In fall 2016, The Pritzker Military Museum & Library filmed a series of in-depth interviews with scholars, artists, and military veterans entitled Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier. In partnership with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the four episodes explored the role of soldiers and warfare in Shakespeare’s work and the role of Shakespeare in informing our understanding of soldiers and warfare.
I went to the Museum to watch the live taping of the last episode, and while touring the collection beforehand, I was struck by the fact that the Pritzker is an art museum. Not, of course, only an art museum, but the two major exhibits on display during my visit were both exhibits of Vietnam-era art. One was of photographs taken by the Department of the Army’s Special Photographic Office (DASPO) of the day-to-day lives of American servicemen. The photos are alternately chilling, inspiring, beautiful, awful. They convey a sense of the war that brought home a kind of reality that was unavailable to me through reading books about it. The other exhibit was a collection of Viet Cong propaganda posters. Again, I was given a view of the war from the point of view of the North Vietnamese that any amount of statistical and historical information about “the enemy” could not convey.
For me, the most intriguing through-line in Shakespeare and the Citizen Soldier was exactly how reciprocal that relationship between art and history is. The series featured actors, directors, soldiers, and scholars, all working together to bring stories of war to the stage in responsible, evocative, and truthful ways. The knowledge exchanges were surprising in many ways, but one after another, participants claimed that the value of the exchange had been in their favor—that is to say, most seemed to feel that they learned more from their involvement with their collaborators than they contributed.
The four sessions focus on different aspects of the larger topic. The first episode features Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director and Founder Barbara Gaines alongside Fordham University Professor Stuart Sherman. Sherman collaborated with Gaines on Tug of War, CST’s flagship double production chronicling the foreign and civil wars from Edward III to Richard III. Gaines and Sherman discuss how they went about telling this story of war, using Sherman’s historical knowledge to inform the art. Gaines had many advisors on this project, including a handful of veterans whom she interviewed personally in an attempt to bring onto the stage something like the experience of having been at war. Interestingly, Gaines repeatedly states that it is not possible for a civilian to truly understand what being a soldier in wartime is like. While such a claim responds to the mystique that surrounds war and soldiers, it is an odd claim for a theater artist to make; an important aim of the project of Tug of War is to convey that very experience—to allow audiences who are not veteran’s insight into what war is like. Gaines describes a very powerful image that has stuck with her and which she used in conceptualizing the play. The image is from an adaptation of The Odyssey in which a river speaks of the bodies that have floated down it, the death that it has seen. Sherman—who also at one point claims that veterans have understandings which are unavailable to civilians—responds to Gaines that the theater is that river—the river that “knows the costs, the collective costs of killing.” Such a sentiment is compelling; one hopes that art can, at its best, bring that knowledge to its audience.
For Stephan Wolfert, a veteran-turned-actor who was featured in the second episode, “Shakespeare wrote veterans perfectly.” Wolfert served as an infantry officer for eight years before leaving the Army and eventually becoming an actor and director who works with veterans, using Shakespeare to help veterans re-integrate (or, as he calls it, “decruit”). Not only does Wolfert claim that Shakespeare (who was not a veteran) understands veterans, but that as a consequence, Shakespeare wrote characters who veterans understand easily. Wolfert’s account of his first experience with Richard III’s opening speech is illuminating; for Wolfert, the story of a soldier lamenting his inability to fit into civilian society, and his sense of being deformed by his experiences in war, rang perfectly true. So true that he uses that speech, amongst others, to introduce veterans to Shakespeare, using theater as a kind of therapy.
The third episode features CST actors James Vincent Meredith and Jessie Fisher as well as Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Yandura, chair of Military Science at Loyola University. Meredith and Fisher played Othello and Emilia respectively in CST’s 2016 production of Othello. Yandura worked with the cast to help them better portray soldiers. The production was set in modern day, and Emilia was also a soldier, so the two actors worked closely with the LTC to develop both a sense of soldiering based on both physical and psychological training. Learning actual drill from Yandura (in what he described as an abbreviated “basic training”) was, according to the two actors, incredibly valuable to them and the rest of the cast. Theater ensembles are used to developing a group identity and esprit de corps, but doing that through military drill was both inspiring and educational. Meanwhile, Yandura felt that he learned more than he imparted; his exposure to the stories of the actors and to the play gave him new ways to think about how he might use theater skills to train his own students at Loyola. Yandura said that he found the actors, with their attention to detail and their willingness and their professional training in the ability to submerge their own egos in order to emulate the behavior of others, were amongst the quickest candidates he had ever trained.
Fisher’s experience was particularly fascinating, as she learned both from Yandura and Yandura’s wife (also a veteran), who came to rehearsal and was willing to discuss what it was like to be the wife of a soldier. Fisher’s Emilia being a soldier created a very interesting reading of the character. As a soldier, her first loyalty lies with her commander, Othello, and her comrades, including her husband Iago. Assigned to “babysit” the civilian Desdemona, she is at first resentful of the woman who has no place in a military zone, and who is keeping her from “more important” duties. It is only as she realizes that the men are behaving poorly, and that Desdemona is demonstrating the pure loyalty which she believes she has a right to expect from Iago and Othello, that she comes to sympathize with her charge. This exciting new reading would have been difficult to create without the help of LTC Yandura.
In thinking more about the way that art and history inform each other, I am reminded of the vital importance of both as the foundation of a free society. According to the staff of the Library, there were protests by American servicemen when the exhibit of North Vietnamese propaganda art opened. These veterans were angry that posters showing our soldiers being killed and our planes being shot down would be displayed. Apparently, those protesters mostly changed their minds after actually seeing the exhibit. I wonder if their minds were changed about more than just the appropriateness of the exhibit; perhaps their perspectives on the war itself might have been shifted slightly, too.
Richard Gilbert is a doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on representations of violence in the theater, as well as adaptations and versionality. He holds an MA in humanities from University of Chicago, and a BA in theater from Brandeis University.