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‘War Poets’: Death dances in the trenches of World War I

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Joseph Pearce's new play is a modern danse macabre about the soul’s yearning for its true homeland

To hear Joseph Pearce tell it, his first play Death Comes for the War Poets, playing now through June 24 in New York City, nearly fell from the heavens.

Pearce, an English-born writer known for influential biographies of G.K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, and others, had long intended to pen a biography of World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon, and at least as far back as high school, had also been fascinated by the poetry of Sassoon’s friend and protégé, Wilfred Owen. But in a flash of inspiration, Pearce decided to weave a “verse tapestry” for the stage from both men’s writings.

“This – or at least 80% of what we’ve just seen – came to me as a gift,” Pearce explains during an opening weekend talkback at the Sheen Center, a vibrant hub for thought and culture in lower Manhattan. “Literally as a gift, and poured forth in about three hours.”

With the support of producer Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P. of Blackfriars Repertory Theatre and director Peter Dobbins of the Storm Theatre Company, Pearce’s gift has come to life. Packed with poetry, prose, dance, and song, Death for the War Poets is more than a recitation of Sassoon’s and Owen’s writing. It’s a moving metaphysical explosion, a modern danse macabre about the soul’s yearning for its true homeland.

The play opens with the personification of Death – the only other character to appear on the stage – slowly singing a World War I marching song from under a black-hood. Just as this starts to feel a little conventional, Death whips off her cloak and reveals a wide-eyed vaudevillian dancer, singing and marching with what Pearce terms “jingoistic jollity.” It was a dare, but Sarah Naughton is scintillating in the role and never misses a beat.

A young Sassoon then strides into view, contemplating the beauty of a spring morning. But Death taunts the oblivious young man with his fate. “A debutant dilettante,” she says to the poet, “into Hell and follow Dante and dance the deadly dance; and so Sassoon, so soon, Sassoon, you join the necromance.” While the words are Pearce’s, Death’s lines are largely culled from the work of several great English poets, including T.S. Eliot and Francis Thompson. “When it happened, Death was always going to be one of the characters,” Pearce recalls. “It brings the metaphysical dimension into the whole thing…but it also allowed me to introduce all these other great poets into the mix.”

Death’s words surround Sassoon as he joins the war effort, and in a matter of moments, Nicholas Carriere powerfully captures Sassoon’s transformation. The sweet, innocent boy becomes racked with anguish and defiance; an embittered poem and a fiery “Soldier’s Declaration” target the ignorance of those back home as much as the slaughter of his countrymen on the Western Front. “I do not make this declaration as a coward, as one who is afraid to fight for his country,” Sassoon explains. “On the contrary, I earned this Military Cross for fighting with valour for my country. It means nothing to me now.” Indeed, he threw his Military Cross into the River Mersey to prove it.

Sassoon was sent to a military psychiatric hospital in Scotland, where he met Wilfred Owen, a fellow soldier diagnosed with “shell shock” (an early term for post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers). Like Sassoon, Owen was decorated with the Military Cross for bravery, and like Sassoon, harbored deep anger and resentment about the war.

Pearce beautifully imagines the two men conversing through poems in the hospital, discovering a brotherhood running deeper than love of country. “The experience of the trenches was something unique,” Pearce explains. “Those men were very close to each other. They saw death in a really gruesome way…World War I was the first great war of the machines. And it killed the poetry of war glorified.”

Owen, played with aching fragility by Michael Raver, reads to Sassoon “Dulce et Decorum Est”, a poem about a man caught in a poison gas release without a mask:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

That is: “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.”

The two men wrestle with their demons and dance – often literally – with Death. As we follow Sassoon down the years beyond Owen’s death (who was killed one week before the Armistice at just 25 years old), Dobbins’ austere set begins to take on new meaning. The long, raised platform, running from a bombed-out church in ruins to a hometown church in waiting, is crossed toward the end by another trench-like platform. The resulting shape of a cross wasn’t intentional, the director explains – it just appeared.

So the Cross begins to appear in Sassoon’s life. It dangles from the Rosary in his hand, its stations sculpted into the walls of the church he attends. The poet, an older man now but still a master of wry observation, contemplates his conversion to the Catholic Church, finding that the word itself “can’t cover such good.” It was like finding home, he writes; like “being in love”; like “life breathed afresh, though yet half understood.” Even Death itself – the locus of so much of the suffering in his writing – undergoes a kind of conversion through Sassoon’s discovery of “the paradox of Paradise.” “My nothingness must kneel below Thy Cross,” he declares in the climactic scenes. “There let new life begin.” Just as suddenly as we marched into the horror of battle with the walking wounded, we fly upward with Sassoon into this new vision of life, a vision of hope and faith that heals all wounds.

Much of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – body, mind, and heart – might have fallen into the earth and died on the battlefields of The Great War. But through Pearce’s magnificent play, their words continue to bear much fruit.

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