Dispatches from the theatre of war

What did Hair have to offer besieged Sarajevo? More than Waiting for Godot, perhaps. The playwright David Edgar reflects on the drama of conflict
Two path-breaking icons of the post-war theatre were produced in Sarajevo during the siege. Both had their own particular contextual ironies, and it's interesting to speculate which will resonate the longer. The superficially obvious answer - Susan Sontag's production of Waiting for Godot rather than a revival of the Sixties hippie musical Hair - contains an obvious paradox. Waiting for Godot isn't about a war, whereas Hair is.

A similar paradox lurks in the programme of Vanessa and Corin Redgrave's upcoming season of war-related plays at the Riverside, London (titled "Memory", the season runs from 11 April to 17 June). Apart from a Macedonian drama set in Forties Skopje, war provides little more than a backdrop to plays about relationships and personal life, while two plays - Max Frisch's The Fireraisers and Ionescu's The Chairs - come from the absurdist tradition of post-war European drama.

The Redgraves didn't promise a season actually about war, but it's interesting to speculate what they'd have come up with if they had. The tragic tradition in drama puts recognisably flawed people into extreme conditions, and so it's no surprise that the vast majority of Shakespeare's tragedies, and all but two of the histories, have military combat as a central element in the plot (even three of the comedies rely on war as an essential part of the backstory). Little more than a century later, war is virtually eliminated from Restoration drama and its Continental counterparts. And while there are soldiers enough, there is no actual act of warfare portrayed in the whole of Ibsen, Chekhov or Strindberg.

The usual explanation for this phenomenon is sociological. For all their human recognisability, classical and Shakespearian tragedy is about heroic figures and earth-shattering events. Post-Renaissance drama, on the other hand, is increasingly about people like us. The 19th-century realists in particular were aware that for their bourgeois audiences the agonies of dashed hopes and doomed romance were as devastating as the fall of Troy. But this view does not survive the First World War. Throughout this century, the stage has regularly reverted to the battlefield, producing (in Shaw's St Joan, Brecht's Mother Courage and others) some of the great plays of our time.

The difference, of course, is the point of view. Most plays are written by non-combatants, but it's only in this century that large numbers of war plays have been written from an ironic, distanced and sceptical perspective (this is not the same as "war is hell" plays, which would fit almost everything written back to - and including - Aeschylus's The Persians). Even before the Second World War, plays were set not in the tents of the generals but among the other ranks (and in the case of Mother Courage, among the support services). Since 1945, British Army plays have been dominated by the experience of the alienated, from unhappy conscripts (in the sub-genre of the Great British National Service play) through deserters (in John Arden's Sergeant Musgrave's Dance and elsewhere), to the civilian victims of past, present or (as in Edward Bond's The War Plays) future conflagrations.

For many such plays, it is not the evil but the arbitrariness of war that is the central reality. Traditional tragedy presented war as containing a massive moral ambiguity; Hiroshima called the whole idea of moral legibility in human affairs into question. The theatre of the absurd was of course the most immediate dramatic response to that perceived reality, and in that sense, Godot is a war play.

There is another kind of response to 20th-century history, however, located somewhere between the battlefield and the blasted heath of the absurdist imagination. Generals are not the only dramatic protagonists to have been elbowed aside by their drivers and their cooks. Howard Barker in particular has made a career out of seeing history from the bottlewasher's perspective (the Tsar's tutor in Hated Nightfall, Trotsky's driver in Fair Slaughter). Where the great figures do appear (in Howard Brenton's Magnificence and Weapons of Happiness) they are as ghosts and visions, at least one remove from their history - as, on the Continent, Peter Weiss can only create Jean-Paul Marat through the performance of a madman. The withering dismissal of Robert Bolt's underestimated State of Revolution as a "Hello, Trotsky, how's Stalin?" play demonstrates our embarrassment at the direct representation of people who think they are the masters of their times. If we must see men of power, the theatre insists, let's see them from the feet of clay up.

This spirit and tone was set in the Fifties, not only in absurd but also in realist drama. In the most famous speech in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, Jimmy Porter complains that "people of our generation aren't able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us in the Thirties and Forties, when we were still kids". Thirty-five years later, a failing Labour leader's attraction to military values is revealed as a kind of nostalgia for the moral certainties of combat, in David Hare's more than aptly titled Absence of War.

In other words, our nervousness about confronting great human actions head-on arises partly out of an envy of those who lived in times when there were causes good and brave enough to die for. This envy occasionally mutates into evocation: CND fought to end war via route-marches from Aldermaston to London (with all the paraphernalia of rations, campsite banter and blistered feet); Vietnam was countered not only by marches but also by direct action, covert operations and the invasion and capture of symbolic belligerent space. The point is not that anti-war activism of the Fifties and Sixties was a parody of militarism, but that it drew on the same well: the idealism essential to any human action that puts your life at risk for a collectivity. Sure, it contained an element of grandiosity and posturing, as did its cultural expression in artefacts like the musical Hair. But, deep down, the peace movement was not about militarism the wrong way round, but idealism the right way up.

It was this spirit that the Eighties destroyed. The enemy of the Eighties was Utopia; its project was to strip the ideal from the real. Quintessentially, the market is about what is, not what could be; even the futures market operates in the eternal present. The great brave causes of the Sixties (from participatory democracy to progressive education) were not based on the idea that everyone possessed unrealised potential, and that given the right encouragement everybody would be braver, brighter and better than society allowed them; rather they asserted that the world was a better place if you worked on that belief. Whereas in the Eighties, in Robert Browning's construction, people were not judged by their reach, but only by their grasp.

The philosophical form of this world-view holds that because there is no one way forward, there is no point in setting out on the journey at all. It is a persuasion foreshadowed in the theatre of Samuel Beckett, with its impotent vision of an eternal wait for the raising of an unliftable siege. Sure, things aren't as simple as they seemed in the Sixties, and even now Sarajevo provides little grounds for facile optimism. Still, given the choice, I think I'm going for Hair.

n David Edgar's play about Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall, `Pentecost', opens at the Young Vic, London, on 31 May