War: What Is It Good For?
In a culture where popular definitions of manhood are as rigid and narrow as they are in the United States (real men chop down trees, play sports and don't drink lattes), the age-old ideal of the warrior-poet seems a contradiction in terms. Without question, however, this mythic figure was in the minds of the educated British officers who fought in World War I. He was exemplified by handsome young Rupert Brooke, who died in 1915 before seeing much action, but whose sonnet beginning "If I should die, think only this of me:/That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England" is the quintessence and apogee of the romantic approach to war. Brooke rates one contemptuous mention in Stephen MacDonald's Not About Heroes, currently being by staged by Chasm View Productions. As the full horror of this war to end all wars sank in, all romantic illusions about it vanished. Genuine fighter-poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon struggled to find the words and tone to evoke their experiences.
This was a war in which soldiers marched into machine-gun fire or were choked by the thousands with poison gas. In some instances, they fought back and forth for years over the same muddy, blood-soaked half-mile of land. The slaughter was tremendous. Attending grammar school in England in the 1950s -- fully aware of the realities of World War II that had so indelibly scarred our parents -- we students knew why all the older women who taught us were single: They had lost their husbands or sweethearts on the battlefields of Belgium and France.
Not About Heroes is a dramatization of the friendship between Owen and Sassoon, told through the two men's letters and poetry. They met in a hospital; Owen, the younger of the two, was suffering from what used to be termed -- in the days before people understood post-traumatic stress disorder -- shell shock. Sassoon had been sent there because he had written a letter to the London Times about the immorality and futility of the war, and thrown his Military Cross ribbon into the River Mersey. He encouraged the awestruck Owen with his writing, and the two became close friends. Both of them eventually returned to battle, motivated by a complex mixture of emotions that included a sense of responsibility toward the men still fighting. Sassoon survived. Owen died a week before the end of the war; his parents received news of his death as the armistice bells were ringing.
Written in the early 1980s, the play obviously has much to say to us now about the politicians who send young men to senseless death and killing. Owen and Sassoon both tried to capture the horror of what they saw in words. In one of Owen's most potent poems, "Dulce et Decorum Est," he describes watching through his gas mask -- "Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light/As under a green sea" -- the dying throes of a companion, who had been too slow in donning his own protection. In "Strange Meeting," he imagines an encounter with a soldier he has killed. Sassoon's "Christ and the Soldier" tells of Jesus Himself falling silent in the face of a soldier's question: "But be you for both sides? I'm paid to kill/And if I shoot a man his mother grieves/Does that come into what your teaching tells?"
In a war that anticipated the impersonal, industrialized slaughter of the wars to follow, Owen and Sassoon grieved for fallen enemy soldiers as well as for their comrades and understood the toll of killing on the killer.
It is hugely to Chasm View's credit that they are offering this quietly intense play; it's cleanly directed by Rebecca Remaly and acted with feeling and integrity by John Kissingford as Sassoon and Benjamin Summers as Owen. Both actors have some very fine moments. Kissingford conveys Sassoon's mixture of vulnerability and arrogance, as well as the profundity of his love for Owen. As the action progresses, Summers's Owen matures from a stuttering young man to a confident soldier. Both actors speak the verse beautifully. Neither, however, has entirely mastered the English accent, though Summers comes closer than Kissingford. I wish I didn't, but I always find these mispronunciations very distracting, and they're especially problematic when the focus is so much on the language.
I had a delayed reaction to Not About Heroes. I was only mildly moved while watching it, but the play stayed with me in the days that followed, coloring my thoughts, influencing the way I read the news, reminding me how powerless language is in the face of world events -- and also how powerful. "All a poet can do today," Wilfred Owen said in 1918, "is warn."
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