The Body of an Americanis a two-hander that tells the true story of the Canadian photojournalist and Pulitzer prize winner Paul Watson. It focusses on the photograph that made Watson famous: a harrowing portrait of Sgt. William David Cleveland as his corpse is paraded through the streets of Mogadishu.
Watson, in his prize winning book, details his own anxieties about his role in choosing to photograph Cleveland – perceiving that the bad publicity it generated was responsible for Clinton’s decision to withdraw from Somalia, which action arguably precipitated a whole chain of events as the humanitarian crisis developed and Al-Qaeda support given to Mohammed Farrah Aidid was not properly identified or dealt with. Watson at one point seems to suggest that 9/11 and subsequent US foreign policy are all attributable to this one photo. This seems a touch simplistic – most worryingly of all, involving a blind acceptance of the idea that the war on terror, as the Bush administration argued, was nothing but a straightforward response to an actual threat.
Nevertheless, the idea of exploring a single photo supposed to have shaped the course of history has some grounds as a dramatic device. It’s the Lord Jim conundrum – a moment in someone’s past, supposedly decisive in determining the fate of other people’s lives, and that they can never forget. Just before Watson takes the photo, he hears Cleveland say, “If you do this I’ll haunt you forever.” Regardless of how reductive a political analysis lies behind this, it raises some interesting questions about the ethics of photojournalism – and as the Arab Spring has shown us, we are all photojournalists now. The lesson seems to be that even the seemingly neutral and objective photograph can have ramifications, political and ideological, of which we should be aware.
The real focus of the play, however, is removed from all this. What we get is a dramatisation of the author’s research into the writing project, as the email correspondence between playwright Dan O’Brien and Watson is interwoven with imagined scenarios and a portrayal of their actual meeting. It takes on a decidedly self-reflexive tone – we hear of O’Brien’s private traumas and his acute sense of ineffectuality as an author of historical dramas who unlike Watson fails to engage with real life affairs. We also hear of Watson’s psychological trauma (he suffers from PTSD) and his concerns about Cleveland’s family. All very well, perhaps, but you can’t help but feel that there is so much more to be garnered than this often trite and, compared to what happened in Somalia, insignificant “human story” focus. The naval gazing surrounding O’Brien’s writing processes is, in particular, hard to justify – especially seeing as it is so at odds with the very sentiment it attempts to convey: namely, that within our current paradigm writing removed from political actuality is an intolerable travesty.
These objections aside – the production has commendable qualities. William Gaminara and Damien Molony are both highly competent, and manage to play a wide range of roles between them without these feeling too broad or one dimensional. Watson’s photos, projected so that the audience have to physically turn to see them, are illustrative, discomforting and provocative. The set is less convincing – a lazy attempt at immersive design, as fake snow covers the floor of a bunker. It’s like sitting inside a nuclear fallout themed snow shaker, which hardly matches the naturalistic timbre of the play.
All in all, a decent production, an important theme, but a failure on the playwright’s part to discern both the drama and the political import of his subject matter, as the metafictional dimension takes over.