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Not About Heroes


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Apple Tree Theatre

"I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. . . . I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. . . . I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to . . . the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. . . . I make this protest . . . to destroy the callous complacence 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."

This statement, which could have come from an exceptionally well-spoken opponent of American involvement in Vietnam, was made in July 1917 by Siegfried Sassoon--aristocrat, dilettante, writer, and war hero, who had earned the nickname "Mad Jack" for his bravery when a sniper's wound sent him home from the French front. The protest--quite a change of heart from a poet who had written not long before that "war has made us wise / And, fighting for our freedom, we are free"--stirred up considerable debate in Parliament and the press. Hoping to downplay the controversy rather than enflame it with a court-martial, the army packed Sassoon off to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment of his nervous disorder.

There he met a shell-shocked young officer named Wilfred Owen, who had tried to capture in verse his horrific experiences in the trenches and his evolving opposition to a war that England's political and religious establishments were promoting as a holy crusade. The two writers struck up a fond mentor/pupil relationship--whose dynamics gradually shifted as Sassoon, who had enough taste to be aware of the limits of his own talents, came to realize that the still-raw Owen was an incipient artist of major proportions.

That friendship--cut short when Owen was killed in the war in November 1918--is the subject of Stephen MacDonald's Not About Heroes, which mingles excerpts from Sassoon's memoirs, Owen's letters, and both men's poems with invented dialogue. Elegantly presented by Apple Tree Theatre and the Writers' Theatre-Chicago, the play illustrates (sometimes with comic-book simplism) the influence Sassoon, as teacher and editor, had on the younger Owen's moving antiwar poetry.

Owen's verse still packs plenty of power, and its recitation gives Heroes considerable eloquence. But MacDonald's dialogue falls short of his subjects' written words. The script is also severely hampered by MacDonald's inclination to present an idealized picture of the artist as antiwar icon, shying away from the more complex aspects of his protagonists--most notably their homosexuality, which is barely hinted at despite its significance in the men's art and friendship. It isn't sex that's missing from this don't-ask-don't-tell dramatization--Owen and Sassoon weren't lovers--but the emotional guidance one gay man would have given his much less experienced, younger friend. And only the best-informed viewers will understand the implications of the literary contacts Owen makes through Sassoon, among them Oscar Wilde's editor Robert Ross, Robert Graves, and C.K. Scott-Moncrieff (later Proust's translator).

But though it skims the surface of its subject, Not About Heroes has much to tell audiences who don't know Owen or only remember him vaguely from some high school English class ("Dulce et Decorum Est" and "Anthem for Doomed Youth" are perennials). Taking its title from Owen's introduction to a planned book of poems ("This book is not about heroes," he wrote. "My subject is War, and the pity of War"), the play affirms his belief that art provides a national service; it also dramatizes Owen's determination to prove that his pacifism wasn't merely a cover-up for cowardice. That determination is what made him return to the front. He died at 25, just one week before the final ceasefire.

Not About Heroes also offers a rare opportunity to watch a master at work: Nicholas Pennell, a 20-year mainstay of Canada's Stratford Festival, as Sassoon. Physically suited to the part, with an aquiline face and authoritative bearing, Pennell is a master of subtly shaded facial expression, a gift he puts to surgically precise use in the role of a prickly aristocrat whose satiric bent--stingingly present in his poems--reflected the emotional alienation of an upper-class Jewish homosexual in Edwardian England. In a play that leaves too much unsaid, Pennell guides our attention to the story between the lines.

Unfortunately, Pennell is inadequately matched by David New. He plays Owen as a sort of straight-and-narrow, simple-hearted Sergeant York type rather than the prissy, hypersensitive, slightly pompous fellow even sympathetic contemporaries described. Perhaps it was just the performance I saw, but New and Pennell lacked electricity. And in seeking to avoid arty affectation, New recites Owen's poems with little regard for their musicality or moral intensity while Pennell, with his beautiful diction, I conveys the verses' heightened feeling without ever succumbing to hamminess.

Directed by Michael Halberstam, Not About Heroes is a quality production. Rita Pietraszek's fine lighting makes evocative use of shadow and silhouette; and Rick Paul's simple set (anchored by a large map of wartime France) and Canadian composer Alan Laing's mournful and military prerecorded music not only offset the script's failure to suggest the story's time and setting but enhance the elegiac tone of this anthem for doomed youth.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alexander Guezentsvey.

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