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Firsthand: Dan O'Brien Confronts a Photojournalist's Ghosts in The Body of an American

Primary Stages presents the new work on the heels of its recent run at Hartford Stage.

Photojournalist Paul Watson seen from a distance in Ulukhaktok, in the Canadian Arctic.
(© Dan O'Brien)

In the mid-2000s, dramatist Dan O'Brien struck up a friendship with noted photojournalist Paul Watson. The two were at a crossroads in their lives: Watson was haunted by the atrocities he had witnessed, while O'Brien was dealing with the destruction of his family. Here, O'Brien describes how their long-distance relationship inspired his new play, The Body of an American.



On Distance

When I first e-mailed Paul Watson, now almost a decade ago, I was intrigued, even disturbed, by the distance between us. Paul was living in Jakarta, covering combat zones in Asia after 25 years reporting from the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans. I was moving from Princeton to Los Angeles, then teaching for a semester of seemingly unstoppable snow in Madison, Wisconsin. I was writing a history play about ghosts.

Dan O'Brien, author of The Body of an American.
(© James Leynse)

In another sense we were not so far apart. The year before, my birth family had collapsed, imploded — I still don't know what to call it, but I felt disowned for reasons that remain unclear to me to this day. Paul was, and is, haunted by the multitude of atrocities he's witnessed, but most literally by the experience of photographing a U.S. Army Ranger desecrated in the streets of Mogadishu. Just before he snapped his shutter — photographs that would win him a Pulitzer Prize months later, and change the course of U.S. foreign policy going forward — he heard a voice that he believes belongs to the spirit of the dead soldier: "If you do this, I will own you forever."

In the beginning I proposed we simply write each other about "where we are." Descriptions of place, of course, but our psychological settings also. Soon enough we found ourselves describing our personal histories, our ghosts, covering not just external but internal ground.

A few years passed until we met in person in Ulukhaktok, a hamlet on the shores of the Amundsen Gulf where Paul was covering the "Arctic and aboriginal beat" for the Toronto Star. Soon after he would return to war reporting in Kandahar and Syria, and I'd finish a first draft of The Body of an American at home in sunny Santa Monica, then develop the script as a commission from the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis (in a neighborhood known as "Little Mogadishu").

Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane in the Hartford Stage production of The Body of an American.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

Readings and workshops followed, with the New Harmony Project in southern Indiana, Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City, and elsewhere around the country — even outside the country, in rather cushy digs at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center, a 15th-century villa perched above Lake Como in Italy. A premiere production at Portland Center Stage, directed by Bill Rauch, and productions at the Gate Theatre in London and Royal & Derngate in Northampton, England, the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, has brought me and Paul and the script to this Hartford Stage-Primary Stages coproduction.

Our collaboration is multifarious and ongoing: I've written two poetry collections about him, War Reporter and New Life, as well as the libretto for Jonathan Berger's opera The War Reporter, all derived from Paul's writing, photographs, audio and video recordings, his memories — even sometimes what I imagine could be his memories. I've gone hiking with him in British Columbia, where he lives, and he's "taken meetings" with me in Los Angeles where we cooked up a TV drama about Western journalists covering the war in Syria, a tragicomically failed pitch that has evolved into my current Guggenheim Fellowship, a new play-in-progress for Center Theatre Group.

All of this travel — Paul's, mine, the play's — is only interesting to me as a metaphor for our friendship, for the distance that's been bridged between us, and hopefully between this play and its audiences. Paul believes deeply that we all carry wars within us, that we are all haunted by ghosts of one kind or another, and that through honest connection and affirmation we might cultivate empathy and curb our baser instincts for cruelty. I now believe this, too.

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