The Body of an American by Dan O’Brien

The Body of an American speaks to a moment in recent history when a single, stark photograph—of the body of an American soldier dragged from the wreckage of a Blackhawk helicopter through the streets of Mogadishu—reshaped the course of global events. In a story ranging far in time and place, from Rwanda to Afghanistan to the Canadian Arctic, and in powerful, theatrical language, Dan O’Brien explores the ethical and personal consequences of Paul Watson’s photograph, as well as the interplay between political upheaval and the experience of trauma in an age saturated by images and information. Read an excerpt from the play.

Dan O’Brien’s current projects include The Body of an American, which also received the PEN Center USA Award for Drama and the L. Arnold Weissberger Award, and premiered at Portland Center Stage in 2012, directed by Bill Rauch. The Body of an American will receive its UK premiere at the Gate Theatre in London in early 2014. The play was the recipient of the McKnight National Residency & Commission from the Playwrights’ Center, as well as a Sundance Institute Time Warner Storytelling Fellowship and a TCG Future Collaborations Grant. O’Brien wrote the libretti for Jonathan Berger’s Visitations, two chamber operas commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mellon Foundation for Stanford Live, premiering at Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University in 2013, directed by Rinde Eckert. An earlier version of Theotokia premiered at the Spoleto Festival USA, performed by Dawn Upshaw. O’Brien is currently under commission from Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles to write a new play on the history of the California economy. O’Brien’s debut collection of poetry entitled War Reporter was published in 2013 from Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn and CB Editions in London. War Reporter is currently on the shortlist for the UK’s Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

Previous regional and off-Broadway productions include The Cherry Sisters Revisited (Humana Festival, Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, directed by Andrew Leynse, original music by Michael Friedman), The Dear Boy (Second Stage Theatre, Michael John Garcés), The Voyage of the Carcass (SoHo Playhouse; Page 73 Productions, Alyse Rothman), Moving Picture (Williamstown Theatre Festival, Darko Tresnjak), The House in Hydesville (Geva Theatre Center, Skip Greer), Key West (Geva Theatre Center, Skip Greer), Kandahar to Canada (Ensemble Studio Theatre, Mark Armstrong), Am Lit (Ensemble Studio Theatre), The Angel in the Trees (Production Company, Mark Armstrong), and Lamarck (Perishable Theatre).

O’Brien’s plays have been developed at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, Atlantic Theater Company, Primary Stages, Roundabout Theatre Company, American Conservatory Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, Magic Theatre, The Play Company, Rattlestick, Lark Theatre, Lincoln Center Directors’ Lab, PlayLabs, New Harmony Project, JAW Festival at Portland Center Stage, and Manhattan Theatre Club, where he was a playwright-in-residence. He has received commissions from Manhattan Theatre Club, Ensemble Studio Theatre / Sloan Foundation, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Geva Theatre Center, Trinity Repertory Company; and residencies and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, Princeton University’s Hodder Fellowship, Yaddo, O’Neill Playwrights Conference, James Merrill House Residency, Djerassi Fellowship in Playwriting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Tennesse Williams Playwright-in-residence at The University of the South (Sewanee), the New Harmony Project, and the Thomas J. Watson Foundation.

Awards include the Osborn Award by the American Theatre Critics Association, the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Comedy Playwriting Award, the National Student Playwriting Award, and the National AIDS Award for Playwriting (Kennedy Center / ACTF). His work is published by Samuel French, Playscripts, Dramatic Publishing, and in numerous anthologies and journals including Alaska Quarterly Review and Blackbird. O’Brien’s poems and stories have been published internationally in journals and magazines including 32 Poems, 5 AM, Bellevue Literary Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Cold Mountain Review, Crab Orchard Review, Cyphers, Event, Grain Magazine, Greensboro Review, Hanging Loose, Linebreak, Magma Poetry, Malahat Review, Mississippi Review, Missouri Review, The Moth, Nimrod, North American Review, The Pinch, Poetry Review, Quarterly West, Saint Anne’s Review, South Carolina Review, St. Petersburg Review, storySouth, StoryQuarterly, upstreet, War, Literature & the Arts, The White Review, and ZYZZYVA. 

O’Brien has taught playwriting at Princeton University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, SUNY Purchase, The University of the South (Sewanee), Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Brown University, and in his own private workshop in New York City. He holds a BA in English & Theatre from Middlebury College and an MFA in Playwriting & Fiction from Brown University. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, writer and actor Jessica St. Clair. Visit Dan’s websites at:

“Dan O’Brien’s The Body of an American speaks to a more recent moment in history, when a single, stark photograph — that of the body of an American soldier dragged from the wreckage of a Blackhawk helicopter through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 — by photographer Paul Watson reshaped the course of global events. In powerful, theatrical language, O’Brien explores the ethical and personal consequences of Watson’s photograph, as well as the interplay between political upheaval and the experience of trauma in an age saturated by images and information. The Body of an American premiered at Portland Center Stage in 2012.”


Carol Becker, Dean of Columbia University School of the Arts

Kristoffer Diaz, playwright, educator

Farah Jasmine Griffin, William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies, Columbia University; 

Rinne Groff, playwright, performer

Stephen Adly Guirgis, playwright, screenwriter, director, actor

David Henry Hwang, playwright, Associate Professor of Theatre Arts in the Faculty of the Arts, Columbia University

Gabriel Kahane, composer, singer-songwriter

James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

John Weidman, librettist