5/7/11: How do I begin to describe my response to a play that friends who’ve seen it and critics alike have already labeled “the most theatrical event of a lifetime”? Quite simply, it was. And that’s including the previous title-holder in my own mind, Black Watch, which Joan and I experienced a few years ago at St. Anne’s Warehouse here in New York, and where tomorrow it closes its 2011 U.S. revival tour. But sticking to the phenomenal War Horse, which we saw last night (Friday), it’s an experience I will never be able to put out of my mind. I am so thankful to finally be able to join the many Brits who have been celebrating this unique production at London’s National Theatre for the past three years. They are now joined by American audiences at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, which has extended the run beyond it’s originally projected June 26 closing date. When Steven Spielberg releases his film this Christmas season, it will be a completely different experience. The 1982 “children’s” book by Michael Morpurgo on which both the play and the film are based, is also a completely different experience.
What the geniuses at Handspring Puppet Company and the National Theatre of Great Britain have developed can only be experienced with a communal theatre audience, where together we share the love of the magnificently constructed chestnut horse Joey, his friend Topthorn, and all the horses and men who have ever gone to war over the centuries. We share their fears, their joys, their humor, their pain, and in many cases their deaths. The genuine artistry we see before us cannot be viewed objectively, for we are being deliberately asked to participate emotionally: Everybody in the audience cries, and laughs, and is afraid! And unbelievably, it’s all done with wire and sticks and lighting and sound. Sure, there are the phenomenal actors and the master “puppeteers.” But these are no mere marionettes. These are sculptural phenomena, and their movements are extraordinarily realistic. And oddly enough the question always before us is “Just how and why am I reacting so strongly to what is after all not real people and horses, but inanimate things, objects?” Joey and Topthorn are operated by two men inside each body moving the legs, and three or four more guiding the head, depending on whether the animal is walking, galloping, rearing up, or falling. There are soldiers, and half-soldiers, a charming goose, and carrion birds. But most of all, there are the horses, who communicate so much without speaking, who breathe life, and more importantly, who stop breathing.
Several years ago, two South African puppeteers, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones approached the National Theatre leadership with an idea: They wanted to develop a full-lengh play, or rather, create an epic theatrical experience, using life-size puppets and all the considerable resources the National could bring to bear. They didn’t yet have a play, but Nicholas Hytner, the Artistic Director of the National, said “Yes!” after reading one chapter of Morpurgo’s relatively obscure children’s anti-war novel. The book was a pretty honest, down-to-earth treatment of war designed to open the eyes of children who believed exclusively in the glory and heroism of war. It was a mature look at its horrors and the pain of loss, well-written, charming and gritty to be sure, but not a literary phenomenon, by a long shot. I remember Son of Lassie being pretty much the same story.
In the book the story is told in the first person from Joey’s point of view. On stage it would keep Joey as the central figure, the neutral and non-judging observer of human behavior, but it would have to be told without words. Joey gets stolen out from under his young English master’s nose and sold to the army at the outbreak of World War I. He is immediately sent to the front, where his rider is killed, and he must contend with barbed wire and machine guns while the cavalry charges ahead, futilely waving their sabers and lances. Joey suffers the loss of a series of riders and fellow horses until he is captured by the Germans, and temporarily protected by a sympathetic officer. He is also of course pursued by his former young master who lies about his age in order to join up and go to the front to look for him. Guessing at the result of his hunt is irrelevant. We were warned to bring kleenex.
But forget everything in the above paragraph, because the play is not about the story. It’s about the theatrical experience itself. The creators are a working team, too interdependent and too many to name individually. It is about the combined genius of the writers, designers and performers who have created a total event unlike any other I have seen or felt on the stage. It’s about the ability of art, in many many different forms, to combine and form a whole that impacts our emotional connection to who we are, how we behave with each other, and how we justify our actions by defying common sense. An estimated ten million people died in WWI. For what? Nobody seemed to know for sure. The assassination of an obscure archduke hardly qualified for “God, King and Country.” The universal irony of warfare has never gone out of date. Sadly it’s as contemporary and relevant a theme as ever.
Actually, I’ve always known the story. Back in 1917, when the Americans finally came in to the Great War, even my dad, whom I suspect was a pacifist by nature, enlisted as a pilot and was sent to France. My grandfather’s brother was an American cavalry officer at Chateau-Thierry. He used to tell the story of how he was separated in the heat of battle from his best friend (a category that included both 4-legged and 2-legged variations of “friend”). He assumed the horse had been killed, until a year later, when the two friends recognized each other at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. True story? I was probably five when he told it to me, and Uncle Manus was always good for great stories. But I still choose to believe it today. Do we need to be reminded that we don’t inflict our wars merely on our fellow humans? Of the over one million horses sent to the front from Britain alone, apparently only some 28,000 ever returned.
Yes, of course War Horse is an anti-war play. But it is so much more than that. It is a work of art that demands we look inside ourselves. It is a plea for us to “get off our high horse,” as my dad used to say, to come down to earth and understand that there are other creatures around that deserve our love and respect, at least some of whom do not prey on each other, and all of whom share equally in the grace of whatever god put us here. It is a cry for humanity, for us to grow into so much more than what we are. War Horse was an astounding personal experience, as it has been for so many. I am grateful to have been a part of it.