When Shakespeare spun his tales of real wars, he wrote about kings, princes and rogues and the complex shifting of allegiances between them. Today, war is no less common or brutal, but it is different. When Bill Massolia saw the HBO documentary Last Letters Home, he saw a different side of war, but one that was no less about classic Shakepearean concerns.
"These letters help define the good qualities any person or American would strive for," says Massolia. "Patriotism, community, courage."
Inspired by the HBO film, the artistic director of Chicago's Griffin Theatre spent six month poring through letters written by or to soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He found other sources in books and newspapers, as well as soldiers' Facebook and MySpace pages, and pieced together a play. Letters Home would eventually be nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award for best new play. It comes to Madison this Tuesday for one performance at the Overture Center.
Since its original Chicago run last year, Griffin has been touring the production around the country. Massolia says the reactions have been considerably different, depending on when or where the piece has been performed.
"It depends a lot on what filter each audience member sees the play through," he explains. "Some people think it's a pro-war piece, others think it is an anti-war piece."
But Massolia wrote Letters Home without a political agenda in mind. Instead, he wanted to "put a human face" on the war. For him, it's a side of conflict that is rarely seen today, now that the armed forces recruit from specific sectors of society.
"Since we've shifted to an all-volunteer service," he explains, "ninety-five percent of America is not directly affected by the war. The direct cultural imprint of the war on most Americans is negligible. I just wanted to shine a light on the individual persons involved in this story."
Not surprisingly, the play inspires lively discussion (the theater holds post-performance talk-backs after every show). Last year, Massolia says, most of the audience had some military background or military connections, and seemed quite angry about the war. "It will be interesting to see what people are feeling today," he says.
Massolia is particularly interested in the reactions of high school students - those who have a particular stake in the war by virtue of their age. He got one vote of confidence from a student in Florida: "This is the first play we've gone to as a class that I didn't fall asleep at."
He laughs, "Kids are funny that way."
Soldier, traffic cop
Most Iraqis appear to live in either poverty or...how can I say it...even worse poverty. This is a situation we are trying to help. Despite their poverty, however, generosity and hospitality are strong characteristics of the Iraqi people. During a recent mission, a farmer brought out a pot of tea for myself and the soldiers in my vehicle, complete with saucers, tea cups, teaspoons and sugar. The roles that the American soldier must play here are numerous - diplomat, traffic cop, humanitarian assistant and warfighter.
- 2nd Lt. Leonard Cowherd III, U.S. Army, 22. From Letters Home