Flowers of War

Iraq: February, 1991. High-tech weaponry from eight nations hammers Baghdad’s smokestacks and high-rises to dust. In one nameless shelter huddle eight cold, tired, angry Iraqis. To keep their sanity, they propose a storytelling contest. The result: Eight war stories, full of war’s sadness, horror, and sometimes even laughter. Flowers of War is a “Fantasia on American Themes” — you won’t get the characters you see to resemble the Iraqis you have been conditioned to expect.


cast: 8; (4 F, 4 M)
set: Environmental or site-specific (bomb shelter)
length: 145 min.


Off-Broadway: Nov 1992, Mosaic Productions (NYC)

style: naturalism & unnaturalism

Is Realism the most important artistic movement in the twentieth century?
Actually, Realism (or “Naturalism”) came to Europe in the 19th century in something like this order [1]:

Here comes the curve ball. Perhaps what’s significant about 20th century theater is what’s significant about all 20th-century art forms. Perhaps what makes it significant is: it reflects a change in thinking [3], similar to what happened in Physics.

Physicists at the turn of the century inherited a two-hundred year old system based on the limited observations and measurements that could be made in Isaac Newton’s day. The means of observing and measuring were constantly improving, and a lot of the tenets of classical physics were starting to contradict the observable phenomena.

It was time for a New Physics, which would corroborate the experiments they were conducting (especially those of James Clerk Maxwell and Michaelson-Morley). All they needed was a single, superior model on which to base it.

Central was the question ‘what is matter?’ Luckily, there was only a Tao of possibilities: matter was made of either particles or waves. Some findings suggested particles. Others, waves. Scientists argued back and forth. There was a lot of near-religious dogma. Almost jokingly, a few scientists broke off and started talking about ‘wavicles.’

A few years passed. Then Niels Bohr and team proposed the Copenhagen model, which suggested that perhaps matter was composed of both particles and waves (don’t believe they actually said ‘wavicles’).

Instead of letting the data be limited by a single point-of-view, the scientists were allowing a dual model. This dual model, though paradoxical, kept them from excluding experimental data that contradicted either point of view.

Similar changes transformed all the arts.

  • Literature bloomed—James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner wrote episodic works that slipped in and out of multiple points of view and narrative styles. In parallel:
  • Jazz busted out and evolved weedlike—an episodic music style that combined African rhythms with Western instrumentation and whose forms are based on musical virtuosity and improvisation
  • Painting and sculpture fractured—because photography had become a commodity, the role of recorder had now passed from human hand to technology. So artists imported African art forms and began to wander into total abstraction. Look at the multiple points of view in Marcel Duchamps Nude Descending a Staircase (the same body pixellated across different moments in the act of walking downstairs) and the face morphing in Pablo Picasso’s The Young Girls of Avignon (multiple sources of not only light, but form).
  • Cinema emerged—and permitted the tightest control of point-of-view.
  • In theater, this began happening before the turn of the century with Alfred Jarry (Ubu the King, theater as childish prank; forms shattered lovingly) then with Vsevolod Meyerhold in Russia and Weimar Germany in the twenties where the Cabaret culture invaded the palace of high art and produced Klabund, Brecht, Wedekind, Lion Feuchtwanger.

In some senses this is a standard argument. All Twentieth-century art forms underwent a change in allowable paradigms. Theater is no exception. What makes it significant is what makes everything about this century (as it slams shut) significant—its openness, its allowance of free-flowing narrative and quick context-shifts needed for an age where communication becomes more and more instantaneous (witness how you receive this dinky essay).

[1]You’re free to dispute the exact order.
[2]Acceptable to state that high theater was perceived as a branch of literature in the 19th century? Of course, there are exceptions to everything…
[3]Or at least a change back to an older mind that doesn’t refuse to see things that don’t fit a rigid logic model?