Seeing the classic musical “South Pacific” following an unnerving viewing of Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer-Prize finalist “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” was a vivid reality-check in the way we as a nation view wars, both in retrospect with a hint of nostalgia and while they’re still underway with a dark and ambiguous future.
My reflection on the experience, and how the two very different shows say very different things about the wars they portray, was published on San Diego News Network, republished here:
A few weeks ago in Los Angeles, one could visit a philosophical tiger in Iraq and singing soldiers somewhere in the Solomon Islands a mere ten feet from each other. Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer-Prize finalist Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which closed last weekend at the Mark Taper Forum, and South Pacific, showing at the Ahmanson Theatre next door, offered two very different versions of two very different wars from two very different times.
Seeing them back-to-back is a jarring experience; a strange journey into starkly different worlds, both touched by war and its unpredictable consequences, yet delivered in thoroughly opposite packages. Yet both are aptly appropriate to the wars they cover, the stories they tell, and the styles with which they do it.
World War II seems to hold the distinction in our national collective conscious of being America’s last great noble war. The enemy was clearly defined, the motives were pure and moral, the need for involvement was beyond debate (at least in retrospect). If anything, we debate whether or not we should have entered sooner.
It’s a war that evokes a sense of romance as much as any war possibly can. Despite the horrors of a Pearl Harbor, a D-Day, a Hiroshima, World War II also conjures a time when patriotism was almost universally shared, where America unequivocally stood for good. It was the war that ended the Great Depression and heralded in the booming 50s of an expanding national wealth and a decade of prosperity (for most).
And it’s this romantic notion of war that South Pacific brings to life: the flirtations of hunky soldiers courting sexy pin-up nurses on the beauty of a tropical island. Has war ever looked so much fun?
The musical doesn’t so much delve into war as use it for a dramatic backdrop. The politics of this particular war are largely irrelevant and factor into the story only so much as to create an obstacle to love. As a musical, one can’t help but get swept up into the catchy tunes. The medium itself reinforces the almost blasé attitudes toward this war.
Yet Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo offers no such consolation. The war in Iraq that it aims a glaring spotlight on is a war that by all means is still incomplete. Without the benefit of nostalgia, the military campaigns in the region retain their gritty, anxious feel. The straightforward text of a play fit reveals and examines the rhetoric that played such a central role in the wars beginning. Yet even fifty years from now, it’s hard to imagine Operation Iraqi Freedom ever finding itself set against a brightly painted backdrop and a score of playful songs.
Joseph’s surprisingly humorous meditation on the Iraqi War echoes the dark, morally ambiguous nature of the conflict that has divided the country and redefined our notions of global security and stability. Whereas South Pacific merely hints at death (one of the main characters dies off stage), Bengal Tiger paints a graphic picture of the loss of life which, while difficult to see, reminds us that in the days of World War II, the violence was indeed nearly invisible (at least for those at home), or heavily filtered. Today, 24-hour news reports and personal recording devices give us access to any and all accounts of graphic violence.
In addition to their opposing depictions of violence and death, South Pacific and Bengal Tiger show us two wars that are vastly different in their sense of grayscale, so to speak. Whereas South Pacific lives in a world of black and white (referring both to its understanding of good and bad as well as to its progressive-for-its-time racial themes), Bengal Tiger sits uncomfortably in a middle zone, which refers both to its shifting conceptions of who is the aggressor and victim in this conflict as well as to the world between life and death that several of the characters find themselves.
This space of limbo is an apt metaphor for the nearly decade-long War on Terrorism in which we’re currently engaged. How we got to where we are seems all at once avoidable, regrettable, and inevitable. Where we’re going is both completely unknown yet eerily familiar.
The clean, tidy ending of South Pacific is both a characteristic of musical theater and a very real representation of how we as Americans view the war that it portrays. And in a similar vein, the unnerving conclusion to Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, in which the tiger of the title settles down to stalk us, the audience, suggests that we as a society have come a bit closer to understanding our nature.
And rather than being a romantic one, as we so often hope and pretend, we find it to be violent and predatory instead.