Staging War Stories

Sunday 27 November 2022

How and why do we dramatize war?

What are audiences expecting when they watch representations of war on stage and screen?

And what impact do dramatizations of war have on how people experience, understand and even conduct it? 

In 2021, the Visualising War project hosted an online event with professional theatre company NMT Automatics to explore how war gets dramatized on stage and screen. A wide range of creatives took part, sharing their experiences of working in theatre, film, opera, dance and documentary making. We talked about ancient Greek tragedy: for example, how Aeschylus’ play The Persians explored a famous Greek military victory from the enemy’s perspective; and how Euripides’ Trojan Women is now the basis of a therapeutic project supporting Syrian refugees to process their experiences of war and displacement. We explored how characters like Hector and Andromache from Homer’s Iliad and Lady Percy and Hotspur from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 can help us understand what modern military partners experience in the 21st century – and we also considered the limitations of historical narratives as a lens on modern conflict. We thought a lot about the gaps between representation and reality: the challenge of achieving authenticity, of producing drama that resonates with people who have lived experience of conflict as well as the wider public, and the risk that dramatizations reproduce entrenched habits of visualising war rather than reflecting its diversity and complexity.

Participants were asked to think about the cliches that annoy them: aspects of war which get dramatized again and again.

In many screen dramatizations in particular, men take centre stage, along with a focus on high stakes action: guns, explosions, pitched battles, violent deaths. Recurring ideals include sacrifice and patriotism, with some narrative elements promoting hypermasculinity and even xenophobia. The costs of war are frequently depicted in devastated landscapes and the prevalence of PTSD, as well as in the body count of soldiers and the victimisation of women/civilians. Some participants expressed the frustration of serving soldiers and veterans at seeing PTSD regularly used as a shorthand to convey a much more complex set of responses to real-life military deployments. More generally, participants expressed distrust – as well as frustration – over the narrowness of many dramatizations of war.

We then considered aspects of war which we would like to see dramatized more often, and the contrast between the two word-clouds is striking:

Participants talked passionately about telling more sides of the story: amplifying the diverse experiences of women, children, military families and civilians; breaking down rigid distinctions between ‘friend and foe’; and showcasing the everyday, the mundanity, the inaction alongside the action and, above all, the long-drawn-out suffering of those trying to live some kind of life in a war zone. Achieving authenticity and honesty, they argued, involves using more lenses and painting a more holistic picture: of lead-up and training as well as consequences and aftermath; of the politics and bureaucracy, not just the pitched battle; and of alternatives to war – how different things might have been. Complex greys are needed as counterpoint to the more usual black-and-white. There was recognition that many dramatizations of war grapple with historic and often out-of-date conceptions of military conflict rather than reflecting modern realities (particularly in the age of drone and cyber warfare). And participants agreed that as well as decentring soldiers/men, dramatizations of war need to decentre white men, particularly white ‘heroes’.

We thought a good deal about the impact which dramatizations of war have on their audiences. Many of us are lucky enough only to encounter war through storytelling: news reports, documentaries, films, plays, novels, art and war gaming are the only exposure some of us ever have, so they play a huge role in determining how we feel about armed conflict. They might influence whether we protest against wars, for example; why we donate to certain charities ahead of others; how we respond when governments describe the Covid-19 pandemic as a war we must fight; even how we behave or think of ourselves when we get locked into some kind of sporting contest or workplace battle.

As one participant put it, even in a war zone there is a lot of waiting and wondering, and therefore a lot of visualisation and imagination alongside direct exposure to conflict. Those involved, whether soldier or civilian, can still be impacted by the war stories that circulate even as they become part of a war story themselves. Images of lone generals taking bold, brave decisions in drama, history and art, for example, can filter through into real-life military culture and practice, as well as influencing civilian ideas about what makes a good leader. Civilians whose experience of conflict involves privation and worry but no actual violence may feel (or be told) that their very significant suffering is not quite ‘the real deal’ because it does not fit the typically explosive picture. Worse still, stories like Homer’s Iliad have normalised rape as something that victors can get away with, or even have a right to carry out, for millennia.

Every time we retell a war story we have a choice: we can perpetuate recurring images and ideas (some of which prop up harmful belief systems), or we can challenge them, raise new questions about the conduct and representation of war, and amplify a variety of outlooks. Participants discussed the kinds of impact which they would like their future dramatizations of war to have:

Three things particularly stood out: the desire to paint more truthful pictures of war (and, as part of that, to include more marginalised voices); the hope that representations of war on stage and screen will generate debate and conversation about what war does, rather than confirming settled habits of visualising war; and an ambition to use empathy not just for pathos but to enhance understanding, change attitudes and influence people’s mindsets and behaviours. Narratives do not simply reflect reality; they can shape it, for better and worse. Put another way, representations of war on stage and screen can be seen as interventions, not just reflections, with the potential to prevent or mitigate against future conflict.

The Visualising War project is keen to facilitate more conversation between theatre, film and documentary makers about our collective habits of visualising war and the impact they can have. We are equally keen to involve the wider public in our discussions; after all, they/we make up the audiences whom storytellers are trying to reach. When we spend time thinking about how war stories work, it can change what we notice in lots of different representations and also how susceptible we are to them. Members of NMT Automatics discussed the impact which their critical reflections have had on their experience as audience members: since they began questioning their own decisions about how to dramatize conflict, ancient and modern, they have responded more knowingly to the plays, films and documentaries which they have watched. On a larger scale, this is what the Visualising War project hopes to achieve: by putting lots of different war stories under the microscope, from the ancient world to the present day, we hope to increase understanding not just of how war has long been – or can be – narrated but also of what reactions those narrations trigger in us.

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