This week’s theatre-going included a piece called Grounded, written by George Brant and staged at London’s Gate Theatre as part of its “These American Lives” season. The Gate – for those of you unfamiliar with the landscape of British theatre – is a small (60 seats or so) theatre in Notting Hill which sits above a local pub. It has become one of home of American drama in the past year and recently gave a London premiere to Bruce Norris’s early play Purple Heart. The Gate seems to have an obsession with war and American drama as well because Norris’s play was set during Vietnam and Grounded makes major references to Iraq and the ongoing conflicts there and in Afghanistan. Grounded was also a one-woman show – performed as a brilliant tour de force by Lucy Ellinson – which (having merely skimmed the reviews and being attracted by its American-drama-in-Londonness) I thought was going to be largely about a female fighter pilot and her experiences in the US Air Force. Instead, it seemed to be a continuation of a conversation that had begun with Joe Penhall’s 2007 play for the National Theatre, Landscape With Weapon.
Being a news junkie and a sucker for a play mixing family with politics, I think Landscape With Weapon is one of the finest plays of the irritatingly-named “noughties”. It does that rare thing in British drama which uses a family dilemma to interrogate politics, in this case the moral dilemma of developing weapons of mass destruction. Penhall’s play revolves around two brothers – Ned and Dan – both of whom, in their respective professions are morally compromised (a device that keeps the one from taking the moral high ground and being “preachy”): Dan, a dentist who has found his way into administering botox as a moonlighting sideline and Ned, the play’s protagonist, who develops software used in drones.
Ned’s choice of language is initially circumspect, talking about the beauty of nature in the form of aviary swarms. Tom Hollander’s Ned jolted the audience into recognition with the abrupt introduction of “military technology” into the conversation with his brother, continuing to mix the harshness of the American – and it’s important that it was the American – military industrial complex with poetic descriptions of swarms. The conversation with Dan facilitated first a crisis of conscience in Ned by simply asking the question about the function of the pieces of machinery his brother designs:
Dan (increasingly worried) So…but, but these…drones…what do they actually do?
Ned All sorts of things. The point is that as a swarm they can do what they can’t do alone. A new behaviour emerges.
Dan Yes, but…exactly what are they being used for in the Middle East?
Ned Well, you know, they start out as surveillance vehicles but, you see, what they’ve done now is weaponised them…
Ned’s burgeoning crisis of conscience over his method of earning a living culminated in a meeting with a sinister pair of MoD bods keen to keep on the Americans’ good side, delivering Ned’s weaponised technology to the senior partner in the Special Relationship. After cajolings and threats from the MoD bods (British), Ned’s mental breakdown was complete. The key point for my purposes here is that Penhall’s play investigates the creation – specifically, its design – of the drone as a piece of machinery. Morally compromised through his active participation in the creation of weapons of self-destruction, Ned’s mental state deteriorates throughout the action until he is barely functioning through a combination of guilt and losing the battle with the American military industrial complex.
Penhall’s play was written in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, which has left a deep scar on the psyche of Britain and the US. Fast-forward to the Obama years and we come to the revelation that, as Ari Shapiro reported in this 2012 NPR piece, “The Obama administration’s use of drones to kill suspected terrorists in foreign countries may be President Obama’s biggest legacy in the fight against terrorism.” Where Landscape With Weapon delved into the theoretical possibility of how the drones Ned designed would be used, drones had become so prevalent in the discourse that Grounded unequivocally shows their usage.
Brant’s sole character – known only as The Pilot – is grounded due to pregnancy and redeployed to what she disgustedly refers to as “the Chair Force” – a base in the middle of the Nevada desert where drones are remotely controlled by USAF personnel who go home to their families at night – or as The Pilot says, home from the war. Like the structure of Penhall’s play, the audience watches the main character mentally deteriorate from a strong, confident person to someone who is mentally fragile. In Brant’s play, it is clear that The Pilot is suffering from PTSD just by sitting in the Chair Force.
What brings on the PTSD, however, is staring at a gray screen day after day and piloting the drones initially on surveillance ops – exactly how Penhall initially had Ned describe his weapons’ function, as surveillance tools. Yet Brant goes further than Penhall because he is dealing with the “real” drone and what gradually unfolds happens solely through language. Horrifying language in which The Pilot goes from simply watching the objects in a far away desert to pronouncing these moving objects “guilty” and blowing them to smithereens. At first it is chillingly dispassionate and triumphant, showing in no uncertain terms how compromised America herself is in her pursuit of her enemies; all from the comfort of a chair in a Nevada bunker. It ends with the personal; hallucinations of the face of her daughter that causes The Pilot to pull out of killing the Al Qaeda number 2 because his little girl is with him. Collateral damage ensues anyway and Grounded ends with The Pilot awaiting court martial.
What is noticeable is the progression from Penhall’s play about the theoretical use of drones to the actual depiction of the weaponised flying machines’ uses. Penhall’s 2007 play was a warning; Brant’s play is the reality. I can only hope there isn’t a stage three to this progression. Grounded shows us just how morally bankrupt we have become.
NB: There is an archive video of Joe Penhall’s Landscape With Weapon available for viewing at the National Theatre Archive. It’s a very funny, moving play and extremely well acted; it also has the most amazing and funniest food fight I have ever seen on any stage anywhere. (Not that there are a lot of food fights on stage).