Stage play premiered June 9, 2017, the Sheen Center, New York City • Producer: Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., Blackfriars Repertory Theatre • Director: Peter Dobbins, Storm Theatre Company • Assistant Director: Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P. • Choreographer: Jennifer Delac • Cast: Nicholas Carrière (Sassoon), Sarah Naughton (Death), Michael Raver (Owen)
Joseph Pearce has created what he calls a “verse tapestry,” a weaving together of the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, two English poets whose experiences in World War I brought them to profound anger and despondency, each of them expressing his pain in some of the finest poetry of the 20th century. Pearce also weaves into his “tapestry” poetry by Thomas Gray, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, Rupert Brooke, Edith Sitwell, some of the playwright’s own verse, and a powerful selection of prose from Hilaire Belloc that comes at a crucial moment in the drama.
Pearce’s poetry is quite good and very different in style and meter from the poetry of the others. Pearce makes the very wise choice of having only one character voice his own verse—the character of Death, who weaves her way through this tapestry in a manner that is enticing on the page and unforgettable on the stage.
The stage production of Death Comes for the War Poets, presented by Blackfriars Repertory Theatre and the Storm Theatre Company in New York, featured Sarah Naughton as Death dancing to the impressive choreography of Jennifer Delac and singing, seducing, taunting, and mocking her way through the lives—and deaths—of these poets. For instance, Death ridicules Sassoon’s naive enthusiasm before the war, cynically goads his sense of horror during it, and yet serves as a kind of surprisingly sweet consolation long after the war when Sassoon, by then a Catholic, understands death in a different and transcendent way. She is a kind of Greek chorus in this work; her presence and commentary bring the threads of the tapestry together.
Such is the role of Death in this play, which was presented at the Sheen Center in New York with a very fine cast. It is a difficult play to stage, being a story of very concrete experiences told in an abstract setting with poetry that’s difficult for readers to understand when reading it, and for audiences to grasp when hearing it. And yet the performance worked quite well.
Here is a taste of Pearce’s poetry in the mouth of Lady Death:
A debutant dilettante,
Into Hell to follow Dante
And dance the deadly dance;
And so Sassoon,
So soon, Sassoon,
You join the necromance.
These short, jarring lines needle their way through the tapestry. Pearce has Death continue the weaving of the Dante thread with puns whose boldness is striking:
In fear, no
Story worries you.
See no evil,
Speak no evil,
Infer no evil:
Glory hurries you.
“In fear no” “inferno” and “infer no” are the type of wordplay that could easily cause the tapestry to come unwound. They are bold choices to make, and risky ones. But this is exactly the way such a character as Pearce’s Death would speak.
Death’s verse also works dramatically because it is set against the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, which is much richer and more elaborate though shot through with the smoke of The Inferno and the gas of the trenches:
The Bishop tells us: “When the boys come back
“They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
“In a just cause: they lead the last attack
“On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
“New right to breed an honourable race,
“They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.”
“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.
“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
“Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
“And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
“A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.”
And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”
This poem of Sassoon’s manages to be sarcastic and cynical but also lyrical at the same time, giving the near nihilism a kind of lift—a lift that is unexpected and that does not seem entirely ironic. Perhaps this foreshadows Sassoon’s more religious vision later in life.
Sassoon’s and Owen’s biting and disillusioned poetry should appeal to many of today’s young people, and indeed the young actor Nicholas Carrière, who played Sassoon in the off-Broadway production, channeled Sassoon’s anger and disillusionment quite well. The most powerful moment in Carrière’s performance was Sassoon’s “Soldier’s Declaration” speech:
I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. . . . I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
Such a brave and pointed public statement in support of his fellow soldiers, a statement that was bound to be received by some as unpatriotic at the time—this would certainly resonate with young Americans living in an era when protest is again becoming central to our culture. This, I think, is one of the reasons Carrière was at his most effective in his delivery of this speech.
He was less effective in conveying Sassoon’s conversion at the end of the play. Part of this is because of the delicacy of the verse:
This, then, brought our new making. Much emotional stress—
Call it conversion: but the word can’t cover such good.
It was like being in love with ambient blessedness—
In love with life transformed—life breathed afresh, though
yet half understood.
It would not be beyond an actor or director to ask, “How on earth do you play that?” Part of the difficulty of acting such verse on stage is that in Death Comes for the War Poets this dramatic climax comes out of nowhere, or so it seems.
Pearce’s play would be more effective if there were more dramatic material that brought us up to Sassoon’s late-in-life conversion to the Faith. The audience is not prepared for such a beautiful, subtle, and exquisite climax. But such an apparent shortcoming in the dramatic structure is overcome by the rapture—the mild and persistent rapture—in Sassoon’s Catholic poetry, which brings the whole play up to an unexpected level at the end, a kind of beatific vision that transforms even the character of Death herself, who ushers Sassoon out of life with these words:
The chance to cease
Life’s labor’s test,
He grants you Peace,
Ite, missa est.
This is a haunting image, Death leading the Catholic Sassoon to the beyond with the words that dismiss all Catholics from the Mass. This is a sea change from the mud and blood earlier in the play. To usher Sassoon, the soldier turned cynic, now turned Catholic, into the afterlife with such a resonant phrase from the mouth of Death, who, like Sassoon, is a mocking accuser now turned mystic—this is a beautiful stroke, and, if not comprehensible or well prepared for dramatically, is nonetheless graceful and fulfilling on many levels.
Another highlight of the Blackfriars production was Wilfred Owen as played by Michael Raver, who, in his brief time on stage, made an unforgettable impression as a broken man, shattered by the abominations of the battlefield. Indeed, it is Wilfred Owen, one of the many who died in World War I without the benefit of a long life and the grace of conversion, who has given us what is perhaps the most memorable poem of the War, with its famous line borrowed from Horace, and one of the most well-known poems of the 20th century—a poem that ends,
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.
And yet we know that, for all its artistry and honesty, for all its hope turned sour, for all its realism that gives the lie to the false glory that betrays the true glory, we know that this poem is not the entire story. The play does not end here, nor do we.
“Dulce et Decorum Est” comes midway through the play. Owen says little more, for he is soon drawn to his exit by Death.
But Siegfried Sassoon lives on. His exit comes later. And the vision of Sassoon, as an old man and a Christian, completes, with an equal honesty and ardor, the vision of Sassoon as a young man and a cynic. What is “sweet and proper” in Death Comes for the War Poets is not to die for the fatherland, but to die for the Father, Whom Sassoon is sent to meet as the sacrifice of his life is ended.
Death Comes for the War Poets: A Verse Tapestry, by Joseph Pearce (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) 80 pp., $18.98