Can a trial change history? What happens when standards of behavior are violated and not brought to public reckoning? The Trial of an American President is a courtroom drama of a trial that will never take place, of legal arguments that will not be made, and finally, of a verdict that will also not happen, except perhaps in the court of public opinion, if the writer has his way. In his new and first play, Dick Tarlow (with contributing writer and researcher Bill Smith) puts George W. Bush, our 43rd President, on trial for knowingly violating international law: when invading Iraq in the hunt for non-existent weapons of mass destruction; for the unnecessary killing of civilians in an occupation; and for the use of torture.
Directed by Stephen Eich, this fictional trial takes place in the International Criminal Court of the Hague. Because the United States, unlike 124 other countries, is not a party to the ICC, our actions cannot be prosecuted except if called for by the UN Security Council, where the United States has veto power. George W. Bush appears at his trial voluntarily and against the advice of family and friends. In a gray suit, red tie, and blue shirt, Tony Carlin plays an earnest former President who is convinced of his righteousness but not arrogant or prideful, a Bush who listens empathically and with humility to an American mother who has lost her son and to the stories of torture and of the unprovoked massacre of Iraqis by American troops. Brilliant use of video, allowing for footage of the conflict and for individual Iraqis to tell their stories, also humanizes the destruction wrought by decisions made by Bush, in all his rumpled sincerity, with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney at his side.
The play is documentary in style, grounded in historical evidence, legal argument, and reference to international treaties and conventions. Tall and stately in his black robes with blue trim, Michael Rogers, as the Prosecutor, is imposing. Mahira Kakkar, playing the Narrator, gives the audience context and spells out the larger implications of the American invasion of Iraq: turmoil across the Middle East, the shift of regional power in favor of Iran, the rise of Isis, and the creation of the largest refugee crisis since World War II, one that now threatens European states and the European Union itself.
Although the verdict, left up to the audience, is pretty much a foregone conclusion, it is the detail that is finally so impressive: the playing out of a war that that follows from Bush officials, a number of whom are quoted: “Bomb Iraq…. There aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan,” and “If you don’t violate some human rights, you probably aren’t doing your job.” Or, the White House counsel who ruled that war against terrorism renders obsolete any of the Geneva conventions about questioning enemy prisoners.
From those statements come the falsifications that accompanied the American invasion in the first place and the occupation of Fallujah, with a cutoff of food, water and medical supplies to civilians and painful examples of unprovoked shootings by American troops into schools and homes in striking defiance of military advice to rely upon surgical strikes and not upon an occupation. And there is Bush’s approval of extraordinary rendition and six new interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, often administered with dubious and little evidence. Matters are complicated when the Narrator asks members of the audience if they would violate laws on torture if they thought the information would save their child. “I would,” she says.
Some might say The Trial of an American President is a beautifully dramatized trial and not theater at all. At the play’s end, the viewer will ponder the consequences of our votes as well as the actions of our leaders on the wide canvas they deserve. If those actions inspire fear and pity, as Aristotle recommended in the writing of tragedy, the tragedy here is not the gouged-out eyes of an Oedipus but rather entire regions of the world upturned, lives decimated, and chaos that threatens the world order and has energized forces of intolerance. And the “recognition” Aristotle recommends to the tragedian, is not that of our protagonist, George W. Bush—who, at the end of the play, remains deeply convinced of the rightness of his decisions—but ours.
The Trial of an American President is at the Lion Theater, 412 West 42nd, through Oct. 15.