Special Topics in Genre: Political Drama

English 390-5.01

"Stuff happens . . . And it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." This was a statement made by Donald Rumsfeld after the pillaging of Baghdad in April 2003, and the play that quotes it imagines the political decision- making process that led to the invasion of Irak. Like other contemporary plays we will read in this class, David Hare’s Stuff Happens capitalizes on the enduring affinity between theater and politics, bringing on stage international leaders, journalists, ordinary citizens and refugees who compel audiences to think critically about the events, crises, and ideological conflicts that have shaped our world: the war in Afghanistan, the Iraqi conflict, the Syrian refugee crisis, Israeli-Palestinian tensions, dictatorships, and terrorist attacks. These plays—variously reviewed as “quick-witted” and gripping, humorous and shocking, “sparkling and combustible,” many of them Pulitzer Prize winners—bring to life and put human faces on the most devastating conflicts of recent decades, in an awe-inspiring orchestration of voices that unsettle the reader and spectator into an unshakable discomfort: What is freedom, and what is its relationship to responsibility? How can we think about the refugee crisis in terms both humane and realistic? Why do people resort to terrorism, and what is the ethics of giving a voice to those who commit such crimes? How can we put in perspective the contemporary world, and what wisdom do we gain from contemplating the broader stage of human civilizations, or longer histories of migration?

Antigone, the famous play by Sophocles, and its re-enactment by two cellmates in a South African prison in Athol Fugard’s The Island (1973), will immerse us in questions of citizenship, family obligations, discrimination, and the demands of the law in circumstances inimical to individual freedom; George Wolfe’s The Colored Museum (1988), a highly humorous satire about Afro-American history, invites us to buckle up our shackles on the Celebrity Slaveship, and refrain from drumming and singing. Also exploring relative privilege and sentimentalism, Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul (2001) is a soulful engagement with the war in Afghanistan. Diplomacy, political machinations, and asymmetries of power are at the center of Hare’s Stuff Happens, and of J. T. Rogers’ most recent play Oslo (2017), humorously dramatizing behind-the-scenes negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Robin Soans, Talking to Terrorists (2006) is based on interviews with people from around the world who have engaged in terrorism, while Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning play Disgraced (2013) explores race and religion in America, freedom of speech and political correctness, racial prejudice surrounding Muslims, questions about Islam and Judaism, the state of humanity today. Finally, we’ll discuss Kay Adshead’s The Bogus Woman (2001), based on hundreds of stories of refugees seeking asylum in the UK, and Amir Nizar Zuabi’s Oh My Sweet Land (2014), which puts a human face on the Syrian refugee crisis.

This seminar is thematically connected to the Representing Migration Lab hosted by the English Department. It will also feature the screening of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 dystopian thriller Children of Men, set in 2027, an age of human infertility and uncontrollable immigration. Requirements: two close readings (webposts), oral presentation, a short performance or film review, one short paper (5 pages), and a final paper (10-12 pages), that we’ll workshop in class prior to final submission.