In January 2022 I performed my three one-woman pieces—whitenoise: 12 ghosts—over three nights at Theatre Works Mullet Festival. Each piece focused on a different form of violence: Laying Down the Law looked at the gendered violence of the Lindy Chamberlain case; What Happened Was This was the story of Lebanese-Australian Mamdouh Habib, his kidnapping, imprisonment and torture; Credibility Gulf, the third, focused on the first Gulf War. These were significant and iconic moments that have settled deep into our collective memories and cultural/political unconscious. I wanted to put the bodies and stories back together, reassemble them differently to create a new, more human, empathetic, and politically aware re-assessment of what really happened. I wanted whitenoise to re-contextualise these events, allowing the audience to re-member and re-appraise their impact: to activate an awareness of why re-engagement with these iconic events and characters—their ghosts—is necessary. I hoped to give the audience some conceptual and creative tools to extrapolate to similar events, including those taking place today.
Living as we do in the grip of the mind-numbing spin of the 24-hour news cycle, one horror event after another desensitising us, what happens to our memory, our sensitivity, our political engagement? We plough on, never fully processing or comprehending the deeper effects or implications of events. The media coverage during the first Gulf War was emblematic of this, creating, with its wall-to-wall coverage, a new, benumbed target audience. This is what whitenoise challenges, as it does a slow-news deep dive into ‘forgotten’ histories of gender, war, terrorism.
Here I focus on Credibility Gulf and when, how and why I wrote it, why I chose to write it as a performance, and how the insights I gained provided the foundation of a conceptual framework that informed my future theatre/performance writing. I call this an Antidotal Theatre (of violence), as opposed to the usual liberal-humanist fare of an Anecdotal Theatre (of passivity), which simply reflects, reproduces and enshrines the existing conditions of power—Louis Althusser’s ‘ideological state apparatus’, the essential, co-dependent twin of the ‘repressive state apparatus’ (army, police etc.), which work together, apparently seamlessly, to prop up power. My theatrical strategy is to challenge these conditions of power—to intervene in this apparent seamlessness—to make the audience aware of how they are shaped by and embedded in these power institutions, and how the cultural terrorisms of race, gender and class are theatrically constructed.
I found that, even for my politically engaged friends, there were two ways of responding to that 1991 war and its coverage: some just refused to engage, while others became obsessed and watched it on TV 24/7. Either response could render us passive, submissive, narcoticised, compliant, despairing, overwhelmed. I was one of the latter. I watched and documented everything, finally realising that what was going on was a sustained and sophisticated effort to construct this overwhelmed, impotent subject/viewer.
This was, perhaps, even more frightening than the war itself. Something new was being perpetrated. It was a politically, technologically, linguistically, semiotically sophisticated Public Relations blitzkrieg-type advertising campaign aimed at a captive audience, a target market—us, the global audience—that paralleled the actual military offensive. It put paid to any naïve notion we might have had after the end of the Vietnam War that we had ‘people power’. In the occasional reportage during the Gulf War of antiwar protesters, they were made to look ridiculously naïve—‘all we are saying is give peace a chance, all we are saving is snowflakes in hell’—sandwiched as they were between celebrations of the precision of supposed smart bombs and a raft of other you-beaut military technologies.
As a response, I wrote a poem. It seemed such a pathetic response.
In February 1991 a group of Sydney socialist feminists organised an event. It was held in the YWCA auditorium and a large and diverse audience of women attended. I was asked to participate and ‘read my poem’ at the end of the evening—the entertainment, the light relief—after the REAL business of the speeches.
But I knew that that poem was just pissing into the wind when pitted against the sophistication of the linguistic shock-horror tactics mobilised by the US military machine’s war coverage. This poem (which appears in Credibility Gulf), this simple act of conscious intelligence, which perhaps makes us human, was something deliberately made impossible by the reportage that looked like information, sounded like meaningful language, but wasn’t.
I realised if that poem was to have a hope in hell of even being heard I had to contextualise it. So I wrote Credibility Gulf as a frame, so the poem could be heard: so a different language could be HEARD.
I refused to allow myself to be afraid of the violent ignoramuses that were Bush, Schwartzkopf et al., so I turned them into the ridiculous buffoons that they were, putting their own words back into their mouths. Most of Credibility Gulf came from my record of the media coverage, both print and television.
My strategy was to expose TV as theatre, to turn the throwaway language of the mass media into the relative permanence of performance, the puffed-up self-importance of Pentagon decision-makers into material for stand-up comedy. The weapons I chose were humour and satire. Sir (Yes! He was beknighted by Queen Lizzie) General Buck Blackhead, Resident Shrub and comedian-journo Weasel Stark, the characters in Credibility Gulf, were born.
During the socialist feminist event, speakers from various political groups spoke—Women in Black, socialist feminists, lesbian feminist separatists and so forth. Each gave their spiel, simply inserting the Gulf War into their particular frameworks—anti-Muslim racism, advanced capitalism, military-industrial complex, imperialism, patriarchy. Trouble is, it was all that, but something different was also happening.
I had written a semiotic and social semiotic analysis detailing the metaphoric and metonymic chains of association in which the coverage was embedded to create this blitzkrieg of an advertising campaign. Nearly every aspect of the reportage was constructed, controlled, analysed, censored, contextualised, re-contextualised, proliferated and disseminated. It went well beyond censorship and propaganda; stank way stronger than the stench of the advertorial, of infotainment. It really was, as Schwartzkopf pointed out, ‘a textbook war’.
But all that delivering a paper on semiotic and social semiotic analysis would have done was disempower and depress the audience even more. I wanted to use my research in a more proactive way; to wake up and re-engage this narcoticised subject/viewer.
As the evening wore on I watched the audience—the already scared, shocked, traumatised, confused subject/viewer—become increasingly silent, despondent, disempowered, even fearful (when someone saw Buck Blackhead warming up outside they thought the military had arrived). But when Blackhead strode onto the stage the energy shifted, and by the end of the performance that silent, despondent audience was energised—angry, laughing, talking with each other.
I saw how the power of critical thinking together with creative work is not just ‘the entertainment’. An Antidotal Theatre (of violence) demands the seriousness of critical thinking and a range of strategies and techniques that, scavenged from the history of theatre, politics, linguistics, philosophy, psychoanalysis and more, will disrupt our compliance, shift our despair and show that we have the power to speak through and to power not just be spoken by it.
(Postmodern agitprop for one performer in five characters)
Character list—performed by single performer
Sir General Buck Blackhead (BB)—see publicity photo for costume—T-shirt printed with ‘KILL EM ALL LET GOD SORT IT OUT’, four shiny cardboard stars and one velcro attachment for fifth star, camo military pants, big military-type shoes, mirror sunglasses, military cap, big ugly watch, camo belt with plastic camo-type grenades attached that ‘explode’ when grabbed
Weasel Stark (WS)—journalist/reporter
Resident Shrub (RS)—President Bush
Bob Hawke (BH)
Batte Middler (BM)
Kathleen Mary Fallon (KMF) poet
A lectern with light attached
Australian flag hung upside down
Rubber hand-grenade pencil sharpener attached to pencil as Weasel Stark’s microphone
BB’s fifth star (cardboard) on lectern
Plastic hand grenades with lights and explosion sounds—BB’s balls hung off his camo belt
(Recorded introduction, in darkness, as audience is seated)
What is all this savagery, this being devoured by dingoes, fantastic creatures with teeth, blood sacrifices in the wilderness, endless and pitiless torture, murder, war, extreme violence, dismemberment, engorging and regurgitating of human flesh and whole countries? This is what is in our darkness where nothing stays down unless it’s dead and nothing is dead!
(Darkness. Music. Recording before Sir General Buck Blackhead enters)
In January, February and March of 1991, we, the public, at home in Mediadrome, were carpet-bombed, courtesy of U.S. A. Productions. Deliberately induced into an altered state of consciousness by this new type of war—induced into a traumatised state by the 24/7, live-death coverage across many time zones—we were shocked, suspended out of our normal consciousness and routines into the televised, sanitised, horror of the first Gulf War with its Scudbusters, smart bombs and sortees. By the time we got our shit together Desert Storm was all-over-red-rover. Desert Storm was the precursor war preparing us for the future.
(Stirring military music)
And now, ladies and gentlemen—give a war welcome to Sir General Buck Blackhead!
BB (Enters from the back through the audience): Way ta go! Way ta go! Way ta go!
(Making cross-hair signs with fingers and targeting audience) Take-it! Take-it! Take-it! (Makes sound of exploding bomb) Oh yeah!
(Removes his mirror sunglasses)
OK Scudbusters, settle down, settle down.
(Counting his stars) Four-stars—one, two, three, four … one’s missing—Sir General Buck Blackhead, redeploying, mission accomplished. Everything you got from World War 2 in a fraction of the time. We gave the Iraqis some good advice, they didn’t choose it, now they’re gunna lose it. We cut it off and we killed it. Six weeks, six days of picture-perfect assault. A textbook war and we’ll write the textbooks.
WS: (With hand grenade on pencil as a microphone) Good evening viewers. This is your stand-up, lie-down, roll-me-over-and-I’ll-whistle-Dixie-for-you comedian-journo, Weasel Stark reporting live—Bang! Dead! (Does a sort of pratfall)—from Rhiad.
Hey! Ever seen a news-starved pool reporter in a media blackout looking for a visual-grab, sound-bite scoop to deploy? (Thrusting microphone frantically into audience) Were you on the scene? Was anyone an eye-witness? Did you see the blood, the body bits? (Back to being reporter) Oh! Folks! It’s ugly, ugly.
Tonight! I’m speaking to a man who really knows how to put steel on his target—Sir General Buck Blackhead. Sir General, I hear they call you Buckin’ Buck. Why is that?
BB: Gee! Shucks! I dunno.
WS: Could it be that you got a bit of a temper there, Sir General?
BB: Well … blush, goof, aww, golly gee … they say I throw things when I get mad but, ahh, I don’t throw things.
WS: What about the Jackpot Road from Kuwait to Basra, Sir General?
BB: Designated killing box 87B, the most target-rich environment in the whole darn theatre of operations. 170k of bumper-to-bumper, going-to-the-beach-on Sunday-type traffic coaxed into the killing fields. EXPAND ORDNANCE! (Makes cross-hairs sign with fingers and then explosion sounds, orgasmic) Take-it! Take-it! Take-it! Ooh yeah! Gotcha! It’s a turkey shoot, man. It’s fish in a barrel, rabbits in a sack, target practice. Thousands of carcasses of soft-skinned vehicles, belly up. Killing box 87B impacted, rendered non-operational—a healthy day’s bombing.
WS: Yes, there are images of war out there folks.
What about co-lateral damage, Sir General? Has there been substantial interdiction of the live-ware component of the enemy war machine?
BB: You’re not going to draw me out on that one Weasel. What I can say, on that point, at this time is that Pentagon Central Casting is in negotiations at the moment with Totally Hidden Video for sole rights to the footage shot from the camcorders attached to the nose cones of the laser-guided missiles. They have already developed one pilot show called ‘The Unluckiest Man in the World’ featuring an Iraqi’s face as the sophisticated smart bomb travels elegantly down the highway towards him, travels through his windscreen, through his cranial casement, and impacts directly on target, killing the military transport behind him.
WS: Ever thought of joining NTNA, Sir General? Nana-Techno-Necrophiliacs Anonymous? (To audience) The war is over but endo-colonisation is only just beginning.
(Saluting) You know winning Sir Generals are national heroes back where I come from, Sir!
BB: No, Weasel, it’s the common-as-mud foot-soldier who is the real hero. (And especially the forty per cent Black contingent who couldn’t even get jobs pumpin’ gas for the oil companies we’re fighting for.) Over the past months he has sustained and absorbed massive numbers of sports injuries, road accident fatalities and friendly fire. It’s hell out there man. He’s out there in the desert playing Worst Case Scenario Charades and Hey-Buddy-Wanna-Come-Over-Saturday-Night-And-Write-A-Program-For-My-Missile. No, he’s the real hero. I just wanna get the job done and get home to my beautiful wife of thirty-two years, my two lovely daughters, our six-year-old dog, a parakeet, two cats and especially my sixteen-year-old son, Buck Junior the Third.
WS: Could you share that Best Case Scenario with us, Sir General?
BB: We’ve been to chapel, after roast turkey and apple pie the whole darn family is standing around the log fire, and I’ll say, ‘Son, I want you to have these’ and I’ll pin my wings on his chest just above his heart and he’ll say, ‘Oh boy! Oh boy! Daddy does this mean I can be a Scudbuster too? … Thank you sir. I sure hope I can stop neutralising the dog, shooting crack and live to be worthy of them’. And his Mom and his sisters will be smilin’ and cryin’ as he sings, ‘America! America! …’
WS: Ironically, these are the things a soldier thinks about out there on the battlefield—the good things of life. Could you expand for us, Sir General?
BB: Yes, Weasel. It brings back memories of my old Daddy, (salutes to the heavens) ‘Sir’, when he was head of the secret police for the Shah of Iran. He handed me his high-voltage cattle-prodder and said, ‘Son, now go out and cut your teeth on Middle-eastern politics’. (Maintaining salute and getting very sentimental and emotional as he speaks to his Daddy in heavens) Watch me take this bad boy Saddam out, Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Are you watching?
WS: Sir General, we have just crossed live to the nerve centre of the war machine. Let me guess. The khaki-camouflaged phone on my left must be your command phone and the (Salutes) the red, white and blue one on my right must be THAT OTHER PHONE. Tell me, Sir General, do you ever call Him on it?
BB: No, actually, He calls me.
WS: Well, viewers, just who does Resident Shrub call? We know he calls Sir General Buck Blackhead in Rhiad ’cause he just told us He did. We know He didn’t call Prime Minister Kaifu in Tokyo cause now the Japanese aren’t going to give us any more money, but He also called Bobbie, no not Bobbie Batista CNN Atlanta, not that Bobbie, but Bobbie Do-I-Listen-To-My-Head-Do-I-Listen-To-My-Heart Hawke in Conberra, Australia. Crossing live now to Bobbin’ Bobby Hawke in Conberra, Australia.
BH: (A submissive fem. Speaks coquettishly to audience) Well, I took a twenty-five-minute phone hook-up from Resident Shrub in the early hours of this morning. I think that shows you what kind of relationship we have.
WS: Hell, I wouldn’t want the job of cleaning the telephones where he lives.
We’re about to cross back now in real-time to Wishington DC (Dissociation City) where Resident Shrub is about to address the nation. Is that you, CNN? I’m sorry CNN, you’ll have to repeat that, you’re breaking up … We’ve got some real interference here. Techno-fault! Techno-fault!
KMF: (Poet speaks directly to audience) On the eve of the Gulf War, in the shadow of the new Citistate Novatel Luxury Hotel Complex in Darling Harbour, kids play Tank Tag in a camouflaged enclosure. They shoot at their little brothers and sisters from their mini-tanks while on the other side of the wire, their brothers and sisters shoot back from their machine-gun nests. ‘Good shot!’ shout Mum and Dad at the fence.
And what will the women weave into their carpets now, the women who have already learnt to weave the tank, the machine gun, the man kneeling with the bazooka on his shoulder? Large looms will be necessary to weave the Persian carpets showing B52 and BLU82 carpet bomb attacks and around the border will they weave, in Arabic script, the story of the thousands of soldiers suffocated in their bunker-tombs deep under the desert? Are the women sitting now where the cross-hairs meet above them, on the receiving end of the sign of the cross?
and so the kids play Tank Tag at Darling Harbour
and Mrs Warboys, the army wife, cuts the grass
and Schwartzkopf reads his camouflage-covered Bible
and the stock-market reached its Gulf Crisis peak in October
and prostitutes in Sydney say their workload has doubled since the war started
and camo-chic hits the streets of New York
and a truck driver spends his weekend painting NUKE THE KOOK on the side of his van
and I redesign the Australian flag with Old Glory where Joh Bull used to be and two white domes for Nurrunga and Pine Gap to replace the Southern Cross
and I doodle scaled-down rectangles of my TV screen with lines
converging to the point in the middle
and in the green-brown water of the Dawn Fraser Pool I kick a quick
desperate freestyle to avoid that vortex, that point in the middle I long to slide into
and I wonder if some woman in Baghdad or Basra is doodling cross-hair censors all over the inside cover of her notebook
and I dream that the US is playing cat’s-cradle with thousands of kilometres of red tape around the fertile crescent. Between the Tigris and Euphrates, Our Cradle of Civilisation is enmeshed in an intricate, sinister and web-like entanglement. And thousands of Iraqui POEs file across the desert from the right of my TV screen to the left and I make rough calculations—65,000 POWs, 650,000 Iraqi troops, that leaves 585,000—where they? After 100,000 bombing raids, where are they?
And then Mr Godfreys the vacuum-cleaner salesman commiserates with a customer, ‘Looks like there’s been a Desert Storm on your Persian carpet lady, but sit back and let Godfreys do the work.’
WS: CNN? CNN? Is that you? We’re back! Dissociation City, real-time, CNN State.
Standing by for Resident Shrub’s address to the nation.
Can you information me yet CNN as to whether it will be the intimate-fireside-chat format, the whoops-a-daisy-dashing-to-the-john-when-you-caught-me-caught-short-in-the-Rose Garden al fresco or the let’s-talk-grown-ups-over-the-Big-Brown-Desk-in-the Oval Office assemblage?
(Star-spangled-banner-type stirring music)
RS: (Standing at the lectern, he speaks in the soft, slow voice of a hypnotist in the process of inducing the hypnotic state in his subject. He holds up two fingers in the up-you gesture. The attached light is turned upside down to shine in an ugly way under his face giving him a very sinister look.) Pax Americana! (Then he does the thumbs down)
We don’t want to destroy Iraq, its people, its culture.
I promise I won’t come in your mouth.
We are Americans, we have a unique responsibility to do the hard work of freedom, and when we do freedom works.
We don’t want to destroy Iraq, its people, its culture.
This is hurting me more than it’s hurting you.
The New World Order, quite simply, will be a time when war is obsolete. NO MORE WAR! It will be a rule-writing period and America will write the rules.
No more war! No more United Nations! No more church! No more Pope! No more Freedom of the Press! No more Nature! No more History! A New World Order—a virtual reality. A New World Morality—a virtual morality.
MIGHT! MIGHT! MIGHT!
Yankee MIGHT, MIGHT, MIGHT.
Is RIGHT! RIGHT! RIGHT!
Work can be fun when you’re holding the gun.
Where the liberators are the terminators.
(Makes the ‘read my lips’ sign) We don’t want to destroy Iraq, its people, its culture.
I’m doing this for your own good.
The War is over. The Peace has just begun.
The Total Peace of Deterrence is Total War by other means. Speed is the essence of War and technology is the producer of Speed, a technology that has replaced nature. Pure, 100 per cent guaranteed, 24-hour, 7-days-a-week War. Build your bunker in the suburbs and stand firm on a PWF, a Permanent War Footing. Fight the War on Crime, the War on Drugs, the War on Words, the War on the Media, whichever War you want—Canon the Big Gun in copiers—Pea Beau, a better kill for your money—Nintendo Gameboy, picking it up is the easy part, but when you have the designated friend and foe codes, putting it down is a different story.
Peace Protester: (Beside the lectern, sings inanely as if stoned while making a peace sign)
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is snowflakes in hell.
(Stirring, portentous music—version of Disney Fantasyland-type music, ‘When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are’ etc.)
RS: (Continues in his soft, seductive hypnotic-induction voice) Fellow Americans, from midnight Eastern Standard Time I declare America a Geo-religion and CNN its State. A State of Telecommunications, populated by its target market, with its own regulating International Time Zone, drawing on a Captive Audience.
BB: (Clearing his throat) Mr Resident, Sir, with all due respect, aren’t you forgetting something? (Indicating space for his missing fifth star)
RS: It is with profound afterthought that I here present you, Sir General Buckey with your fifth star. Wear it as a decorative anachronism, just like the ground war, which was, militarily speaking, also a decorative anachronism. (BB attaches fifth star to his chest.)
And now here is Miss Batte Midler to sing our new National Hymn, which I am told was top of the Iraqi hit parade last month.
Batte Midler: (Making the cross-hairs, take-it sign with her hands into the audience)
God is watching us
God is watching us
God is watching us
From a distance
(Making the same cross-hairs and explosion gesture as BB)
BB: That’s it, Scudbusters. (Putting on his sunglasses) I have a literary career to get off the ground. Thanking you, and, as we say in Dissociation City, ‘Stay on the right side of the censors now, won’t you’. (Making the cross-hairs sign and explosion sound to the audience) Take-it! Take-it! Take-it! Oh! Yeah!
(Uses hands to set off his hand-grenade balls)
Way to go! Way to go! Way to go!