Originally published last January.
I have been reading about a recent event that took place in Afghanistan — wondering why it hasn’t raised the same outrage in the U.S. as the Abu Ghraib photographs of a few years ago. There are a few elements of the story that relate it to drama, not the least of which is that the desecration of the corpses of the enemy dead is a driving factor in one of the greatest Greek tragedies as well. Nor have the political and psychological elements that led to Abu Ghraib been explicitly examined by American dramatists. While I can name off the top of my head two or three British dramatists who might explore the dynamics that led to both events, I can name few American dramatists who might do so, and it’s not merely because we are too close in time, as some would have it, to these events. The great American dramatist of the Vietnam War, David Rabe, wrote his fine trilogy of plays about that conflict (The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Sticks and Bones, and Streamers) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the midst of the war, and they remain powerful today. It is also telling that all three of Rabe’s plays are set in the United States, not Vietnam. Rabe’s explorations were incisive examinations of the cultural, social, and psychological cost of the conflict, not only to combatants but on the home front as well. His conclusions were dark, pessimistic, and brutal, resisting easy answers or a twee unwarranted humanistic optimism, and perhaps these are unacceptable qualities in the new play sector today, even as the sector congratulates itself for its cultural relevance and political acumen.
The painful domestic cost of American brutalist colonialism and imperialism were a concern of novelist William Gaddis as well, especially in his 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic, which he discusses in the 1986 interview with Malcolm Bradbury below. A master of dialogue, Gaddis set his novel among five characters in a Hudson River house — the location never extends beyond the confines of the house or its five characters, not unlike many American realist plays — but it describes in intimate detail the means by which the outside world spiritually cripples and physically destroys those in whose name the colonialism and imperialism are being imposed half a world away. The 30-minute interview with Gaddis is a rare treat, and it’s a delight to see the kind of slouched gentlemanliness that is all too rare these days, in the world of literature or anywhere else. I should also note that Gaddis’ The Recognitions and J R are being reissued next month by the Dalkey Archive Press.