“Entire generations falsify themselves to themselves; that is to say, they wrap themselves up in artistic styles, in doctrines, in political movements, which are insincere and which fill the lack of genuine conviction.” José Ortega y Gasset (1883 - 1955), quoted in W. H. Auden, A Certain Time, under the heading “Commitment.”
From its premiere, The Real Thing has challenged Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead for the title of “Tom Stoppard’s most popular play.” Although Night and Day had ventured into similar territory, The Real Thing was more recognizably “realistic” in both setting and character psychology. Affairs of the heart take precedence over intellectual brio and sparkling wordplay. In an interview with critic Mel Gussow, Tom Stoppard suggests that the initial inspiration for writing The Real Thing was the Ortega y Gasset quote prefacing this note. Much has been written about the ways in which The Real Thing differs from other works by Stoppard (and more will be coming shortly), but this origin story points to something that makes this a very “Stoppardian” play. What is “the real real thing”? How do you know it? How do you prove it?
Desert Island Discs is a British radio program started in 1942 that continues to the present. A well-known person is asked the question: “if you were to be cast away alone on a desert island, which eight gramophone records would you choose to have with you? Assuming of course, that you had a gramophone and an inexhaustible supply of needles.” In addition to eight pieces of music, the “castaways” were allowed to choose one book and one luxury item of their choice, as long as the “luxury” could not help them escape the island.
Famous “castaways” have included Noel Coward, John Cleese, James Cameron, Colin Firth, Margaret Thatcher, and all Prime Ministers and potential Prime Ministers. John Cleese got special dispensation to have Michael Palin as his “luxury,” as long as Palin was stuffed.
Tom Stoppard appeared on Desert Island Discs on January 12, 1985, near the end of the The Real Thing’s original West End run. His choices:
Bessie Smith, “Careless Love”
Avon Cities Jazz Band (from Bristol, England), “Jump For Joyce”
The Beatles, “Love Me Do”
William Balkein, “Graceful Ghost” (a ragtime tune used in
Sondheim and Bernstein, “America” (from West Side Story)
André Previn, score for Every Good Boy Deserves Favor
Vaughn Williams, “Fantasia on a Theme” by Thomas Tallis (which
Stoppard called “the most English sound one could possibly have”)
Keith Jarrett, Cologne Concert
Biographer Ira Nadel writes that Stoppard “chose a book in two languages, with a dual translation from English into Italian, ‘something like Dante’s Inferno,’” and his luxury was a “small plastic football for him to kick repeatedly without it hitting the ground, a practice he has often followed when he has the ‘delusion that a change of activity and scene would unblock me’ when writing.”
The exhibit From War to Home is the culmination of a year-long participatory research project conducted by Gala True, PhD, in partnership with 29 Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using photographs and words, these Veterans shared their experiences of military service, deployment, and homecoming.
Something else made this war different for Americans: women in combat. This became clear within days of the invasion of Iraq, on March 23, 2003, when a unit of the 507th Maintenance Company made a wrong turn near Nasiriyeh and was ambushed. Americans became familiar with Jessica Lynch, who was wounded and captured in the ambush. Less media attention was paid to Shoshana Johnson, Lynch’s Panamanian-born comrade who was also captured (and later released), or to Lori Piestewa, a Hopi soldier who tried to drive her Humvee (in which Lynch was a passenger) to safety and became the first female service member killed in Iraq.
Between 2001 and 2013, 300,000 female service members were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan: 11% of US forces. More than 130 women have died in the two conflicts and more than 800 have been wounded. Two have received the Silver Star, the third-highest medal for valor. As the website of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America explains, “Although excluded from official ‘combat roles,’ there is no clear front line in the current conflicts. Many female troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been exposed to direct fire while serving in support roles...Even those who don’t travel outside the security perimeter of a military base are constantly threatened by mortars and rockets. As one female veteran put it, ‘Life in Iraq and Afghanistan is combat.’” Compounding this is a perception on the part of many civilians that women “don’t serve.” Stories from female veterans of being ignored or assumed to be a girlfriend, sometimes while male soldiers who haven’t deployed are being bought drinks for their “service,” are common.
Trying to capture even a small fragment of the experience of deploying and returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is a daunting task. On the one hand, much of the experience of combat and its aftermath has not changed since the beginning of recorded history: the experiences of Achilles, Ajax, Odysseus, and Penelope continue to speak to contemporary warriors and their families. On the other hand, as veterans stressed to us in our earliest interviews, every veteran’s story is different. The range of experiences is well-documented: the wars of the last 13 years have produced a number of first-rate memoirs and reportage, as well as some very good poems, fiction, and yes, plays (both by veterans and civilians).
As David Finkel writes in his recent book Thank You For Your Service, the men and women who fought have become soldiers, Marines, and sailors for a wide range of reasons: “because they were patriotic or starry-eyed or heartbroken or maybe just out of work.” They are male, female, transgendered; straight, gay; high school dropouts and holders of graduate degrees. They come from all ethnicities and the full spectrum of political belief. Their experience returning has had similar diversity. Finkel points out that “two million Americans were sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Home now, most of them describe themselves as physically and mentally healthy. They move forward. Their war recedes. Some are even stronger for the experience.” Many veterans see themselves as part of a new “greatest generation,” and our limited experience has connected us to young people whose devotion to service and community is genuinely awe-inspiring.