Monday, November 29, 2004

It IS about heroes....

Playmakers Rep in Chapel Hill is doing "Not About Heroes."

As reviewer for tSoT at WUNC, I did the following review. Terrific play, and this production is well done.

The Playmakers Repertory Company is messing with us. Both plays so far this season, Richard II and now “Not About Heroes”, which opened last week, seem topical and political. A vain king and a play about a pointless war. Easy.
But it’s not so easy. Richard II wasn’t about George Bush; it was about the farce of any man thinking himself king. Now, the new production, “Not About Heroes” disquiets our settled views of war.
It asks questions most of us are not prepared to ask, much less answer. This is a play with only two characters, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, both British soldiers and poets. The play covers the period of their meeting, in 1915, through the death of Owen in 1918. The simplicity of the set, and the Joseph Haj’s straightforward direction, are remarkably effective.
We are made to see the profound evolution of a relationship between two men over a period of three years, with no set or costume changes, and only minimal effects of sound and lighting. Yet McKay Coble’s scene design manages, with light and depth, to depict three different spaces. A large scrim takes us inside the creative process itself, showing handwritten drafts of poems, with cross-throughs and rewordings, as the characters on the stage struggle with those some passages, with the words that create the pictures poets paint in our minds.
And along with Ray Dooley’s Sassoon and Greg Feldon’s Owen, we confront the enigma: What is the place of the poet in war? Is the pen mightier than the sword? Both men knew the sword’s awful might, first hand. And Owen knew how weak poets are in their own day. As he says in the foreward to his first book of verse:

Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory.
They may be to the next.
All a poet can do today is warn.
That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

Surprisingly, the message here is not pacifist, at least not in the traditional way. Neither does Stephen MacDonald’s script celebrate war, though ultimately it honors soldiers at war.

Make no mistake: both Sassoon and Owen detested the officers who maimed men by marking maps. And both poets reserved their highest loathing for the glorifiers of war, those who used poesy to tell with such high zest the old lie, “Dulce et decorum est….”

And yet….these men were heroes. Sasson passed off his bravery as lunacy, but Owen rightly called him out, saying that Sasson could call others wrong because, lunatic or not, he had stared into the abyss without blinking. Willfred Owen “recovered” from his nervous disorder, went back to front, and earned a medal, a Military Cross. Still he might have left the front, with honor, as England’s foremost poet. Yet he stayed, and died a meaningless death.

But I have to ask if any death is meaningless.
Better, is any death in war really more meaningful than another? The heroism of men at war is not their devotion to the homeland, but their devotion to each other, and to their own sense of duty.
Sassoon’s dreams were peopled by his comrades dead and living, each asking in his own way: Why are you not with me? He had lived where chance had killed all around him. And he lived still, in a hospital in England playing golf while dear comrades he had never met died around Passchendaele. He forced himself to return to the front, and was critically wounded, though he survived.
That small heroism, that simultaneous belief in the futility of war and the need to feed oneself into war’s insatiable maw is the play’s central paradox, its tragedy and its redemption. My own father, first a lieutenant and then a captain leading an armored unit in France, in the Second World War, would have understood. He, too, was decorated for bravery.
Let me read from the citation:

“On 22 November, 1945, while riding in an armored vehicle at the head of his platoon, a road block supported by hostile mortar and small arms fire was encountered. With singular bravery and leadership, Lieutenant Munger remained exposed to the intense fire and successfully directed the removal of all the armored cars and his men without a casualty.”

So, they got the hell out of there, and nobody died. Is that a hero? My father went to a reunion of his armored unit each year, more than 50 years later. He didn’t always feel well, and there were other things to do, but he went. He had to go. He had to be with them. They didn’t sing patriotic songs, or share stories of daring. They didn’t want anyone’s pity. But they had all seen it, seen war, the pity of war, when they were boys of 19 or 20.

Again, from Owen’s FOREWARD TO HIS BOOK:
"This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity."

I would answer that the pity is in this: the sword is more powerful than the pen. The place of the poet in War is to be silenced, not just to be killed but to feel alive after feelings have died.
Dalton Trumbo’s tragic, unforgettable figure, Joe Bonham, had his face blown away, was left with no arms or legs. He could not see, hear, or make himself heard. The poetic sensibility is powerless in the face of such destruction.

Yet this show at Playmakers is strangely uplifting, triumphant, even. It come full circle, past the false heroism of shallow patriotism. Even in war, we can still be heroes. Our sacrifice means more precisely because we know it to be meaningless. Johnny got his pen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mike, or KGM, or Dr., or whatever, Cyrano agreed with your last line: But a man does not fight merely to win! Even better to know one fights in vain!