'Red Badge of Courage' Revisited in New Play


Every war is unique. Every war is the same.

For the soldier on the ground, the experience changes with the times. In the Civil War, battles were fought by massed troops who could fall by the tens of thousands in a day. In Iraq, the fighting mainly took place in cities where troop movements were limited and the most common threat was a roadside bomb. In Afghanistan, pitched battles were sometimes fought at remote outposts in the mountains.

But in any war, soldiers experience boredom, raw fear and camaraderie.

Playwright Melissa Cooper hopes those realities can be reflected in her "Red Badge Variations," which is receiving its world premiere at the Coterie Theatre.

Cooper said Jeff Church, the Coterie's artistic director, suggested she attempt a version of "Red Badge of Courage," Stephen Crane's iconic novel of a young man in war.

In it, a Union soldier named Henry Fleming flees from battle but eventually redeems himself by leading a decisive charge that helps defeat Confederate forces.

"The beginning was Jeff Church and me starting to talk about how to work together and wanting to work together," Cooper said. "Jeff was thinking about doing an existing play of mine, and then it morphed into talking about doing a new play and the Coterie commissioning something. 'Red Badge' came up as a book that is still in some school curriculums, deals with some pretty essential stuff about growing up and deals with war at a time when we are at war."

Cooper, who is based in New York, said neither she nor Church wanted a straight adaptation. The Coterie had already staged a version of "The Red Badge of Courage" in the early 1990s. Cooper wanted to capture something about the realities of American troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It was going to be a new play that deals with soldiers today but draws on 'The Red Badge of Courage' and be inspired by it and look at some of the interior content of it," she said.

The first step: Read the novel. Cooper said decades had passed since she first read Crane's book.

"I'm a huge reader, but I actually had a time getting into it initially," she said. "You know, sometimes books seem opaque and at other times in your life you walk right in. The third time approaching it, the doors flew open and I was inside it and I was having all kinds of ideas.... And then I started researching everything about Stephen Crane, the Civil War and what was going on with soldiers ... in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Crane was born six years after the South surrendered and never served in the military. After copiously researching the war at a time when many veterans were still around to tell stories, Crane sat down and wrote the book that would establish his literary career. "Red Badge" wasn't his first novel, but it resonated with the American public. Published in 1895, it became a best-seller.

Cooper's research included reading memoirs by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and watching video documentaries as well as raw combat footage shot from helmet cameras.

But in terms of authenticity, Cooper said the biggest contribution has come from Logan Black, an Army veteran who served in both theaters in 2006 and 2007. Black, a third-year student in the University of Missouri-Kansas City's graduate acting program, became a consultant.

One of his tasks was to play drill sergeant to director Kyle Hatley and the cast -- Jacob Aaron Cullum, Matt Leonard, Matthew Joseph, Francisco Villegas and Jake Walker. As he ordered them to do push-ups and a range of taxing exercises, he would walk around the room using what he described as his drill sergeant's voice, telling them stories about his own experiences.

"There was quite a bit of testosterone flowing in here," Cooper said.

Black chuckled and agreed: "Yes, there was."

"Logan has been amazing as a consultant," Cooper said. "Since meeting Logan and starting rehearsals, he's been incredible. The play is such an ensemble piece, and these guys have a limited amount of rehearsal time. And they have to become soldiers. If you don't buy that, something's missing."

Black received widespread media attention last year when, after considerable effort, he was reunited with Diego, the yellow Labrador retriever with whom he partnered in Iraq.

Diego was trained to sniff out buried bombs. Black's job was to find the explosives and call in teams to defuse them.

In addition to putting Hatley and the actors through mock basic training, Black also has made suggestions that allowed Cooper to refine her script. But Black said even the earliest version of the play he read had a high level of authenticity.

"I related very heavily to it," he said. "I identified instantly with the survivors' guilt that some of these soldiers deal with.... I identified with the individual soldiers because I knew all of them to various degrees in my own service. These were real people that I had encountered. And that made the play quite profound."

Cooper said the play is a compression of a 10-month deployment.

"There are five guys, so it's an ensemble piece," she said. "But there is a character who brings 'The Red Badge of Courage' as a book into the combat zone, and his name is Henry Fleming. However, he is not literally modeled on (Crane's) character. It all takes place in a remote outpost.

"The place is never named, but it's basically Afghanistan. But it should have that feeling that it could be anywhere in a certain kind of war. We see them getting ready for battle, we see them returning from battle, we see them killing time, we see them laughing and fighting."

We also see them throwing rocks -- apparently a common activity.

"Soldiers get bored," Black said. "You throw rocks at little rocks. You throw rocks at big rocks. It's quintessential."

Black, who will be in the Unicorn Theatre's production of "Seminar" next month, said most of his overseas time was spent in Iraq.

"The biggest difference is so much of Iraq is based in urban environments," he said. "So much of Afghanistan was based in mountainous terrains. (In Iraq) they wanted to hit us with a roadside bomb, engage in small-arms fire and then run into the city where they know we can't pursue.

"And if they hit us in a city, we can't return fire with our highest casualty-producing weapons. In Afghanistan, longer, sustained combat was possible."

Black said he was happy to be back with Diego, who he said saved his life "multiple times." In one episode, Black said Diego alerted him to the fact that Black was standing directly on top of an improvised explosive device.

Black said both of them carry the effects of combat. Black has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Diego has a bad reaction to loud noises, such as cars backfiring or fireworks.

It's a symbiotic relationship between two wounded warriors. Diego calms Black. Black calms Diego.

Black said his PTSD symptoms are "remarkably improved since I got Diego back. Because the events that resulted in me being effected were the events where he was with me. So I guess there's some kind of weird shared experience there."

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