In October 1993, in the dusty, roiling streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, as photojournalist Paul Watson aimed his camera at the bloody, beaten corpse of a U.S. soldier, in his head he heard the man say, "If you do this, I will own you forever."
In 2007, poet and playwright Dan O'Brien heard Watson recount that memory in an NPR interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Instantly, the soldier - and the photographer - owned O'Brien, as well.
He and Watson began an e-mail correspondence that went on for several years, finally meeting (in the Arctic, of all places) and becoming close friends. Watson already had won a Pulitzer Prize for that photograph and had written a memoir, Where War Lives, about his extensive experience covering conflict. Now, O'Brien picked up the baton, producing a volume of poems, War Reporter (2013), based on Watson's experiences, and an award-winning play about their friendship, The Body of an American (2012), running at the Wilma Theater through Feb. 1.
Memories haunt O'Brien, 40 - from the confrontational suburban New York childhood that pockmarks his recently released second volume of poetry, Scarsdale, to his vicarious seizing of that moment in Mogadishu.
"It may be genetic, temperamental, as I come from 'haunted' people - the Irish, my family," says O'Brien. "My mother was haunted when I was growing up, by the traumas of her childhood - an alcoholic, abusive mother and other abuses she'd only allude to."
Mix in his description of his father in brusque terms, and Scarsdale has an almost unbreathable vibe. "It's a story of clinical depression," O'Brien says, "but also other forms of mental illness, of the legacy of trauma and abuse in families, of the mysteries of familial love and cruelty, and the question of escape."
Yet, if you listen to the conversational feel of The Body of an American and its autobiographical take on the eager O'Brien's relationship with the sad, seasoned Watson, you hear richly burnished black humor coming through its sparsely staged, two actor/multi-character play, the grimness of blood and guts made weirdly funny in the retelling of their relationship. "My wife is an improv comedian," O'Brien says of Jessica St. Clair from Upright Citizens Brigade. "She couldn't stand me if I was moping around being haunted all the time."
O'Brien says he has found inspiration in the theatrical work of Samuel Beckett ("the first playwright who meant the world to me - I hope that doesn't sound too pretentious"), Wallace Shawn, Paula Vogel, Caryl Churchill, and Frank McGuinness, and the poetry of Anne Sexton. His poems have a playwright's point of view, and his theater pieces read like poetry.
"I'm excited by writing that doesn't fit," he says of his rebellious streak and his idiosyncratic tics. "I grew up in a family with lots of lies and delusions, with stories being told that weren't true. So maybe that's it. I distrust a cozy story."
There's nothing cozy about the story that burrowed into O'Brien's head and never left. Watson, a Canadian working for the Toronto Star, had been caught up in the chaos in Mogadishu as Somali militiamen clashed with U.S. forces and helicopters were shot down, one of them a Black Hawk carrying Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland. On Oct. 4, 1993, when Watson came upon Cleveland, the soldier's trussed, battered body was being dragged and beaten by a frenzied mob.
"In less than the time it took to breathe, I had to decide whether to steal a dead man's last shred of dignity," the photographer recalled in Where War Lives. "The moment of choice, in the swirl of dust and sweat, hatred and fear, is still trapped in my mind, denying me peace: Just as I was about to press the shutter on my camera, the world went quiet, everything around me melted into a slow-motion blur, and I heard the voice: If you do this, I will own you forever.
" 'I'm sorry,' I thought."
In the months following the Battle of Mogadishu and the photo's publication, President Bill Clinton scaled back humanitarian efforts in the region and withdrew troops from Somalia and other countries. In 1996, Osama bin Laden was quoted as saying, "One American was dragged in the streets, you left; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear."
"I started corresponding with Paul with a play in mind . . . but halfway into the writing of a first draft," O'Brien says, "these poems started cropping up, multiplying, and soon I was working on both projects more or less at once."
His play had to be "focused in terms of its dramatic structure," yet he wanted to delve deeper into the more psychological realms of Watson's memories, to pay "less attention to dramatic action," which the poems allowed him to do. "As a collection of poetry, War Reporter has a narrative through-line that most poetry collections don't have. That owes very much to the play having taken shape first."
O'Brien figured that each man's talents and weaknesses as writers might create something interesting beyond his own brooding starting place, "with an often internalized, psychological point of view," and Watson's inability to write about his inner life. Now 55, he continues his war-coverage career.
"I was scared of him, scared of the material," the playwright says. "Was I scared of the truth of Watson's stories? Was I scared of his pain, his trauma? . . . Simply put, I was haunted by the idea of being haunted."
The Body of an American shows Watson in a state of psychic unraveling, but its finale is, for O'Brien, hopeful. "It's still a docudrama, so it's an ending with ambiguity and possibility, still haunted by this ghost of Sgt. Cleveland . . . but whose life was moving forward with dignity, maybe even greater purpose," tending to the very ghosts that plague him.
O'Brien has created a body of Watson-inspired work that includes librettos for a pair of one-act operas based on War Reporter that debuted in 2013, as well as another collection of poetry about Watson that focuses more on his recent time in Syria. In addition, there are the pair's "tragicomic attempts" to create a pitch for a cable TV drama about Western journalists covering the Middle East.
"He's been a hard subject to let go of," O'Brien says of Watson, "and I haven't done it yet."
of an American
Through Feb. 1 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.
215-546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.EndText