Hotseat: Steve Lyons

The Bellingham-based playwright discusses his new play about the Vietnam War, and the Oregon Senator who opposed it.

Wayne Morse was steadfast in his convictions. The Oregon politician was one of two U.S. Senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, which allowed then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to use military force in Vietnam. Morse—who was initially elected as a Republican, became an Independent and then ultimately joined the Democratic Party—remained a vocal critic throughout the Vietnam War. His opposition even prompted an FBI investigation. He also had a way with words: "I believe that history will record that we have made a great mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution," he told the Senate after it passed the resolution.

Now, Bellingham, Wa.-based playwright Steve Lyons brings Morse's life and language to the stage in a new drama called The Ghosts of Tonkin, which will be presented by Bellingham Theatre Works in Portland on Saturday, Sept. 27. Lyons began working on the play in 2002, when the United States was preparing to invade Iraq. At the time, commentators made comparisons between that conflict's impetus—the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction—and that of the Vietnam War.

The Ghosts of Tonkin takes its name from radar images that Americans thought were North Vietnamese boats—but in reality may have been malfunctioning equipment. The play takes a dramatic look at the proceedings surrounding said "ghosts," with Johnson, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Morse as characters.

The Ghosts of Tonkin is currently on tour thanks to the Wayne Morse Legacy Series, a collaboration between the University of Oregon, the Oregon Historical Society and the World Affairs Council celebrating the 50th anniversary of Morse's resistance to the war. In advance of the Portland show, WW talked to Lyons about his research, how he made the switch from comedy to drama, and what kept him fixated on Morse for 12 years.

Willamette Week: What drew you to Wayne Morse as a character?

Steve Lyons: 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 Wayne Morse. Because Wayne Morse singlehandedly battled to stop the Vietnam War before it began, you now have stage-worthy, epic story.

Senator Morse is such a Cassandra figure. Like Cassandra, he had the ability to predict the future. In voting against military intervention in Vietnam, he said, "Future generations will look with dismay upon a Congress about to make such a historic mistake." Pretty accurate prediction. But like Cassandra, he also carried the curse that no one would believe him.

Can you talk more about your research? How did you make these real historical figures into characters?

My source material takes up seven feet of my shelf. I listened to dozens of hours of telephone conversations on tape. I interviewed countless people who were somehow involved in that fateful first week of August 1964. The telephone conversations were key to making this play authentic. In the play, many of the interactions that take place in person actually took place on the phone. The declassified Senate hearing transcript is also crucial. The declassified NSA documents, including cables and other intelligence, helped focus this story.

A movie or play cannot have one-dimensional characters. You have to find the Achilles' heel of the good guy. You have to find virtue in the bad guy. Finding virtue in my bad guy, Secretary of Defense Robert 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 Robert McNamara.

Your older plays seem to have a more lighthearted or even racy tone—you wrote a comedy about sex and performance-art funerals. Was it difficult to write about such a weighty topic?

Before Ghosts of Tonkin, all the posters for my plays featured either cleavage or a fanny! My initial take on this story was fairly comedic and surreal and included bawdy humor. It featured some clever writing but it didn't work. Editing the script to focus on the real events makes this play resonate. I feel so passionate about this story that I just kept hammering away at it until it was ready for the stage.  

Robert Schenkkan recently wrote two plays about LBJ, both of which premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (The first, All the Way, went on to a Broadway production starring Bryan Cranston.) It seems like theater about the '60s is popular at the moment. Why do you think that is?

With the 50-year anniversary of everything '60s, we are seeing media focus on things like the Kennedy assassination, the Beatles invasion and Vietnam. Certainly the 50-year anniversary helped get my play attention. For example, the 50-year anniversary of Wayne Morse's vote opposing the Vietnam War was the spark that launched the Wayne Morse Legacy Series. With that said, All The Way is being made into a movie for HBO. Tony Awards, a Pulitzer and Walter White help give you some cache in Hollywood.

SEE IT: The Ghosts of Tonkin is at Lincoln Hall, Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave., 725-3307. 7:30 pm Saturday, Sept. 27. $20. Tickets here.