Once considered "The War to End All Wars," World War I (1914-18) turned out to be merely a prelude to World War II (1939-45) and a host of other international conflicts bitterly contested in Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq. The crème de la crème of British youth who laid down their lives in Flanders fields or some other godforsaken French battlefield would probably be surprised and appalled that the nearly worldwide conflagration in which they lost their lives did not end war, but just created new grievances that led to further cataclysms.
PlayMakers Repertory Company's Nov. 24-Dec. 19 production of Stephen MacDonalds' poignant anti-war play, Not About Heroes, centers around the real-life travails of two prominent English pacifist soldier-poets, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) and Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). But their personal ordeals paralleled the plight so many anonymous Tommys who endured unimaginable suffering and death in the hellish trenches for King and Country.
"The play manages to separate the warrior from the war," says PRC guest director Joseph Haj. "It doesn't spend much time telling us about the successful and failed policies of WWI. Instead it explores the terrible cost of lives lost in that war, and the torturous life that remained for those who managed to survive it."
"The play's deep humanity is what attracted me most to it," Haj confesses. "I was also attracted by the incredible strength of the language. Because the play is based on the actual writing of England's two greatest war poets, the experience of war and its resultant effect on men's lives are presented with eloquence and power."
Haj, who assisted director Mark Wing-Davey in the staging of PRC's critically acclaimed Jan. 14-Feb. 8 production of King Lear, thumbnails the plot of Not About Heroes as follows. "During the first World War," He says, "two young officers in the British army meet when they are both sent to Craiglockhart Hospital. Siegfried Sassoon [PlayMakers mainstay Ray Dooley] has been sent there by the army as a means of dealing with his public objections against the continuation of the war. Wilfred Owen [guest artist Greg Felden, making his PRC debut] arrives suffering from shell shock, which his commanding officer misreads as cowardice. Sassoon, already a published poet, befriends Owen, and in their brief respite from the war, mentors Owen's development as a poet. All too soon they are both back on active duty, with horrendous consequences."
Haj adds, "Much of the text includes or is drawn from the actual writing of Owen and Sassoon. In addition to their poetry, the text is also drawn from letters that they wrote to each other and their family and friends, as well as autobiographical writings. The playwright uses these tools to weave the story of their friendship. The formal demands of a play built with so much original source material, makes it a unique and exciting theater piece. We've enjoyed the challenge of finding the most effective way of delivering the story. And with these two wonderful actors, I think we've found a way of honoring our playwright as well as the memory of these two great poets."
In addition to director Joseph Haj, the show's production team includes set designer McKay Coble, lighting designer Justin Townsend, costume designer Marion Williams, and sound designer M. Anthony Reimer.
In describing the show's set, Haj says, "The play is a memory play, and our idea for the landscape is that it should in some way take place among the dead. Owen is alive only in Sassoon's memory; and Sassoon, all these years after the war, is still haunted by the ghosts of his friends from the war. And I thought it would be good if we could find a way to treat memory in a way that wasn't holistic.
"We remember things," Haj says, "not in whole but in part; fragments of things. This led the designers and me to a monochromatic world, devoid of color, mixing elements from Sassoon's current life with elements from WWI. And things that have special meaning would be in color, i.e., a letter from Owen, a book of poems, etc."
Haj says, "The set is a unit set, with a sort of No Man's Land at the back and huge scrim, reminiscent of war memorials, with the names of dead British officers from WWI. McKay Coble has designed a stunning set, and one that I think is perfect for the play."
Joseph Haj notes, "The costumes are period-appropriate military uniforms built in the tonal range of our set." He adds, "The play's title comes from the preface that Owen wrote for his first book of poetry."
The pertinent passage reads:
"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, honor, 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.
"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."
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Not About Heroes Wednesday, Nov. 24, at 8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, Nov. 26-27, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 28, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Nov. 30-Dec. 4 and Dec. 7-11 and 14-18, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 5, 12, and 19, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$40. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=21117. Note 1: An assisted listening system and wheelchair seating are available at all performances. Note 2: The show officially opens Nov. 27th with a $40 gala, which includes a post-show reception with wine and finger food. Note 3: The Dec. 10th performance will be "All Access Night," with audio description and sign-language interpretation and Braille and large-print programs. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/news/index.cfm?nid=22 [inactive 3/05]. The Wilfred Owen Association: http://www.1914-18.co.uk/owen/ [inactive 4/05]. Sassoon on the Somme: http://www.1914-18.co.uk/sassoon/ [inactive 4/05].