On Stage

The Ghosts of Tonkin

Reliving history, with hindsight

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

From the start of Bellingham TheatreWorks’ second production, The Ghosts of Tonkin, audiences will be aware there won’t be a happy ending. That’s because the play—which can be seen Aug. 29-30 at Bellingham High School before touring in Oregon—focuses on the unfortunate origins of the Vietnam War, which would go on to kill more than two million people. We caught up with playwright Steve Lyons to find out more about the play’s subject matter—namely Oregon senator Wayne Morse, an outspoken critic of the resolution that authorized military intervention in Vietnam.

Cascadia Weekly: What was your initial interest in what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964?
Steve Lyons:I wrote The Ghosts of Tonkin in 2002. I would have never written it if we had not invaded Iraq. When the Iraq War began, people drew an analogy between the genesis of that war, and the beginnings of the Vietnam War. News media in the United States eventually asserted that the “weapons of mass destruction” of the Iraq War were the moral equivalent of the “Gulf of Tonkin” of the Vietnam War. I had no idea what they were talking about, but it made me curious to learn more about the origins of the Vietnam War. That curiosity eventually led to this script.

CW: What was the biggest catalyst for the Vietnam War?
SL: In the play, we witness a pivotal moment in history: The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution senate hearing. In that hearing, Wayne Morse went toe-to-toe with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Unfortunately, McNamara won. If the senate Foreign Relations Committee had followed the advice of Morse on the morning of Aug. 4, 1964, the world in which we live would be radically different. The historic significance of what Senator Morse attempted to do—stop the Vietnam War before it started—cannot be overemphasized.

CW: How did you find a story amid all of the historical information?
SL: If my research into the genesis of the Vietnam War had simply revealed a bunch of guys in Washington D.C. making a really bad decision, I would have not written this play. It’s sad that that happened, but it is not a story. Goliath is not a story. You need David to make it a story. I found my David in the form of Senator Morse. Because Morse singlehandedly battled this monster, you now have a stage-worthy, epic story.

Finding virtue in my bad guy, Secretary of Defense McNamara, provided a real challenge. He misled us into a war that ultimately killed two million people. Part of the goal as a writer in wading through all this source material was searching for that kernel of goodness in McNamara.

CW: In the play, a character named Doris moves a lot of the action forward (even though she’s dead). What was the inspiration for her character?
SL: The spirit of Doris is strongly influenced by the real-life journey of Daniel Ellsberg, who remains an inspiration for this character.

CW: The performances will include post-play discussions with Vietnam vets and others. What do you hope will be the outcome of those discussions?
SL: I am sure this play will be very emotional for vets and anyone who was personally touched by the Vietnam War. Audience members may have had a loved one who died in Vietnam. They may have lost their legs in Vietnam. Serious, heartbreaking stuff. And then in the play you witness the casual manner in which our leaders brought this tragedy upon the country. It is infuriating. I look forward to learning from vets how (and if) they forgive such a thing and move on.

CW: This is Bellingham TheatreWorks second production. What’s in the future for the company?
SL: The driving artistic force of Bellingham TheatreWorks is artistic director Mark Kuntz. Because of his faculty position at WWU, we are limited to summer productions and perhaps a production right after Christmas break.

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