Donald Margulies on His New Play

It's always a question: How can anyone who professionally documents the suffering of others stifle the urge to help? In two weeks of coverage of the Haitian earthquake, we've seen some journalists who cross the barrier (Dr. Nancy healing the sick on the Today show) and many who don't (countless photographers behind the now-unavoidable images, most of dust-caked limbs and motherless children). On Thursday, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies debuts a play on Broadway that unpacks these very questions, albeit about coverage of the Iraq War. Time Stands Still tells the story of a romantically linked war photographer and war correspondent, both of whom return from the front lines to struggle with their consciences. Margulies spoke to NEWSWEEK about the play and its resonance with Haiti. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The play is about journalists covering Iraq, but thematically, it's also incredibly relevant to news coverage of the Haitian earthquake.
Margulies:
When I wrote the play, Iraq was very much raging. Then it subsided, and then Afghanistan was back in the conversation. And then the catastrophe in Haiti seems to have eclipsed all of the war coverage right now, because it's still unfolding at a dramatic rate. It's so compelling and so awful that I think it's really absorbed the public's capacity for this kind of exposure to ills. There is compassion fatigue in our society, and that's part of what I touch on in the play. And I think it's understandable—with mass media and the instantaneous nature of it, the pervasive nature of it all, there's no escape. It almost has a numbing effect on people. What's happening with Haiti now is that the coverage was so instantaneous and so enormous that I suspect that the numbness is beginning to take hold. As with any internationally focused catastrophe, there's only so much that people can bear.

There's a weariness on the part of the journalists, too—a sense of frustration that the suffering they depict is shunned by the public.
These journalists feel exhausted and vanquished, in a sense, by the coverage that gets so little exposure. The videographer who will put her life on the line to get five seconds on the air—it's that kind of frustration that they experience. It's what James experiences in the play—and we have to take into account that he's suffering from posttraumatic stress: he is angry at having his story [about Iraqi refugees] killed, a story that he feels is so important, but it's sacrified because of a certain ceiling that exists in any kind of journalism. People are always getting their space cut, pieces shelved, reduced considerably, or diluted because they become tagged onto other stories, so that it loses some of its impact.

With Haiti coverage, we can see this dialectic: on the one hand, the shocking images are what has compelled massive donations. On the other, when TV personalities involve themselves in the recovery, it appears as though they're anointing themselves.
Right—is too much graphic imagery bad, or is it really telling the story in a palpable and powerful way that is getting people motivated? It's really a conundrum. It takes some public figure—a celebrity with the social consciousness of George Clooney—to corral Hollywood and put on a great show. I'm not by any means discrediting that; I think it's terrific that he's using his celebrity that way. But I do think that is still necessary to get the story told. I don't think it's just the videographers and the photographers and the journalists. It's also the use of celebrity, because that's what people respond to in our culture.

In talking to photojournalists, how did you find they reconciled what they do to themselves?
There are two kinds of experiences that they have with their subjects. One is with people who want to be documented, who feel that the photographer will take their story out into the world. And then there are those who feel—as Sarah has her moment in the play of dredging up this suppressed memory, via flashback—rejected and reviled by the very people they are trying to publicize and champion.

There's a terrific documentary called War Photographer, in which this much-revered, top-of-the-form photojournalist talks about the doubt he experiences every day. He has these suppressing feelings—"Am I exploiting the very people I wanted to help?" They attach this camera appliance to his camera, so that you are seeing what he sees, and it's breathtaking. We as a company of Time Stands Still saw it on the second day of rehearsal together.

In the play, James is a writer who ends his career as a war correspondent and yearns for a comfortable, normal life of Netflix and home-cooked meals. But he's massively guilty about wanting those things. Where does that guilt come from?
It's a kind of survivor's guilt. Many of the people I spoke to who have been in Iraq and been embedded and have had fixers—they were able to go back to their bureau, and their fixers go back to their bombed-out apartment building. There is a certain amount of guilt about that, and shame. You may be on the front lines with these people, but you go home to different kinds of beds, in different kinds of homes, with different roofs over your heads.

There's guilt for consumers, too, isn't there? Watching Oprah or Dr. Sanjay Gupta onscreen, and then wondering if they're helping, or diverting attention and resources away from recovery.
I know. Is it preferable not to have Oprah do a live show? I don't know the answer, but it certainly is a conundrum, and it's very much a part of our life, our American life, our human life right now because of the ubiquitousness of media. Good for Oprah, good for Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and good for Anderson Cooper. But again, they step into the frame and they become the story. And that's part of the dilemma that journalists experience.

They're following—it's your turn of phrase from the play—the "war du jour."
It's true, isn't it? There will be another catastrophe, sadly. If it's not a war du jour, it's a tsunami du jour. People will grow very weary very quickly—if they haven't already. And I don't mean to suggest that I'm any better than anyone else—it's just's human nature in the 21st century.