I believe that the things we don’t express will kill us. Kill us as a country, kill us as people.
Walking the streets of Philadelphia is like walking through time. Reenactors in colonial garb occupy park benches and linger next to food carts, ready to regale passers-by with stories of our country’s origins. Tourists learn from their costumed guides, who speak with early American accents, about both the Liberty Bell and the history of the cheesesteak. The Dunkin Donuts on 7th and Market provides a great view of the boarding house across the street where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Philadelphia, where the past and the present coexist, is the perfect setting for Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq, a new play by Paula Vogel running at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater. Vogel’s plays, like her Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive, often feature protagonists dealing with an event from their past by returning to the scene of the crime. In recounting bygone events, they attempt to use narrative to create meaning out of trauma. In Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq, a Marine travels through the space and time of the city in which the precursor to the U.S. Marine Corps was created, searching for something that can make sense of his pain.
The play is an adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s 1936 German play Don Juan Comes Back From the War. Horváth’s play is based on the question, Who would Don Juan be after serving in World War I and returning to an economically devastated Germany where fascism was on the rise? Likewise, Vogel has asked, Who would Don Juan be after multiple tours in Iraq?
Both plays draw on the iconic Don Juan character, with his hypersexuality, to reflect upon contemporary gender norms, though Horváth’s conclusions are somewhat more misogynistic. Vogel, who has never shied away from sexual politics in her work, uses the character and the women who love him to explore women in combat, military sexual assault and relationships between unit members. Of her interest in the topic, she shared with me,
What fascinates me is this collision of how gender is changing in the 21st century but we retain a 19th-century military. It’s very interesting right now to see what’s happening in the military, whether or not we will transform, whether we take the justice system out of the chain of command for military sexual assault. In truth, the military has always been trained in an ideology that reinforces sexual dominance. So the combination of sexual transgression and war and violence is a very old theme, and it is the original Don Juan theme that you transgress against the sexual mores of the time but also the patriarchal mores of the time.
Both Vogel’s and Horváth’s plays use a structure similar to the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht (Horváth’s contemporary): Characters identified by their social function rather than names populate scenes in different locations pieced together with songs and choral reflections. Vogel goes further than Horváth, whose scenes happen chronologically, by disordering the series of events and using ghosts and scenes-within-scenes to call into question the moment-to-moment reality of the main character. The overall effect is an externalization of the inner experience of someone with post traumatic stress disorder.
At the same time that the Brechtian structure enables the audience to see from the outside and therefore judge the social structures that fail vets, the externalization of PTSD allows the audience to get inside an injured vet’s head in a very personal way. Vogel feels strongly that more Americans need to get inside those heads:
The Greek senators who voted for war at the time that we were creating this thing called drama had to vote to send their sons into war. Now we have people who have never served, whose children will never serve in the military, voting on who to send to war. There’s an isolation of this population that’s serving us from the general population. And this divorce I think is an extremely alarming trend. Frightening and terrifying. And so I think, more than anything else, it’s us as civilians trying to listen and learn what that feels like, to come back to America when you’ve basically born the brunt of American foreign policy.
Vogel and her director, Blanka Zizka, have done their share of listening as part of making this play. Over the last three years, they have conducted writing workshops with vets in New York, D.C. and Philadelphia. Then they assembled a company of actors, for whom Vogel wrote. Vets came to rehearsals and worked with the actors and have read drafts and given them feedback. In April, the Wilma will be presenting short plays by vets.
Though the play takes place in recognizable Philly institutions such as the Divine Lorraine Hotel, the Mütter Museum and the Tun Tavern, Zizka’s non-realistic set relies on the text to make the locations clear, and on the bodies of the actors to tell the story. It is a fitting design for a play by Vogel, whose interest in bodies is a recurring theme of her work. In an interview with Mary Louise Parker, who originated Li’l Bit in How I Learned to Drive, Vogel once said,
With women as writers, we’re starting to make male bodies desirable. And that’s making a huge shift in gender. It’s no longer just women who are beautiful to look at. So half the audience every night in some way or other has to experience the other sexuality, if they’re straight. Women do this all the time. I don’t think women are homophobic the way men are, because we are always looking at each other’s bodies. It’s on T.V., film, it’s on the street, in fashion shows, we’re trained to look at and eroticize each other’s bodies. But as writers, we can eroticize male bodies. And it’s important for me, as an out lesbian to do this. To make men see how we see them—that’s going to shift what we think of as male and female.
In Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq, Vogel shows us bodies yearning to feel pleasure amidst great pain, bodies drawn together by risking their lives side by side, and bodies torn apart by IEDs, psychological trauma and poverty. The play, even in it’s non-realism, provides a more realistic perspective on war than any jingoistic Hollywood film could, and challenges the audience to see and accept a reality that most Americans would rather sweep under the rug. Vogel hopes the audience will come away from it, like she has, more involved in the issues facing vets:
I’d like to think that from this day forward I’m going to be paying a lot more attention to the way that my congressional representatives vote on issues such as taking the justice system out of the chain of command from military sexual assault. It is critical to make a 19th century military move into a 21st century system of justice.
Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq runs through April 20 at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.
Photos from the play by Alexander Iziliaev