Theatre of/and war

The image of a ‘theatre of war’ may have become commonplace by now, but it conveys multiple layers of meaning – many of which accrete around ideas of visuality, spectatorship and performance.   The OED credits the first English-language version to a letter from Winston Churchill, 15 October 1914: ‘ The hand of war will I expect be heavy upon us in the Western Theatre during the next four weeks.’  But this hardly conveys the fecundity of the term, which in any case can be found much earlier in Clausewitz: ‘the space over which war prevails [and which] has its boundaries protected, and thus possesses a kind of independence.’  It’s a labile term too: like the battlefield, the theatre of war has long stopped being the clearly demarcated region envisaged by Clausewitz in the early nineteenth century.

There is also a vital relationship between theatre and war, one which long precedes either of these usages, and Jeanne Colleran‘s  new book from Palgrave Macmillan – due in September – promises to make an important contribution to a growing interdisciplinary debate about that contemporary relationship.  ‘Theatre’ is no more confined to the stage than war is to the battlefield – Frédéric Megret is useful on the latter, though I think his chronology is wrong: the disintegration of the battlefield was surely already in evidence in the First World War – and in relation to the theatrical stagings of war (especially in conflict zones) I’ve particularly enjoyed James Thompson and Jenny Hughes, Performance in Place of War [also Palgrave Macmillan, 2009]. But Theatre and War asks different questions:

How has the media, beginning with the Persian Gulf War, altered political analysis and how has this alteration in turn affected socially-critical art? Jeanne Colleran examines more than forty plays, most of which were written in direct response to the emergent New World Order and the subsequent 1991 war in Iraq as well as to the 9/11 attacks and the retaliatory actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. These works are drawn primarily from the British and American stage – the principal partners in these conflicts. The writers include prominent figures (Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill, Sam Shepard, Tony Kushner, David Hare, Trevor Griffiths, Naomi Wallace, and Neil LaBute), work by theatre groups and artistic directors (San Francisco Mime Troupe, Nicolas Kent and the Tricycle Theatre, and Alan Buchman and Culture Project), and plays by emerging playwrights and by writers who work primarily as journalists or in other media (Anne Nelson, Lawrence Wright, George Packer, Robin Soans, and others).

You can read the opening chapter – Spectator of Calamitieshere.


Introduction: Spectator of Calamities

1  Five Political Crises: The New Semiotic Environment

2  Turning History into Happening: The First Iraq War

3  The Persians

4  From the Ruins of 9/11: Grief and Terror

5  Facing Terror

6  War Documents

7  Bodies Count: In/Visible Scandal at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib

8  Afghanistan and “the Spectacle of Our Suffering”

Incidentally, the Dictionary of War project includes “theatre of operations” rather than theatre of war, but there architect and artist Celine Condorelli‘s imag(in)ing explores several relations between theatre and war, paying close attention to the ‘set up’ that enframes the taking of place that is war – ‘the place where people are taught to pay attention’ – and thus to the narratives that are at once released and confined by what she treats as its ‘architectural’ staging.  Architecture is important to her proposal, I think, not only through its materialities but through its imaginative, projective dimension – the sense of what will unfold in (what can unfold in) this space.  So too, perhaps, with war.