Why isn't George Packer's terrific little play Betrayed — about the three pro-American Iraqis who don't quite get what they need from America – not doing better? (It opened in February at the Culture Project in Soho, extended its run for a bit, but is slated to close on June 16.) Maybe because he's too good at his day job: Betrayed is based on one of Packer's lengthy Iraq dispatches for the New Yorker, and his natural audience might have simply said goodbye to all that after the original piece appeared in March 2007. But is it still "too soon" to render Iraq as anything other than journalism? Yep. For starters, the war has to be over first.
Every film about it has failed commercially, even when the critics have been justified in their kindness (Stop-Loss, Grace is Gone, In the Valley of Elah). Big, world-historical events tend to need some airing out before they're ripe ingredients for art. Even a few years after the no-bullshit end of major combat will do.
• World War I. All Quiet on the Western Front wouldn't have become a classic of its genre (particularly as it's told from the German perspective) had it appeared anywhere near the Armistice. Remarque's novel was published twelve years after the event when everyone was sufficiently terrified of another global nightmare to need a grim reminder of the last one. (If war poems from this period were able to resonate as the bombs were still falling then this was because they only dealt in long, hard slogs-they never became them. It'll take you about a minute to read a masterpiece like Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," whereas the average Packer article is a good Brooklyn-into-Queens trip on the R local.)
• World War II. Norman Mailer made his name three years after the Allied victory with The Naked and the Dead, and he showed up to parties in a t-shirt and baseball cap (edgy!) But what are the odds that Joseph Heller would have found a publisher for Catch-22, a book about lazy and scared U.S. fighter pilots, before 1960? (Iraq's only version of dark satire so far is War, Inc., which is Grosse Point Blank remade for the Huffington Post. A manic Joan Cusack and dancing amputees, and we're still trying to figure out whether or not it did well.)
• Vietnam. The crowning cinematic achievement was Apocalypse Now, which debuted in 1979, a solid four years after the war ended (or six years, if you're Henry Kissinger). Also, it was an updated version of Belgian atrocities in the Congo, so bonus points for redoubling a healthy time lag. (This doesn't even begin to account for Brando and a coked-out Dennis Hopper, or the fact that Rambo was right around the corner from winning the damn thing for us, anyway.)
• Cold War. We had Dr. Strangelove and John Le Carré to peddle moral equivalence and chronicle all the funny-creepy Armageddon scares. But its finale, which at least had a definable moment on television, only produced a freshet of memorable English-language novels (Tolstaya, Shteyngart, Grushin) way after the fact, once all the sad but witty young literary men and women hopped it to the nicer side of the Iron Curtain.
• 9/11. The trickiest tragic event of them all. Who besides Ian McEwan has done anything categorically successful with that? Even Don DeLillo couldn't quite work his magic with Falling Man, and he was the author who nailed the JFK assassination-thirty years later.
Still, can't blame a guy for trying. Packer says he's now batting around "a little novelistic idea" about Mesopotamia and its discontents. So is a host of other reporters with the same beat who feel too straitjacketed by their regular medium. We wish them well, and their editors all the time in the world.
Bonus thought: Betrayed wasn't even nominated for a Tony, but two other politically charged plays that were trafficked in the past: the Prague Spring (Tom Stoppard's Rock n' Roll) and a British spy-ring from World War I (The 39 Steps).