Sharing a title with Henry Kissinger’s infamous book, Tim Carlson’s play Diplomacy is a graphic, conflict-fuelled drama with moments of heartbreak and dark humour—a reflection on the international themes that have come to define our contemporary world. Nominally about Canada and America’s active military involvement in the Middle East’s many theatres of war, it scrutinizes the part the media plays in manufacturing our private reactions to foreign policy—how the new phenomenon of “embedded journalism” has become complicit in making everything personal, political.
Roy deserted the US Army during the Vietnam War to become a historian specializing in Canadian diplomacy. His Vietnamese-born wife, Thu Van, has flashbacks to the “shock and awe” she experienced as a girl, while the new armed conflicts heat up in the Middle East where their daughter, An, serves as a Canadian diplomat in Damascus. Roy’s best friend Sinclair is an ambitious, possibly unprincipled, newsman. His interest and obvious involvement in Thu Van’s public self-immolation makes him decidedly suspect. “We don’t need a lot of martyrs but we need a few,” argues Thu Van in Sinclair’s videotape of her suicide statement.
Following the suicide protest of Thu Van, Roy’s principles are shaken: once believing his desertion was an honourable reaction to a dishonourable war, he now believes he was misguided. His grief, fury, fear and despair keep this play on its razor’s edge.
Like diplomacy itself, perhaps none of Carlson’s characters are new. But his dramatization of how our personal lives are increasingly shaped by what used to be called “public affairs” is compelling—the usefulness (or uselessness) of martyrdom certainly remains an overwhelmingly contemporary question.