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the complete review - drama
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- Stuff Happens was first performed at the National Theatre in London on 1 September 2004 in a production directed by Nicholas Hytner
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B+ : familiar material, effective presentation
See our review for fuller assessment.
Almost all favourable -- and neither art nor agitprop
From the Reviews:
- "Except for the slightly sententious and uninteresting final speech by an Iraqi, Stuff Happens is a play, not a polemic. (...) I like the way Hare scarcely touches on the inner life of his characters - their marriages, their families, their private dreams and wounds. This is an austere play, about the austere choices of politics. It looks unsentimentally at what happens when stuff happens." - Charles Moore, Daily Telegraph
- "For now, the playwright has done well for giving the public persona of Dubya an added and unforeseen dimension, even if Stuff Happens remains too hidebound by recent history to make the imaginative leap into art." - The Economist
- "David Hare's Stuff Happens has already become a chewed-over public event. But, after attending its Olivier press night, it also strikes me as a very good, totally compelling play: one that may not contain a vast amount of new information but that traces the origins of the Iraq war, puts it in perspective and at the same time astutely analyses the American body politic. (...) Hare avoids the trap of agitprop by cannily subverting the play's anti-war bias. (...) One comes out enriched and better informed." - Michael Billington, The Guardian
- "Hare's embrace of ambiguity is welcome; and as a demonstration of his grasp of the issues and his ability to empathise even with those whose views he finds obnoxious, Stuff Happens is impressive. But as drama, as a narrative that engages and convinces, it is only intermittently successful." - Robert Hanks, The Independent
- "Yet beyond its inspired premise, and the crisp aplomb of Sullivanís production, Stuff Happens is a catalogue of disappointments. Hare wanted to show how Bush decided to invade Iraq and why Blair chose to follow him. Except for a few last-minute addenda, that means the story stops three years ago, before Abu Ghraib, Plamegate, and the other calamities of the occupation. The playís action has been, as they say, overtaken by events." - Jeremy McCarter, New York
- "Stuff Happens is more an indictment than a play. (...) Most of the actors, however, cannot rise above the smugness and caricature in the writing." - Howard Kissel, New York Daily News
- "While we all know what's happened since, Stuff Happens is a riveting piece of theater that well justifies the playwright's description of it as a 'history play.' (...) What makes it work as drama rather than mere agitprop is the playwright's ability to render these events with clarity and dramatic force." - Frank Scheck, New York Post
- "The play now seems less arrogant, animated history book with a fixed agenda than a fluid public speculation -- a collective work of imagination that attempts to grasp how and why an unnecessary and unwinnable war was allowed to happen." - Ben Brantley, The New York Times
- "Hare refuses to turn Stuff Happens into a jamboree of self-righteousness. (...) By making ambivalence manifest, Stuff Happens shows an admirable maturity. Hare is looking for complexity, not self-congratulation, and an inquiry that is history, not agitprop" - John Lahr, The New Yorker
- "This is a hugely ambitious play, but in its scale and scope -- not in its ideas about the medium. As political theatre, it compromises. The characters -- except for two, Colin Powell and Tony Blair -- are sketched and don't develop. (...) Does the play work ? Public interest in it is enormous, and gun-jumping reviews have filled the papers. But the audience seemed to leave the theatre feeling slightly unfulfilled. In spite of all its wit, this play lacks the tautness and structural boldness of David Hare's best work." - Neal Ascherson, The Observer
- "Perhaps Hare's greatest achievement is to take all this deadly seriously, to admit all these points of view, without sacrificing either the play's barreling dramatic momentum or its often wickedly pointed humor. It's almost enough to make you wish governments put dramatists on the payroll. For what Hare has done with Stuff Happens is to lay bare this momentous political event with more circumspection and moral acuity than do most of the talking heads on either side of the debate." - Rob Kendt, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Unfortunately, Stuff Happens is the real McCoy: a gripping, thought-provoking piece of political theatre. (...) In essence, David Hare has taken a mountain of material and boiled it down into a riveting, three-hour docudrama about the political shenanigans leading up to the War in Iraq. (...) Stuff Happens is not The Crucible. It won't be revived in 10 years time, let alone 100. Nevertheless, it's a marvellously entertaining tour de horizon, a work of epic sweep that manages to contain an enormous amount of recent history within its folds, and is, by some margin, the best attack on Bush and Blair I've seen in the theatre so far." - Toby Young, The Spectator
- "The driving force of the play is in fact the articulation not of morality, but of power. (...) Power is the only pure ideal expressed in war, Hare seems to imply, and the only one fully examined in his play. I didn't expect to find this at the heart of Stuff Happens, but perhaps it isn't so much a political play as a play about politicians - an engrossing, dynamic presentation of the political process with all its frustrated intentions and unrealized ambitions." - Nicholas Hiley, Times Literary Supplement
- "Still, although the piece remains an absorbing peek into the sober conference rooms of American power, it must be acknowledged that time, the calcification of public opinion and a preoccupation with other political matters -- such as choosing the next president -- sap it of some immediacy." - Peter Marks, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
In an Author's Note David Hare writes that Stuff Happens "is surely a play, not a documentary", an almost necessary reminder given how many of the lines repeat words spoken by the actual, historical actors, words that ring very familiar.
Carefully researched, and confident that: "Nothing in the narrative is knowingly untrue", Hare's play certainly feels documentary in character.
The title is taken from Donald Rumsfeld's infamous comments made shortly after the fall of Baghdad in the spring of 2003.
Hare has the words repeated right at the beginning of the play and, given how the situation has developed since Rumsfeld made his comments, they are now even more disturbing and powerful:
I've seen the pictures.
I've seen those pictures.
I could take pictures in any city in America.
Think what's happened in our cities when we've had riots, and problems, and looting.
Stuff happens !
But in terms of what's going on in that country, it is a fundamental misunderstanding to see those images over and over and over again of some buy walking out with a vase and say, 'Oh, my goodness, you didn't have a plan.'
They know what they're doing, and they're doing a terrific job.
And it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.
They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that's what's going to happen there.
Yet the disconnect from reality, the complete misunderstanding of what is going on in the country and what the United States (and, to a much lesser extent, its military allies) wrought on display here is, in a way, misleading.
The focus of Hare's play is on what led to war, and far from the delusional mischaracterization of a situation and wishful thinking Rumsfeld offers here, Hare shows that the path to war the jr. Bush administration took was a coldly and carefully calculated one, 'facts' shaped and sold for a single purpose, truth an irrelevancy.
The figure Rumsfeld has become -- his words now read simply as those of a maniac, desperately clinging to an illusion that was clearly false in 2003 (and is even more obviously so in 2005) -- differs sharply from his role as one of the men who did have a 'plan', practically from day one (and saw it as realisable from 11 September 2001, at the latest).
(It was, of course, not much of a plan -- beyond the toppling of Saddam Hussein.)
Early on Hare introduces the main players in his huge cast of characters, the figures -- including Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Kofi Annan, and Hans Blix -- very briefly stepping forward and summarily introduced.
All remain familiar from the news reports, so the few words about each are (fortunately) not defining, but rather a reminder, as well as a clue how exactly Hare sees and will utilise them.
(Hare can be unkind and ride roughshod -- Cheney is introduced with, among other things, a memo in which he addresses a White House (bathroom) plumbing problem from 1974; if that were are all there was on offer, one could accuse Hare of being unfair, but given that Cheney (like all the others) is such a well-known figure it can pass.)
Hare then traces the path to invasion, hopping along in short scenes towards the inevitable (and making clear from early on that it was inevitable).
The real figures make the familiar statements, but there are also some (believable) behind-the-scenes recreations.
Nameless actors also guide some of the action, and there are a few separate monolgues (a 'Palestinian Academic', an 'Iraqi Exile') adding texture and background.
The main purpose of Stuff Happens is to trace that path to war.
Hare is fairly judicious in the material he uses, though he has made some interesting choices in shaping it.
Conniving president Bush is clearly the bad guy, while Tony Blair is given perhaps more credit than he is due (and certainly shown to repeatedly be the victim of Bush's weasely maneuvers).
Hare certainly makes Colin Powell a more heroic figure than he deserves to be; a voice of wisdom and restraint, Hare ultimately can't completely reconcile what he's built up with Powell's complicity in events, especially in the infamous and outrageous speech before the United Nations that ultimately destroyed any credibility he may have had left.
Hare allows Powell to be the administration's lone voice of reason for much of the play, while also (correctly) acknowledging Powell's complete allegiance (or rather: subservience) to it; as is, the sudden transition -- Hare writes simply that: "Powell is prevailed upon to make a presentation to the UN" -- is dramatically unconvincing, a too-sudden about-face of this supposed moral and rational figure.
(Hare presumably didn't have space for it here, but the corruption of Powell -- and how else can one term it ? -- is among the interesting stories that remain to be told.)
The story of how the United States went to war (and suckered some allies into going along with it) is well worth revisiting, despite being so familiar.
Hare's play is not a comprehensive treatment, and not an objective one (Blair and Powell get off much too easy, for example, and the jr. Bush remains a bit too distant and simplistically drawn), but a useful reminder and starting point.
It covers all the important bases -- and it's also fairly compelling theatre.
Unwilling to admit to practically any of the many mistakes that were (and contiue to be) made, a complete absence of accountability still accepted by the American people, lessons have evidently not yet been learnt -- but Stuff Happens (and similar re-examinations of events) are a necessary and useful first step.
With its very large cast of characters (and many meaty roles) Stuff Happens lends itself to school drama productions.
One hopes that high schools all across America will perform it.
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Other books by David Hare under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Drama under review
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About the Author:
English playwright David Hare was born in 1947.
He has written many plays and screenplays and won numerous prizes.
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© 2005-2014 the complete review
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