If those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, then those who remember, especially those in the theater community, will revive it.

With the recent return of antiwar plays from the 1970s and before to the downtown theater sccene, directors are revisiting stories of despotic leaders, confused families and condemned soldiers. A number of plays were revived for short runs in September, including Bertolt Brecht’s Edward II, Terence McNally’s one-act Bringing It All Back Home and
Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ comedy about sexstarved Greek soldiers. The Public Theatre included a performance of David Rabe’s Vietnam-era play The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, under the direction of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a recent reading series.

Though connections to the present were unavoidable, many of the directors attempted to keep current events from overpowering the narrative elements of the stories. In adapting plays from 35 or even 2,500 years ago, companies
faced the dilemma of whether to update the work with references to current political and military conflicts or to leave the plays in their original forms and trust that their messages would remain timely.

“We aren’t planning any changes,” said Oscar Eustis, artistic director for the Public Theater, about the reading of Rabe’s play to be featured as part of a series entitled New Work Then. “You get a double vision of remembering and reviving the play, seeing it through the lens of now and considering what has changed and what hasn’t.” The show, which features the death of a soldier in a Vietnam brothel, first premiered at the Public Theatre in 1972.

The playwright, who served 11 months in Vietnam and was put on hospital duty like the play’s protagonist, resisted the urge to classify his play as simply antiwar, but in the introduction to his book Two Plays: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones, he described the war as a “surreal carnival of death.”

Directors who kept the scripts unchanged hoped the complexities and contradictions of the original plays’ words would keep their reproductions from being dismissed as protests against the war in Iraq.

Though Solid Hang’s rendition of Bringing It All Back Home updated minor pop cultural references from the original 1969 script – replacing Telstar with HDTV – the majority of the dialogue stayed intact, creating uncertainty about whether the soldier whose casket is prominently featured onstage died in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq.

“We were trying to make it span the eras and not make a dated piece,” said Pravin Sathe, the theater company’s founder. “We tried to convey a subtlety of message and didn’t want it overly political. Even our staunch conservative friends saw it.”

The entire action of the short play occurs in the living room of a fictional American family whose eldest son has recently died in war. The mother has decorated the room with a flag motif, and lauds her son’s patriotism, while the father keeps commenting that death in war is a manly, virile death. Watching the drama unfold is the soldier’s ghost, who says, “The main reason I wish I was alive was to figure out why I was dead.”

Terence McNally, who was unable to attend the performance, felt that though the country has changed, his short drama was still meaningful.

“When the play was written, the draft was in effect and every American young male was eligible, but that is the main difference. Sacrifice and loss are still keen for a family today. Most people’s day-to-day lives continue at a normal pace and the loss of life barely seems to register until a body bag arrives on your own doorstep.”

In adapting Lysistrata from earlier translations, the Rising Sun Performance Company decided to alter the setting from Greece to New York and included references to current military conflicts, political figures and celebrity icons.

“I updated the punchlines, but I tried not to tamper too much with what Aristophanes already did,” said Jason Tyne, who directed the play. “The big moment of decision was, should we change the time from the Greek Civil War? And we decided to go for it.” This meant adding dialogue about a war over oil and including a character called The Magistrate with an overt Southern accent. But Tyne emphasized that he tried to keep the storyline the same. “We wanted to keep it from being specifically Bush, and we wanted it to be universal,” he added.

Tyne read several different translations of the play and retained the focus on women who, in an act of antiwar protest, refused to have sex with their spouses. He tried to match up the changes with the original scripts. While the former text had a character named Calo comment, “I happen to know that Theogenes’s wife has been skimming this way at the tip of her ploughing skiff.” The updated quote by the renamed Cleo reads, “I saw the Bush twins as I was
leaving. They were flying over here... high as a kite already.”

Each company stated that they consciously chose historical pieces rather than selecting brand new stories in hope that the plays’ longevity might make their themes less partisan and more enduring.