September 24th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Telstra sale: not a 'done deal'

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Could Australia cope with a natural disaster?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Are new anti-terror laws good for Australia?

INTELLIGENCE: Past espionage failure spooks US partnership

STRAWS IN THE WIND: New Orleans - a cracked society / Unemployment / Costello's new constituency / Liberal leadership / Potemkin politics

TAIWAN: Taiwan's tax system keeps money in the family

UNITED STATES: Judge Roberts impresses at US Senate hearing

AGRICULTURE: Unbridled globalism harms poorer nations

SPECIAL FEATURE: How the sex industry destroys society (Part 2)

THEATRE: Play's one-sided slant on Bush and the Iraq War

Who is to blame for New Orleans tragedy? (letter)

Tony Blair and the Iraq War (letter)

Family Law's five-fold disaster (letter)

OBITUARY: Frank Rooney - R.I.P.

BOOKS: UNSPEAKABLE: Facing Up To Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror, by Os Guinness

MAKING 'BLACK HARVEST': Warfare, film-making and living dangerously in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

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Play's one-sided slant on Bush and the Iraq War

by Len Phillips (reviewer)

News Weekly, September 24, 2005
Len Phillips reviews Stuff Happens.

Ever hopeful that one day I will be surprised by a play or film that sees the world the way I do, I went along to see Stuff Happens, a bit of live theatre about the origins of the second Iraq War.

After all, we were going to get the exact words spoken by Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rice, Powell and Rumsfeld. It was in particular the opportunity to hear on stage the words of Donald Rumsfeld that drew me along.

Insightful statement

A quotation of his that many have found absurd is one of the most insightful short statements from any political leader of my time:

"As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."

The title of the play is also from Rumsfeld. "Stuff happens" was his response during a press conference after false reports had circulated that the Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad had been looted after the entry of American troops (and looted not by the Americans, mind you, but by the locals).

But transcript is nothing. It's not just what you say but how you say it that matters. Bush has a Texas accent which, to Australian ears, is already halfway to parody. The actor who played the US President looked the part, as did the others, but edged the portrayal well into satire.

Yet when the US Cabinet spoke, I quite liked what I heard. The author chose quotes that really did bring out their intent to anyone with ears to listen. For myself, I had few problem with the statements made by US officials.

The US was worried about Saddam. He was known to have had weapons of mass destruction but would not permit a proper investigation into where they had gone, if they really were gone. The Americans said they were not to be defied on this, and wanted a proper accounting of what he had done. This Saddam had refused to do.

Saddam was known to harbour terrorists and there was evidence of an ambition to develop nuclear weapons. There had been previous UN Security Council resolutions, every one of which he had ignored. To accommodate Tony Blair, the US had gone through the UN again, although it would absorb time and, given the attitude of the French, achieve nothing.


All this was brought out, but always in a cartoonish sort of way. All the heroes were those who tried to stop the American invasion. The villains were those who worried about Saddam and wanted him out.

Much of the play's power obviously comes from the attitudes that one brings along to the theatre beforehand. If you are anti-Bush and anti-War, the play pandered to your every prejudice. As one reviewer put it, it was "the best attack on Bush and Blair I've seen in the theatre so far", and he had seen many.

But it was only after I had left the theatre that it occurred to me just how much the play did depend on the attitudes one had brought along.

There were a couple of scenes of Cabinet meetings, which President Bush commenced by offering a prayer asking God, not for victory or the defeat of America's enemies, but for the wisdom to know what to do and the strength to do it. How this added to the play, other than as a moment of derision designed to pander to the anti-religious views of your typical audience, I could not begin to see.

And then there was this. Midway through the final act, we were again brought into a meeting of the American Cabinet. As it draws to a close, they begin to sing "Amazing Grace", Bush's favourite hymn. It was to me a moment of sublime calm.

But I am me, and I too bring my prejudices into the theatre. I am comforted by the thought that the American Cabinet draws strength from its collective belief in God.

I do not, however, think that was the authorial intent. Everything else was designed as part of a one-way condemnation of Bush and the Iraqi War.

Audience's reaction

My impression on the night was that the Melbourne audience with whom I watched it found it a moment of profound peace in the midst of a play that tried, in every way it could, to show the immorality of the Iraqi War and the people who had caused it to happen.

I cannot tell whether my response was universal. But I will say this. If others found this a moment of high hilarity, as I believe they were meant to, then we are living in dark times, very dark times indeed.

But if that scene was received as it was received by me, then there is still hope for us in the West that we may survive the present assault on our civilisation and values which we yet again find under attack.

- reviewed by Len Phillips

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