Memorial Tattoos AND the Fogginess of War in
Seattle Rep’s Last of the Boys
Tim O’Brien’s short story collection The Things They Carried asks what it means to tell a true war story. How does one narrate the experience of war after the fact? These stories bring the war back to the homefront, keeping the war alive in one’s memory, blurring the boundaries between warzone and safe place, and making it nearly impossible to truly leave the war behind. Veterans’ stories prompt us to ask how and why we remember war, or, perhaps, why we can’t forget it.
The technical design of Seattle Rep’s production of Steven Dietz’s Last of the Boys captures the complexity of post-war temporality and feeling, but some aspects of the script and staging never quite crystalize. There’s a certain fogginess to these moments. Like California’s Central Valley. Like Mr. McNamara’s war.
The set and sound design quite impactfully illustrate the temporal and spatial confusion of the war zone and the homefront. Before the show begins, a soundtrack of groovy tunes from the late 60s fills the Badgley Wright, where the front of the stage has been barricaded with sandbags and the curtain has been replaced by a jungle camouflage sun net emblazoned with an American flag. This pre-show set dressing is meant to transport us visually and sonically back to a time and place of war, but when the ersatz curtain rises, accompanied by the recognizable sound of helicopters, it reveals not the jungles of Vietnam, but the desolate, arid landscape of a trailer park in California’s Central Valley. Everything looks rundown and ramshackle. Sun shelters are rudely constructed out of fiberglass and two-by-fours. A rusted trailer angles itself across stage right. A dumpster occupies downstage left. Although the set doesn’t necessary look like a modern war zone, the sandbags at the foot of the stage remind us that war becomes a framework for how veterans see and experience space and time post-war.
The helicopters we hear as the sun net rises could be flying into Vietnam. Or flying out of it. They could be flying into Iraq or Afghanistan. Or flying out. It doesn’t exactly matter which direction the helicopters are going, or which war they’re in, making it difficult to pin down the specific moment in which this play takes place. Written in 2004, the exact time in which this post-Vietnam play takes place is never quite clear. I think that this sense of timelessness is both an important aspect of how Dietz’s script evokes the temporal disruption of memory (through trauma and PTSD), as well as a problem for how deeply tied to history Dietz’s script simultaneously seems to be. This is a story about Vietnam veterans that takes place between the Gulf War and the Iraq War. Each of these is a very different war, but I’m less interested in thinking about them politically or historically than I am in thinking about them aesthetically and environmentally. Vietnam was a “wet” war, a war that took place in rainforests and humidity and mud. The Gulf War and the Iraq War are both “dry” wars, taking place in arid deserts and wind and sand. Water, as a conductive element, is often symbolic of memory, and the environment in which Last of the Boys takes place is far enough away from water to appear so dusty, but close enough to see the fog rolling in from the river.
The characters make note that this environment is toxic in and of itself, a Superfund site situated just downriver from a toxic waste dump. Is the environment itself the miasma of memory? Do we keep telling stories about Vietnam because wet wars continue to seep into our memories and bones far longer than we expect they would? However dry the environment of Last of the Boys may seemingly be, the play makes use of water as a conduit for memory throughout. Ben, the protagonist, doesn’t want to talk about the war or remember the war at all, but begins to do so when his war buddy Jeeter, a community college professor writing a book on McNamara, arrives and they begin chugging beers and shooting the shit. Their Budweisers – practically flavored water – allow them to imbibe memory, as does the whiskey the characters consume around the fire at the end of Act One.
To Deitz’s credit, his veteran characters, Ben and Jeeter, both felt fully realized and realistic. Their exchanges made use of the kind of gallows humor veterans tend to employ, but never leaned too far into stereotype. As the child of two veterans, I am always searching for stories that include the experiences of women in the military. Dietz’s script doesn’t deliver on that aspect, continuing to center veteran’s stories on men’s experiences. However, by including a war widow and her adult daughter in this veteran’s narrative, Dietz at least gestures toward a broader inquiry into how war impacts military families. Even if these women aren’t soldiers, Last of the Boys makes the case that they, too, are veterans of war, haunted (sometimes literally) by past trauma. Dietz’s women are unfortunately less well-rounded as characters than his men are, although Emily Chilsom finds a certain depth in Salyer, whose father died in Vietnam before she was even born, making her feel more fleshed out than her mother does.
And speaking of flesh, much of Salyer’s role in this play has to do with that very subject: her skin and how her body bears the scars of a war she didn’t fight. From the moment Jeeter describes sneaking a peek at Salyer’s tattoos in the dark, two things were clear to me: 1) Salyer’s tattoos were a replication of the Vietnam War Memorial, a memorial tattoo for men she had never known and would never know and 2) her giant memorial tattoo would be revealed to the audience, necessitating that the actress appear onstage either fully or partially nude. In an Act Two monologue delivered from roughly center stage, facing the audience, Salyer describes the time she went to the Vietnam War Memorial with her tattooist boyfriend. “I’m going to show you the greatest tattoo I’ve ever seen,” she recalls him saying, and goes on to describe the wall of names as a woman made of granite, laying against the ground, exposing her belly covered in the names of soldiers lost to war. Salyer found her father’s name on the wall, but rather than taking an etching home as so many visitors to the wall do, she went home with her tattooist boyfriend and demanded that he cover her in names, as well.
There is a long tradition in American and European tattooing in which male tattooists mark or inscribe the bodies of women. Many of the tattooed ladies of yore were canvasses for their husbands’ art, and there are many more stories in American history in which white women claimed to be kidnapped and forcibly tattooed by Indigenous peoples. It is not lost on me that Salyer’s layers of black costuming make her look both like Stevie Nicks, adding a little visual payoff to Jeeter’s joke that Fleetwood Mac became a shitty band when “those chicks joined,” and like a frontierswoman, like Olive Oatman. Both types of tattoo narratives operate around consent to alter the body. In the case of narratives of “forced” tattooing, the use of this term was employed to shock white audiences and stoke racism against Indigenous peoples, obscuring the reality that in most cultures where tattooing is a symbolic and ritual practice, anyone who receives a tattoo – especially on their face – has chosen to do so.
Salyer’s story likewise indicates her consent to become her boyfriend’s canvas, but also how she feels her consent in this moment is constrained by the ghosts of her past. Like the story of the “Sineater” that Jeeter later shares, who symbolically ingests penitents’ sins by eating bread they lay on his chest, Salyer likewise allows the soldiers who died in Vietnam to permeate her body. But the difference between the Sineater and Salyer is choice. The Sineater is paid to eat sins, while Salyer receives no compensation for this act. She doesn’t get to choose her trauma, but she does get to choose how she deals with it. And she deals with it by getting an aggressively epic memorial tattoo. A non-tattooed person in the audience would probably read this revelation as sacrificial in some way. Salyer gives up her normative white beauty to bear the trauma of war on her body. I suspect that Steven Deitz might not have any tattoos. But a non-tattooed person would miss out on the fact that tattooing is not painful, but pleasurable. Of course it hurts to have a small needle jammed into your skin for hours at a time, but that pain quickly turns into a rush of endorphins that allows you to sustain it. It’s an addictive feeling. So while the largess of Salyer’s tattoo and its subject are intended to shock the audience into sacrifice, I think such a reading ignores the reality of getting tattooed, of embodying feeling, and the function of memorial tattoos – all of which involve the choice to transform pain to pleasure, to claim pleasure through pain.
In this light, the staging of the reveal of Salyer’s tattoos is especially critical for how we are meant to understand Salyer and her relationship to herself and to her family trauma. In the Rep’s production, Emily Chilsom quickly rips off her fingerless gloves and throws them to the floor. With the same amount of force, she discards the scarf. Her motions indicate a fervent need to finally show someone her secret, to be vulnerable. She unbuttons her blouse and turns upstage, away from the audience. She pulls her shirt down over her bare shoulders to display her ink-covered arms and back, lined with the names of the dead. She stands there, pleading with Ben to look at her, and sinks to her knees, head bowed, shoulders rounded, in what appears to be her own silent mourning. This is a performance choice that seems to deny Salyer any power in her decision to carry these names with her. The earlier monologue so clearly telegraphs that the Vietnam War Memorial is gendered; the wall is a woman. But Chilsom’s body postures -- to turn away, to sink down and round her shoulders – are the opposite of a wall. Her choices as an actor (and perhaps Braden Abraham’s directorial input) brush against the demands of the text. I am uncertain if this is a productive choice. If we are meant to understand the trauma of Salyer’s fatherlessness as the thing that drives her to chase veterans for their stories, to shack up with men who, like Jeeter, are twice her age, and to carry on her body the names of men who didn’t make it home, it would be compelling to see her choose this, to force an audience (and Ben, and Jeeter, and her mother) to witness the effects of male trauma on female bodies. But we do not get to see Salyer become the wall. Instead, she crumbles.
From a practical standpoint, I recognize that it is far easier to apply a bunch of temporary tattoos to a flat surface like a back than it is to cover breasts with tattoos. I also recognize that actors, too, must be able to consent to what they will and won’t do onstage. I am certain that a lot of care and consideration between Abraham and Chilsom was exchanged in the crafting of this moment, but I truly wished we, as an audience, had been confronted with Salyer’s naked chest. I wish she had looked us all in the eyes in defiance and dared us to look back at her, to really see how trauma impacts the body through her choice. Had this moment been staged with Salyer exposing her tattoos to the audience, it would emphasize her choice in accepting the work of being the “Sineater.” But here the staging seems to deny her agency. The text, as I read it, suggests this is a constrained choice, but a choice nonetheless. This staging undercuts the power of reclaiming moments of constrained choice.
As a burlesque dancer and scholar of performance history, I am critical of how contemporary theatre handles the staging of nudity. There is, of course, a lot to be said about the burdens placed on female actors by male playwrights. We are all well-aware that female nudity as spectacle is part of the tradition of American theatre that, in many cases, upholds misogynistic attitudes about female bodies as sexual objects or decorative tableaus. Nude male bodies are very rarely seen onstage at all, by contrast, and are generally used for comic effect, if so. In the grander representational history of women onstage, when female actors make the choice to not perform nudity, they retain their respectability in ways that further drive wedges between theatre and less respectable genres like burlesque or club stripping. Some onstage nudity is indeed unnecessary in the context of a play (whereas in striptease acts, it is the raison d’etre). Some is not. In this case, Salyer’s nude display is narratively necessary, and when a moment such as this is staged as Seattle Rep chose to do, it renders the action palatable, rather than progressive, challenging, or critical.
Ben’s traumatic memories are also a problem, though in this case the issue lies less with the staging and more with the script itself. When Ben, alone onstage, experiences a memory, he enters a kind of fugue state as the lights go dim and eerily green. A young soldier in uniform appears to him, accompanied by the light burst of fog that traditionally signals ghostly apparitions in the theatrical tradition. When the ghost appears, Ben role plays Robert McNamara, his deceased father’s hero, giving speeches and making decisions about how the war should progress. Many of these rituals begin by the young soldier pouring a bucket of water into a basin downstage right, reviving the thematic link between water and memory. In Act Two, the ghost submerges Ben-as-McNamara, to provoke a confession, an apology, or something of that ilk. This moment, like the rationale for why Ben plays out the trauma he experienced in Vietnam, that strained his relationship with his career military officer father, is never quite clear to the audience. Certainly, Ben being haunted by the ghost of a boy he killed in Vietnam, or a soldier he failed to save, would make sense as a visual representation of his trauma. To disassociate and role play Robert McNamara, without any further discussion of mental illness anywhere in the text, makes much less sense. Given the story Dietz tells about the creation of this play, which is included in the program, it would appear that McNamara’s ghostly possession of Ben was simply Dietz shoehorning his own obsession with an historical figure into a text that doesn’t need it. These McNamara moments don’t quite work from a textual standpoint, even if they are beautifully staged. They tie the past to a specific figure and a specific moment in history in ways that brush against the deliberate atemporality of the rest of the narrative. They make the play foggier, literally and figuratively.
I am not advocating that we must see the trauma of war for civilians to understand it. Nor am I advocating for all veteran’s narratives to rehearse the specific details of what really happened “over there,” which is what most civilians think they ought to ask about, and most veterans will demur from answering, anyway. (A conversation such as this is staged between a veteran recovering from opiod addiction and his potential employer in the far more challenging Fire Season by Aurin Squire, which ran at Seattle Public Theatre concurrent to Rep’s run of Last of the Boys.) I was left, however, with the feeling that the writing could have served these characters better had Dietz scrapped the McNamara angle altogether and freed himself from the limits of history. The script succeeds when it is driven by character, and fails when it wraps itself up in political history. It offers a clear critique of Vietnam, and of war itself, but the production itself seems to shy away from really going there, from really staging how the characters respond to being veterans, real or imagined, of the Vietnam war.
As a result, Last of the Boys becomes a palatable veteran’s narrative in everything from Dietz’s script to the staging itself. The final image of Rep’s production is Ben, unfolding his deceased father’s flag, and ironing it. An empty flagpole has loomed unadorned at downstage right throughout the course of the play. Jeter mentions several times that there should be a flag flying from it. This flag is Chekov’s flag. We know, at some point, that we’re going to see it and that something will happen to it. Reginald Andre Jackson’s performance in this scene was incredibly moving. Nothing prepares you for the moment you receive a soldier’s flag. (I was certainly not prepared to receive my mother’s flag. I will not be prepared to receive my father’s flag, either.) He takes precision and care when unfolding it and draping it over the ironing board. The tension in his shoulders and face project that he is holding back an intense amount of feeling. He irons it as though he is executing a surgical strike, diving the iron into each crease to snuff it out. After about a minute or so of silently ironing this flag, his shoulders lose their rigidity and he sobs as he continues to iron. The lights fade out on this moment, which captures the ambiguity of the separation between war and home, past and present, trauma and memory and reality. It’s a powerful moment emotionally.
I, along with the rest of the review team, wanted to see that flag burn. I was disappointed, but not surprised, that it didn’t happen. I wanted Ben as a character and Seattle Rep as a theatre to make a strong choice, to create an incendiary moment. But, of course, you can’t burn a flag at Seattle Rep. Because burning a flag at Seattle Rep would be unpalatable. It might run the risk of alienating one of the groups the theatre was consciously inviting to be a part of the experience of seeing this play: veterans.
Abraham’s direction of this moment, then, succeeds in a way. The more incendiary choice (which could be implied with sound design and lighting design, rather than actually burning a flag) would have left every single audience member, veteran or not, talking. It would be an outrageous choice. But the quieter choice, the contemplative choice, suggests that Ben’s tears, called up from that wet war of memories of trauma mixed with grief, offer something that feels more true of how war stories present a veteran’s relationship to war: it is complicated, and unclear, and often inexpressible if you haven’t actually been there. And so we walk away asking how we read that moment, and in asking ourselves how to read that moment, an audience must also learn to sit with complexity and ambiguity, to question our own memories of moments and of feelings, and of the impacts of war on the homefront.
(And for what it’s worth, I did get my onstage flag burning in SPT’s Fire Season, in which an implied flag burning ends Act One, and a ceremonial retirement of said flag is performed onstage. A United States flag, for the record, is retired from service by burning it.)
Last of the Boys Produced by: Seattle Repertory Theatre
Last of the Boys by: Steven Dietz
Last of the Boys Directed by: Braden Abraham
Last of the Boys Performed at Seattle Repertory Theatre
Production Dates: Jan 18 - Feb 10, 2019