Aaron Swartz, Bradley Manning, Chelsea Manning, E. James Ford, Edinburgh Fringe, Heroism, Matt Steiner, Mohamed Bouazizi, Private Manning Goes to Washington, Space on Niddry Street, The Arab Spring, The Representatives, Theatre Review, Tunisia, WikiLeaks
In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, drenched himself in gasoline outside the offices of the local municipality and lit the match. It was, as the saying now falls with its deadened thump, the spark which sent the Arab world up in flames. Bouazizi had been driven to self-immolation by repeated fines and harassment from the police. His death provoked widespread national protests. Tunisia’s strongman, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, was toppled and his successors were thereafter democratically elected. Millions of eyes then turned back from the example of Tunisia, to Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
There is always something unavoidably hopeless about the need for heroism. If you wish to enjoy heroism, then it is best to never really look at it, try to understand it, or, worst of all, put it on stage. Prior to his burning, Bouazizi had felt humiliated because a female police officer had slapped him in public. And the “revolution” that he inspired… well, it was supported, indeed directed, by Tunisia’s army. “The spark which ignited a military coup” is not so jolly a catchphrase.
With Chelsea née Bradley Manning, the heroism collapses once the first ray of light has fallen across it. Manning was jailed in 2013 for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents. For his supporters, Manning was a hero, who had sacrificed everything to uncover the truth. Yet his leaks had hardly rocked world capitals – indeed, they were everywhere met with mass public indifference. If you went around the venue today, the Space on Niddry Street, asking the guys working in the ticket office or the bar to name a single thing that they can remember from the WikiLeaks revelations, it is almost certain that nobody would be able to answer. It is preposterously claimed that Manning’s leaks had “triggered” the revolution in Tunisia, by making Tunisians aware of Ben Ali’s corruption (as if they didn’t know about it already!). And then there are Manning’s never-ending attempts to squirm off the hook, the undignified cringeable fantasy that you could really tell all of America’s secrets and expect to be let off.
So however you tell Manning’s story, there is no way to avoid being haunted by its emptiness, by its painful lack of glitz, or by the fact that it simply might not mean anything at all. Or even by just how embarrassing it all is. Never in the whole of political history has there been a martyr who has whined quite as irritatingly as Manning has done, about all the trivia of his captivity. He seems to be insensible of the wonderful role which history has granted him and he openly refuses to glory in it.
Nevertheless, the Representatives’ new play “Private Manning Goes to Washington” is not “full of sound and fury,” but it is instead a tender, carefully crafted plea for our sympathy. Manning is here like a mess of a defendant who has been superfluously allocated an eloquent defence lawyer.
We begin with a portrait of the Byronic hacktivist Aaron Swartz at home, surrounded by mountains of leaked data and bottles of his beloved soft drink Mountain Dew. At first I believed Matt Steiner’s depiction of Swartz to be an outright caricature, until I was piqued into Googling videos of Swartz which confirmed that the man had really looked and sounded like this. Swartz is visited by a childhood friend, Billy (E. James Ford) who organises prison theatre. He wants Billy to produce a play about Manning, called “Private Manning Goes to Washington.” Unfortunately, Swartz is being himself turned over by the Feds, and he will fatally crack under their pressure.
Swartz is a similar dish to Manning, an open-democracy activist who ends up horribly alone, without any mass democratic support behind him. This play reveals him to be a political insect, just the faintest background buzz. If there is no guerrilla urgency to Swartz’s character, the play shows the military-industrial complex to be equally lacking in fascist glamour. At its helm is the diffident figure of Obama, worrying paternalistically.
“Private Manning Goes to Washington” is in effect a long loud yawn. Although yawns are always enjoyable, they are not, I am afraid, politically useful.