About a week ago, I told you that I was going to see a play called Black Watch, which purports to be an “even-handed” homage to Scotland’s famous Black Watch regiment. The Black Watch was much in the news (in the UK) during the Iraq war, because one unit suffered some painful losses when they manned an outpost at America’s request. In addition, the Black Watch was absorbed into a larger military bureaucratic entity, which ended it’s long run (starting in about 1729) as a stand-alone fighting unit.
Since the Black Watch opened in 2007 in Scotland, reviewers have raved about the play. Here are some sample reviews that the National Theater of Scotland assembled from a variety of British and American publications after the play’s original 2007 run:
This is not only an urgently topical piece about the sort of conflict soldiers have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the changing nature of warfare and about the morality of fighting; it is also a superb, multi-faceted political and social drama. It explores the male psyche with sympathy and wit. And in John Tiffany’s outstanding production for the National Theatre of Scotland, it becomes a blistering piece of physical theatre – by turns comical, visceral and, surprisingly, lyrical.
What a relief, at last, to have a play about the Iraq war that doesn’t lecture us, with the ghastly smugness of hindsight, on what we all know already: that this war was muddled and ill planned, and that its political leaders were culpably naive, if not downright dishonest.
. . . this soldier’s viewpoint is a blast of fresh air. And not once in two hours do you remember you’re watching actors. You think you’re watching Scottish squaddies, square-bashing, on ops, “on the pish” – the energy and conviction of the ensemble is astonishing.
Put simply, it’s essential that you see Black Watch . . . it’s among the most compelling theater pieces you could wish to see. And weep for, in a sense. The production from Scotland’s National Theater is a magnificent one, and its awesome reality and humaneness will overwhelm you.
[Black Watch] arrives like a blazing redeemer . . . a necessary reminder of the transporting power that is unique to theater. Other narrative forms . . . could tell the story that is told here. But none could summon and deploy the array of artistic tools that is used with such mastery and immediacy. Every moment in Black Watch seems to bleed from the previous one in an uninterrupted river of sensations.
You get the idea. Fabulous writing, acting, and admirable objectivity (the last of which, entirely coincidentally, of course, leads inevitably to the conclusion that the war in Iraq was irredeemably evil). My concern was that, even if the play was even-handed, I would get hacked off at poncy actors prancing around pretending to be soldiers.
Having seen the play, I can say that my fears were realized and that all the other reviews were wrong. It seems that being a Leftist means that you have very low standards. Before I say what was wrong with the play (and there’s a lot to say), let me say what was right: The actors were really Scotsman, so they weren’t faking the accents. Also, it was indeed a very physical play (to the point of mawkish, foolish, stupidity), but the actors hit their marks every time. They were very professional as they ran, pranced, frolic, and danced around the stage. The actor who played the sergeant did an incredibly good imitation of Basil Fawlty, only with a Scots accent. I don’t know if that was his intention, but he sounded exactly like this, when it came to pitch and cadence:
That’s enough about the Black Watch’s merits. Let’s get to the bad stuff. Contrary to the slavishly loving reviewers, I found the plot thin and predictable, the characters uninteresting, and I must have missed any real humor or serious emotion. The play’s writers were able to skimp on all these features (which tend to appear in good plays), because they wrote the play in shorthand. It was, in essence, a dog whistle play. At varying times, the characters made derogatory remarks about the war and Americans, and Leftists were expected to respond appropriately, understanding which lines were meant to inspire laughter and which to inspire tears.
I was not alone in feeling that the play lacked a certain something (such as wit, insight, or character development). The physical layout of the play has the audience sitting in bleachers on either side of the theater, watching the play on the stage below as if watching a basketball game. This means that, when you get too bored or simply weary from watching the actors run about, you can lift your eyes and observe the people opposite you as they watch the play. It didn’t take one of those FBI specialists trained in reading faces to realize that many in the audience were bored. At the end, the actors, despite the sweat they poured into the play (and they did work hard and knew their lines) got just one round of applause. Then the hard-Left San Francisco audience bolted. The plot was that bad.
And was it even-handed? Well, in a way. It did not present the soldiers as baby-killers. Instead, it presented them as babies getting killed because of evil politics involving Westminster and America. That was the simplistic reduction of the Iraq War.
But the worst thing of all was Leftist approach to portraying soldiers sympathetically. The play claims that the dialogue is based upon interviews with Black Watch soldiers returned from the war. If that’s the case, the mighty British Empire and the mighty military that once supported it have truly hit the point of no return.
The eight or ten soldiers who appear as characters in the play have lines that show them to be utterly ignorant, gullible, shallow, obscene men one step away from mental retardation. Maybe that’s the truth about the modern British military. Indeed, the play makes it seem as if that was always the case. I have my doubts. My favorite WWI book, The Great War and Modern Memory, comments frequently on the fact that, while obscenities (which flow freely in the play) were an integral part of troop talk, WWI was an extraordinary literary war. The lowest private could quote the Bible, Bunyan, Shakespeare, and even Shaw with fluidity and comfort. These guys were too dumb to quote Playboy jokes.
But again, maybe that’s what the British military has been reduced to, given the overall state of education in Britain. Or it could be a libel. In America, for example, we know that, John Kerry to the contrary, America’s troops are better educated, on average, than ordinary Americans. They may have the shallowness of youth, but they are not stupid to the point of cretinism.
The Duke of Wellington famously said of his military that, compared to the French conscription system, which “brings together a fair sample of all classes; ours is composed of the scum of the earth — the mere scum of the earth. It is only wonderful that we should be able to make so much out of them afterwards.” Watching Black Watch, I wondered whether modern Britain’s military has managed to sink below the level of being the scum of the earth, to the point at which the troops are irredeemable.
Having voiced that terrible libel against the British troops, let me hasten to add that I know from reading about the Iraq war during the war, that our troops felt a fair measure of respect for their British colleagues. Either our troops were being polite, or the Black Watch grossly maligns Britain’s military class. I suspect that our troops were being honest and the play libelous, but (sadly) Britain has changed so much in the last thirty years that anything is possible.