L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) is a classical music piece written by Igor Stravinsky in 1918 to be ‘played, danced, and acted’. It was radical for its time—Stravinsky was infamous for taking musical risks that triggered riots from outraged, Parisian theatre-goers. The original L’Histoire was based on a Russian folk tale, in which a soldier makes a fatal deal with the Devil: he trades his beloved violin for a get-rich-fast book—in effect, trading his soul for wealth. It has a long history of revision and adaptation. In 1993, Kurt Vonnegut drew on his own experiences in the military to rewrite the libretto about the first soldier who was executed for deserting the US Army. Then, in 2005, Rebecca Lenkiewicz adapted the play to comment on the Iraq War at the Old Vic, building in a fusion ensemble from Baghdad and London.
100 years after the end of World War I (and 100 years after L’Histoire du Soldat was first performed), I adapt the classic story to focus on the technology of modern warfare: drones.
Independent reporting agencies estimate that drones have killed around 1,597 civilians. The ‘success’ rate of the strikes is about 10%, meaning that nine innocent people are killed for every “intended target”.
Drone strikes have been a signature component of the War on Terror. While the United States military claims that drones save soldiers’ lives, as well as prevent civilian deaths, the last 14 years of drone warfare in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan prove otherwise. Independent reporting agencies estimate that drones have killed around 1,597 civilians. The ‘success’ rate of the strikes is about 10%, meaning that nine innocent people are killed for every “intended target”. Because of the high civilian casualties, human rights organizations have marked these targeted killing programs “clear violations of international humanitarian law.”
In my adaptation, The Soldier’s Tale, I focus on the damage that drone strikes do to a community. Scattered across the stage, 1,590 plastic toy soldiers represent the 1,590 Yemeni, Pakistani, Afghan, and Somali civilians who have been killed and then labelled ‘enemies killed in action’. In the eyes of the US military, these people are as disposable as toy soldiers; their lives have no meaning and they are easily killed off. They endure the dangers of local terrorism and governmental instability, as well as the prospect of sudden death from the sky.
Drone pilots sit tens of thousands of miles away from their targets. They ‘verify’ their identities through two-dimensional, greyscale, aerial images, as well as cell phone data often supplemented by British intelligence services. According to Reprieve, a human rights organization that campaigns against unlawful killings, an individual can be targeted because they took a wrong turn, or got into a taxi, or borrowed someone’s cell phone, or picked up a call from an unknown number. This information—paired with a two-dimensional image—is assumed to be ‘reality’.
Because of its distance and simulated screen, the drone dehumanizes its targets into ‘bugsplats’ or ‘blobs,’ making it easier to kill indiscriminately. Increasingly, the drone technology mimics that of a video game and drone pilots are often recruited from video gaming tournaments. The Soldier in my adaptation is recruited to the US military as a drone pilot, tempted by stability for her family; but she soon realizes that she has signed up for more than she had bargained for.
There is a third character in the original version of L’Histoire: a mute, dancing princess who is dying of a fatal illness (but still, in her womanly ways, manages to dance a tango, a waltz, and a ragtime). The king promises her hand in marriage to anyone who can save her. Of course, the Soldier ultimately ‘wins’ her—though she leads to his downfall, tempting him to disobey the Devil.
Amira, like many young Pashtun content creators, uses YouTube to disseminate the artistic heritage of her region—fighting Western media’s portrayal of these areas as merely war zones.
To me, the mute, dancing princess is comparable to the silenced, Muslim woman who the War on Terror seeks to liberate. In my adaptation, Amira breaks these silent stereotypes. She is a Pashtun artist who seeks to show the world that her community is not comprised ‘terrorists,’ but complex, layered individuals. Amira, like many young Pashtun content creators, uses YouTube to disseminate the artistic heritage of her region—fighting Western media’s portrayal of these areas as merely war zones.
In order to honor these individuals, as well as others in the community who are affected by drone strikes, most of the play text is derived from interviews. The play features testimony from survivors of strikes, transcripts from control centers, and interviews with drone pilots. By re-making The Soldier’s Tale through the inclusion of these diverse histories, I hope to center the voices of those who have encountered and endured this violence, and the ways in which they continue to survive against all odds.
The performance, as a result, lies somewhere between fiction and fact. It presents the audience with real narratives, as well as immerses them in the precarious worlds of the Soldier, the Devil, and Amira. Audience members dance with Amira. They take part in her music video launch. They munch on Pakistani snacks. They are bedazzled by the Devil, and confronted by the Soldier. They cradle civilians in their hands.
In conversation with the original L’Histoire du Soldat, our piece integrates the striking Stravinsky score with the urgency of a new story, allowing us to interrogate the ongoing nature of war and manipulation. This piece is not only a re-making Stravinsky’s score, but also the dualistic concepts of military and entertainment, the stereotypes about women around the world, and the words of drone strike survivors and drone pilots.
We invite the audience to grapple with these contradictions and the technology of modern warfare—now marked by distance, drones, and collateral damage.
This adaption of The Soldier’s Tale was first performed on November 11, 2018 (Armistice Day) at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham, London.