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Life During Wartime

Theater Review: Not About Heroes


Published August 24, 2005 at 4:03 p.m.

I believe that this war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. Fighting men are being sacrificed, and I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced upon them. Also, I believe it may help to destroy the callous complaisance with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies -- which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize."

Sound like a press release issued by bereaved mother Cindy Sheehan? No, these are the words of Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated English army officer, in London, July 1917, three years into World War I. Disillusioned that the Great War of "defense and liberation" had become "a war of aggression and conquest," he threw his medals for bravery into the river and submitted a statement of "willful defiance of military authority" to his commanding officer, Parliament and the press.

To silence Sassoon and avoid the bad publicity of court martialing a war hero, the army slapped him with a phony psychiatric diagnosis and shipped him to the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Nervous Disorders in Scotland. There he met Wilfred Owen, a young officer suffering from shell shock. Stephen MacDonald's play, Not About Heroes, explores the remarkable friendship that developed in this unlikely setting between the two men who would become the Great War's greatest poets. Under the skillful direction of Bill Blachly, Unadilla Theatre's moving production is a timely reminder of how the bodies, minds and souls of the young serve as raw ingredients in the sausage-grinding horror of modern warfare.

World War I was a bloodbath: military casualties alone amounted to more than 10 million dead and 20 million wounded. After a century without major armed conflict in Europe, the technological achievements of the Industrial Revolution and a host of simmering political resentments created a perfect storm of mechanized savagery.

For four years an incalculable array of armaments blasted the same few square miles of northern France and Belgium into a muddy moonscape. The trenches swallowed up a generation of European men. But from the ugliness of the battlefield came an extraordinary flowering of poets who captured in visceral detail how the new machinery of war tore both man and earth asunder.

Sassoon and Owen were two of the most eloquent. They upended romantic notions of gallantry and heroism in war, and put the brutality and senselessness of the slaughter into stanzas and sonnets. MacDonald, a Scottish actor and director, drew heavily on the poets' own words in creating Not About Heroes as a two-man work for the stage.

The play opens at Craiglockhart, where the aspiring but unpublished poet Owen is nervous about approaching the famous Sassoon, who has just moved in down the hall. Owen eventually screws up his courage to knock on the senior officer's door, bringing several copies of Sassoon's first book of war poems for him to inscribe. Their initial meeting is awkward; Sassoon, ever the upper-crust Brit, is constitutionally brusque and unsentimental. But Sassoon eventually warms to Owen's shy sincerity and recognizes a kindred spirit, one who has a considerable lyrical gift for putting into words the unspeakable things he has witnessed.

Sassoon becomes Owen's mentor, at first reluctantly -- nothing interferes with his morning round of golf. More experienced and better educated than the middle-class Owen, Sassoon provides technical guidance and helps the younger man gain confidence of expression. He soon realizes that Owen's poetical powers far exceed his own, and grudging affection turns to paternal pride.

As troubled as they are by what they have already endured, both men feel compelled to return to the Front. "I can't shout any kind of protest until I've earned the right," Owen argues with Sassoon. "It was the medals you threw into the river, not the courage that won them." Sassoon later dismisses his "courageous" battlefield behavior as acts of anger, revenge and madness.

Both men eventually manage to pass as fit for duty, and throughout Act II the action they face is recounted through the letters and visits they exchange as the war grinds to a close.

Brooke Pearson gave a nuanced portrayal of Siegfried Sassoon, who is riven with inner conflict. Sassoon's world-weariness and cynicism form a protective mantle, and Pearson effectively captured his character's ambivalence as Owen unknowingly cracks his armor. Pearson showed Sassoon's painful emotional growth: how he comes to love Owen, and to fear his young friend's death far more than his own.

Dan Drew's performance as Wilfred Owen was much less refined. Owen undergoes a profound transformation over the course of the play: Sassoon's mentorship releases the poet within him, unlocking words and images bound up by trauma. While Drew affected some of the mannerisms of Owen's early reticence, such as stammering, his portrayal failed to convince the viewer that surface changes in behavior were driven by his character's internal growth. In fact, Drew played Owen as an eager-beaver acolyte to Sassoon from start to finish, with too much confidence and physical verve for a character who was supposed to begin the play as a shell-shocked, broken young man.

There were, however, some scenes in which Drew dialed down the emoting and dove beneath the surface of his role to interact powerfully with Pearson, such as when Sassoon and Owen take an evening walk and discuss the terrible news from the Battle of Passchendaele. In a pivotal scene in Act II, when Owen visits a freshly wounded and wheelchair-bound Sassoon, the duo poignantly demonstrated how their roles had shifted. Owen comforts the man who once comforted him, and subtly misleads him about his own imminent departure for France -- in part to prevent Sassoon from making good on his threat to bayonet Owen through the leg to prevent him from going.

Unadilla Theatre is a terrific setting for such an intense play; it is intimate without being claustrophobic, and has excellent acoustics for dialogue. The surprisingly comfortable converted sheep barn is nestled high in the hills of East Calais. Artistic director Bill Blachly is the one-man powerhouse behind Unadilla, and his spare, uncluttered style unified the direction, sets, lighting, costumes and props for Not About Heroes. Every element was meant to support, not get in the way of, the play's powerful words.

At a time when questioning the wanton overuse of the word "hero" seems unpatriotic, even dangerous, the play has a searing message. Each war death doesn't create a hero, it enacts a tragedy that continues to tear at the lives of those left behind. Before Sassoon's final return to France, he warns Owen: "I have every intention of being extremely active when I'm a ghost. And I shall go on haunting you until you achieve all the great things I expect of you."

But it was Sassoon who had to live among ghosts, until the age of 80, tortured by a survivor's guilt he could not exorcise. On November 4, 1918, his 25-year-old friend Owen was machine-gunned to death while leading his company on a mission. It was seven days, to the very hour, before world leaders signed the armistice that ended the war.