraq War was not inaugurated by a performative declaration of war made it necessary, Mantoan argues, for George W. Bush’s government to find other ways of staging its launch. Colin Powell’s infamous presentation before the United Nations in February 2003 about Saddam Hussein’s elusive weapons of mass destruction exemplifies the theatrical lengths the Bush regime went to when making (up) the case for invasion, all of which required “careful attention to costuming, blocking, and the mise-en-scène” (30). According to Mantoan, Powell was a “method actor” directed by the Bush administration to follow a script he himself knew was full of “plot holes” and which demanded international audiences suspend their “disbelief” (36, 37). At times Mantoan stretches “the metaphor of theatre” (30) to the point where theatrical punning risks compromising analytical clarity. And yet, her commitment to a theatrical lens for studying war allows her to copiously map how the US government deployed artifice to make the war real. The Bush administration had every aspect of the dramatic setup for invading Iraq covered: “All that was missing was a resolution” (30).
Mantoan turns in her next two chapters to the ways that theatre responded to this war. Like scholars such as James Harding (2007) and Richard Schechner (2009), she insists that the Iraq War prompted nothing like the “aesthetic revolution” in theatre that the Vietnam War ostensibly did; instead...