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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Performing My Lai

Below, My Lai's Rinde Eckert reflects on the creation of a work wrestling with the repercussions of atrocity, duty, and conscience nearly five decades after an international tragedy.

Photo: Zoran Orlic

By Rinde Eckert

On March 16, 1968, C Company of the United States Armed Forces marched on My Lai, a hamlet within the Son My village complex near the border of what was then North Vietnam and South Vietnam. They killed more than 500 civilians: women, old people, children, and infants. It was to be the first of a series of search and destroy missions called Task Force Barker. Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot, realizing what was going on, landed his helicopter, imposed himself between the berserk soldiers and the remaining villagers, and stopped the massacre. Shortly after Thompson’s irate report to his superiors immediately upon his return to base, Task Force Barker was suspended. It is safe to say that Thompson saved many more than the dozen lives he and his crew (gunners Larry Colburn and Glenn Andreotta) are credited with saving that day.

Tragedies of such magnitude cannot be approached with the brash velocity of the photographic. An almost pornographic nakedness in the document of the atrocity impresses us with its horror at the same time it distances us from that horror—makes it impossible to engage with, to stay with long enough to understand something of redemptive value, something to improve our understanding of ourselves and the world. The broad brush of revulsion paints us into a familiar (and therefore comforting) corner from which we look with a kind of hauteur. We are sympathetic while remaining essentially aloof. “We cannot possibly be that!,” we tell ourselves. The interviews with survivors of My Lai are heart-rending; there are no words… But they are not art. And art is often what we need most when the world has turned ugly and crazy. Documentary history tells us what happened, but art allows us to enter the past fully, to be made wiser by it.

Had the composers's approach to My Lai been sententious or platitudinous, the subject would have been pointless, a kind of “war is hell and men are capable of awful things” cliché. But by seeing the thing through Hugh Thompson’s eyes, his heroism and its political and personal ramifications, his horror, his outraged sense of justice, his devotion to duty, and his sense of helplessness, we can revisit the monstrous event and come away enlarged of soul, because in his case, at least, the moral center held. He remained a just and honorable man in a field where madness and blood lust had run riot.

Photo: Zoran Orlic

The work is presented as part concert, part drama. The musicians are in the foreground, emphasizing that the music is doing a lot of the descriptive work here—at turns aggressive, chaotic, confused, soaring, violent, pastoral, ethereal, or plaintive. The hospital room in which we find our Hugh Thompson (dying of liver cancer) is minimally evoked: two chairs, a tray of pills, an army blanket, an IV stand, and a typical drawn curtain, the flimsiest of walls on which to cast the shadows of his recollections. We felt that the density of the imagery in the music and text would be best served by this austere setting.

Thompson here is a man of action rendered helpless by his disease and unable to ward off the haunting images of that fateful day. It was his defining moment, the worst day of his life and yet proof of his nobility of character: caught between gods—the god of mercy and the god of war—Thompson’s compassion and righteousness prevailed and he acted bravely. But that kind of hell takes its toll. He suffers from PTSD and its sleeplessness and depression. His marriages have fallen apart and he is dying alone.

In playing Hugh Thompson in a piece where the timing is extremely precise, I don’t have the luxury of crafting the rhythms of his memories and responses as I see fit. I have to inhabit the mask, not carve it. I have to trust the score and work within its inspired constraints. This means that sometimes I need to be physically still, letting the instruments exemplify the violence of the emotion in all its intricacy while my body stays taut and quiet.

Photo: Zoran Orlic

Thompson was military, a man good at executing orders, comfortable standing at attention, decisive. In the field he would be cool, efficient. Stage director Mark DeChiazza and I were mindful of that military bearing as we contemplated our embodiment of the man. He had to look with the directed gaze of the soldier, the steadiness of one quickly analyzing a complex situation and deciding what to do. At the same time we are dealing with a dying man sometimes overcome by his disease. And at still other times I have to be the angry Hugh Thompson, violently upset by the injustice and cowardice of his superiors.

Thompson here is our surrogate, standing for us in this conflict, exemplifying the double bind of the modern warrior—the attempt to maintain a balance between tactical expedience and morality, rage and calculation, self-preservation and martyrdom. My Lai is an emblem here. We cannot do justice to its tragic and horrific size. If we pretend we can, we are lost. We can however visit and limn the tension of a man caught in its powerful grip, its terrible contradictions. In Thompson’s feeling for the suffering of the innocents and his heroic actions to save them, we see our best selves. Thompson’s heroism becomes ours and encourages in us the same steadfastness, the same sense of justice and bravery.

In an America where vulgarity and barbarity are becoming institutionally validated, a visit to the field of both supreme cruelty—and heroic and righteous action in the face of it—seems worthwhile.

My Lai, by Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert, and Vân-Ánh Võ, with music by Jonathan Berger and libretto by Harriet Scott Chessman, will be performed at the BAM Harvey Theater from Sep 27—30.

Rinde Eckert is a writer, composer, librettist, musician, performer and director.

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