- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

We know what to expect from the literati who make up the north London-north Oxford axis of banality, but if you want to know how wide the gulf between America and Middle England has now become, it is worth pondering the words of Lt. Col. Tim Collins. The nearest thing Britain has to a Gulf War II hero — he thundered into the headlines last year after making a stirring eve-of-battle speech to his troops — Col. Collins was one of a group of VIPs given the opportunity to review David Hare’s new play, “Stuff Happens,” in the pages of the Guardian newspaper.

Regular readers may already be aware that I have a low opinion of the writer acclaimed as Britain’s greatest political dramatist. Where admirers hear a penetrating voice of conscience, I can only detect a relentlessly self-satisfied purveyor of cliches. A hero to the left, Sir David has the conventional wisdom down to a tee. More remarkably still, this restless foe of the class system has even managed to reconcile his radical conscience with a knighthood from Her Majesty.

Predictably enough, Sir David was one of the fiercest opponents of the Iraq war. He may have lost that particular battle, but “Stuff Happens,” a blend of reportage and freely imagined behind-the-scenes conversations depicting the build up to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, gives him his chance to settle scores with Tony Blair and George W. Bush.

The president emerges — surprise, surprise — as a simple-minded cipher, although one with a measure of good ol’ boy charm. Mr. Blair, sweaty and shifty, comes off worse, although he is a study in elegance in comparison with Dick Cheney, who as the BBC arts pundit Tom Paulin approvingly observed, comes across as a “Stalinist monster.” If Mr. Cheney is Wyoming’s Uncle Joe, Paul Wolfowitz is his bloodthirsty Lavrenti Beria, eager to dispatch a hapless Hans Blix across a negotiating table.

And how did Col. Collins respond to all this? Did he walk out at the intermission? Did he wave his pistol in the air and demand a rewrite? Not at all. In fact he was, slightly to his surprise, impressed by the “thought-provoking spectacle” (although it looked to me more like two dozen men in gray suits aimlessly milling about in circles, spouting newspaper cuttings).

As Col. Collins wrote in the Guardian: “The greatest strength of the play was the question I came away with: was the attack on Saddam’s regime a crucial intervention or an outlet for George Bush’s angst over 9/11? If it was the latter and the other players cooperated, then it is tragic.

“In some respects an informal scene at the Bush ranch, with the president surrounded by his closest advisers, had echoes of Kenneth Branagh’s playing of Heydrich [in the movie “Conspiracy”] at the convivial villa luncheon in Berlin, where the fate of six million Jews was decided in the Final Solution. If this was truly the case regarding Iraq — and the audience and history must decide — then it is an action worthy of Saddam himself.”

I hesitate to take issue with an experienced soldier: Col. Collins knows whereof he speaks when it comes to the realities of the battlefield. But for an educated person to draw parallels between the White House and the Wannsee conference shows how low debate has sunk on this side of the water.

“Stuff Happens” does contain one genuinely arresting scene, in which one of the protagonists abruptly poses the question: Would the chattering classes have been happy to stand by and do nothing if Iraq, instead of being a far-away country of which we hear too much, had been nestling in the center of Europe?

For a moment, the audience was stung into reflecting on its own prejudices; the smug chortling at Mr. Blair and all those dimwitted Republicans temporarily fell silent. But the script soon lapses back into bien-pensant complacency. After three hours of sermonizing, I staggered out into the cool South Bank evening, my eyes glazed.

It was particularly frustrating that, whatever your views on the war (and I still think the Victor Davis Hansons of this world will be proved right in the end), this would have been an ideal opportunity for the National Theatre to stage a provocative play of ideas.

After all, as Mark Gerson has pointed out in his superb 1997 book “The Neconservative Vision,” the centrality of ideology is the movement’s most important principle. As a neocon supporter myself, I would not have been all that offended if “Stuff Happens” had presented Mr. Wolfowitz and Co. in an unflattering light, provided it had at least paid them the courtesy of taking them seriously. Sadly, Sir David Hare is more interested in telling us, once more, what a wonderfully empathetic and omniscient human being he is.

Did he tell me anything I did not already know? Well, how about this. During the Afghan campaign, the British were, apparently, convinced they were on the verge of capturing Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, only for Tony Blair to discover, during a transatlantic conversation with George W. Bush, that the U.S. president felt it would suit his nefarious interests better if bin Laden were allowed to go free.

This was news to me, but perhaps I have not been reading the papers closely enough. Sir David does not list his sources in the play’s program. Could he, I wonder, have been lifting stories from the collected works of Michael Moore?

In a busy month for anti-war activists, the other big theatrical opening here was “Embedded,” movie star Tim Robbins’ hatchet job on the neoconservatives in particular and the journalistic profession in general. Still feeling lobotomized after “Stuff Happens,” I decided not to bother going. I know all I need to know about Mr. Robbins’ worldview, and Terry Teachout’s damning Wall Street Journal review of the New York production had given me ample insights into the Hollywood activist’s expertise as a playwright.

On the other hand, the BBC’s world affairs editor, John Simpson, clearly has a much higher opinion of Mr. Robbins’ conspiracy theories. Not content with writing an admiring newspaper profile of Mr. Robbins earlier this year, he provides a glowing recommendation in the play’s program: “You’ll find more truth about the war on this stage,” he declares, “than you will in most newspapers.”

There speaks the voice of the new, improved BBC.

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London.

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