South Vietnam - 16 March 1968, in what became known as the My Lai massacre, a unit of the US army killed hundreds (estimate 347-504) of unarmed and unresisting civilians, the majority of whom were women, children (including babies) and old men.
‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ (Shakespeare - King Lear) What turned some soldiers of Charlie Company, described as a normal cross-section of American youth, with an average age of 20, into babykillers? One GI’s mother said “I sent them a good boy, and they made him a murderer.”
In Games (1971) by James Saunders, a company of four rehearse a piece of experimental theatre based on a Reuter report of the court-martial of Lieutenant William Calley for his actions at My Lai.
In a note to the text, James Saunders explained: ‘Games is about freedom, responsibility and choice, treated not as theoretical concepts but as aspects of an actual event which takes place during rehearsals and during each performance. The play is about the fact of its being put on; but this fact concerns not only the actors who have chosen to do it, but the audience – which is both an audience and a collection of individuals – who choose to accept or reject it, to let it proceed smoothly or to interrupt it or to wreck it. But it is not enough to present an audience with the fact of a choice; the possibility of using it must be put within their limits. Gauging these limits so as to try to avoid the two extremes of frozen acceptance or an untheatrical chaos means that there is no such thing as a definitive performance.’
The play deliberately sets up a conflict between the unreality and game playing of theatre versus the carnage of what was a contemporaneous war. It is a witty indictment of theatre and a critique of the compassion fatigue of audiences – or is it? Does it, through the medium of theatre, challenge us to break through our apathy by contrasting our passive obeying of the conventions of theatre with that of soldiers obeying orders? Make us consider the ethics of theatre, of cultural voyeurism, of appropriating the stories of others, as well as the ethics of war? By employing theatrical techniques such as agitprop, irony, parody and verbatim theatre can it provoke some sense of social responsibility?
American journalist Jonathan Schell commented: ‘The massacre calls for self-examination and for action, but if we deny the call and try to go on as before, as though nothing had happened, our knowledge, which can never leave us once we have acquired it, will bring about an unnoticed but crucial alteration in us, numbing our most precious faculties and withering our souls. For if we learn to accept this, there is nothing we will not accept.’
Jersey Arts Centre youtheatre will perform Games on Wednesday 22 September as part of An Audience for George Ritchie.