Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Great War & Modern Memory: The Sublime Gash of War Horse

"Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected... Its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends... Millions were destroyed because two people, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, were shot... But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing meliorist myth... It reversed the idea of Progress."
Paul Fussell

I entered college with an attachment to the First World War, if that’s what you can call it, because of T.E.Lawrence. I had read through Seven Pillars of Wisdom in high school and fallen under its heady romantic spell. Lawrence was a gifted writer who embodied the English literary tradition from the inside, and he wrote his own mythology simply because he could: he knew the power of the trope and how to wield it (and saw an opportunity in the newsreels of his own personal Barnum, Lowell Thomas).

To my Freshmen amazement, there was a class on World War One Literature, taught by Paul Fussell, based on his own National Book Award-winning The Great War and Modern Memory. It’s a cultural study/close reading of the literary tradition before WW1—particularly poetry--- and how it changed during and in relation to the war. We didn’t study Lawrence, but I discovered the vast and profound literature of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and the work of Sir Martin Gilbert, John Keegan, and Bernard Bergonzi.

All of which came to mind at a recent performance of War Horse at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

The Western Front

The play is an adaptation of a children’s book written by Michael Morpurgo and published in the UK in 1982. Morpurgo knew a WWI veteran from his local pub who had been in the Devon Yeomanry and worked with horses. He wrote the book to tell of the experience of the last war with substantial cavalry forces, and all the suffering modern warfare brought to man and beast alike.

And so the story of Albert, a boy from a poor farm family, and Joey, the horse he raises from a foal amid a tangle of family tensions and sadness. His dad sells Joey into the army, and when the captain who promised he would look after Joey is killed, Albert runs away to France and joins the Yeomentry to find him.

The play is engaging on many levels. The puppetry of the horses is as spectacular as everyone says it is. It doesn’t take long before you don’t even “see” the talented puppeteers. The story draws you in, although in the second act it devolves into clich├ęs, and the French mother and child are shrill and painfully overacted. The battle scenes are compelling, with their flashes of painfully bright lights and seriously loud shell explosions.

But for me, the piercing artistic element is Rae Smith’s gash of a rear projection screen that hovers above the action.

The Rend in History

On her website Smith calls the screen shape a “torn page,” referencing the sketchbook of Captain Nicholls, who draws Joey. Sketches of the town and the farm are projected there as scenery, as well as more abstract images for the shell explosions (which one critic saw as Vorticism echoing the short-lived literary magazine, BLAST).

But it’s so much more than that, even if not by conscious design. It symbolizes the great gaping gash in the universe that was World War One, which cut the 20th century off from the rest of history. The carnage was so unspeakable—-from the use of gas warfare to the 500,000 who died in the mud of Passchendale--that civilization shattered.

Artists captured that shatter, not always consciously, but simply because it was real. T.S. Eliot reflects the rupture in The Waste Land: April is no longer the sweetest month (Chaucer) but the cruelest, breeding lilacs out of the dead. Voices are adrift; I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Hemingway knew that language could no longer be trusted, language that once talked of the glory of dying for your country. He could use no adjectives, no adverbs, just safe, simple words. Isn’t it pretty to think so.

And so that piece of stagecraft is a startling visual, in the 21st century, of where we have been. It’s the rend in the universe we are all still suffering from. I felt comforted that this concept was an element in the play. In the middle of one of the battle scenes that gash is filled with a projection of enormous poppies. It's a beautiful visual moment.

Who’s War Was It Anyway?

Who'll sing the anthem and who'll tell the story?
Will the line hold? Will it scatter and run?
Will we at last be united in glory?
Only remembered for what we have done

I first saw War Horse in London, in the West End in July 2009. As the second act battle scenes come to a close, I kept waiting for some reference to the American troops. Not a whole scene, just a line of dialogue about the Yanks coming over. Just some nod that something happened between the battles in France and Armistice Day.

But there was nothing. This struck me as bad history at the least, and a terrible cultural snub at worst. Especially in a play that opens with a man singing “Who’ll tell the story? Only remembered for what we have done.” So this story does not remember the American allies.

The forgetting goes beyond the play. Last year before the 2012 London Olympics I wrote about my recent experiences of Englishmen of a certain age honestly not knowing the Americans fought in World War 1, offering a photo of King George pinning a medal on an American Doughboy, and the list of the 8 American World War 1 cemeteries in France, Belgium, and England.

Paul Fussell offers some explanation for this cultural blind spot in an intro he wrote for the 25th anniversary edition of his Great War & Modern Memory in 2000. He was commenting on the reception his book was given twenty-five years earlier:

“From England came evidence of further annoyance at my book. There, some readers seemed to feel that no American has a right to probe into what they regard as their business.”

National identity is a deep-seeded construct. Tribal feelings can only be “civilized” out of us so far. That’s something I can respect.


Tim Heavner said...

Lovely. Thank you so much for this essay!

May interest in WWI was kindled by my exposure to Britten's "War Requiem." Are you familiar with it?


-- Tim H.

M.A.Peel said...

Thanks Tim. Thanks for reading it.

The Britten is one of the many holes in my music acknowledge. But I know those Owen poems so very, very well.

You've inspired me to get a recording and listen.

drdave said...

War Horse sounds amazing. You MUST get familiar with the Britten War Requiem post haste.