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“This book is not about heroes,” wrote Wilfred Owen in the preface to his posthumously published first book of war poetry, “Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honor, might, majesty, dominion or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” Both concerns — poetry and pity — are beautifully and heartbreakingly limned in Not About Heroes, the intensely felt Stephen MacDonald two-hander currently in production at PlayMakers Repertory Company (Nov. 30-Dec. 19 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).
Owen has been called the greatest of the war poets, a subgroup that also takes in (to a lesser extent, in terms of quality) Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, and (to a greater) Owen’s own mentor Siegfried Sassoon. Their experience in the First World War led these young men to an artistic vision as far removed from the jingoistic imperialism of a Rudyard Kipling as it’s possible to imagine.
This is an exceedingly timely production. It’s nearly impossible to notthink of our own imperialist adventure in Iraq while observing in this play the disgust with which Sassoon — himself almost insanely heroic — holds those responsible for the senseless, wholesale slaughter of so many young men. (Tellingly, his public protest got him a session at Craiglockhart Hospital as a mental case; his government dared not denounce so highly decorated a war hero.) A largely epistolic memory-play, much of the dialogue taken from letters and memoirs, Not About Heroes is both specific and universal: narrow in its focus on Owen and Sassoon and ecumenical in concerning itself with the profoundest questioning of relative values imaginable.
The text is so rich in language, wit, and meaning that one is tempted to quote endlessly: the familiar way in which Owen’s shell shock, for which he is at Craiglockhart, is euphemized by the authorities as a “critical nerve case”; the way a catalogue of horrors can be met by a blandly stated “The ways of God are strange”; how Death is anatomized by “the green, thick odor of his breath”; and traditional heroic behavior is dismissed as “more like being drunk than being brave.”
While MacDonald eschews overt reference to the sexuality of either Owen or Sassoon, their relationship is represented as keenly emotional, of a closeness that seems to embarrass them slightly, as when Siegfried is glad of not being observed embracing Wilfred at the latter’s parting from him. There are other clues for the knowing, such as vague homoeroticism of the poets’ verses, the makeup of the literary circle whose doors Sassoon opens to Owen (Graves, Osbert Sitwell, the Proust translator Charles Scott Moncrieff, and Oscar Wilde’s one-time lover Robbie Ross), Sassoon’s description of his attachment to a Welsh soldier named David, in the way Owen addresses Sassoon in his letters as “Dearest of Friends,” and in one of Siegfried’s earliest lines about Wilfred, the intriguingly elliptical “I wanted — I wanted you — ….”
Greg Felden, a newcomer to PRC, gives a lovely performance as Owen, gently illuminating naiveté, shyness, and sweetly self-aggrandizing youthfulness (“I will be a poet”) as well as the agonies of imagined cowardice, the bitter recognition of war’s obscenity, and the aching need to prove worthy of one’s subject. I am not sure it’s possible to do justice to Ray Dooley in this space. In a growing gallery of indelible portraits, Dooley’s Sassoon ranks as one of his most magnificent. Here are anger, compassion, loss, kindness, despair, literary generosity (a rare thing among writers), and physical and emotional trauma played with acute veracity and a staggering intensity of feeling.
Guest director Joseph Haj does masterly work, imbuing the production with an exquisite grace of movement and emphasis, as when Sassoon upsets a wine bottle and the red flows like crimson spurting from an artery, the image capped by Justin Townsend’s powerful scarlet lighting effect. Marion Williams’ costumes are apt, and M. Anthony Reimer’s sound design seemed inventive and right except that it was barely audible on the night I saw the play performed.
McKay Coble outdoes her own considerable past work with the set design here. Haj wanted “a monochromatic world” for the play, and has Coble delivered! Her unit set contains an ornate column and a bent pole, both draped in barbed wire, upstage, and between them a scrim on which are listed the names of the war dead, the furls gathered at the bottom like a gruesome promise. Above the stage hangs a piece of ornately painted ceiling, hanging in tatters and the playing area is seemingly supported by the sort of sand bags seen in No Man’s Land. The color of the whole enterprise is a sort of dusty silver-gray the color of ashes, taking in the destruction of war and its appalling human waste. It’s a set both beautifully in keeping with the play, and the production, and an eloquent statement in itself.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Not About Heroes Tuesday-Saturday, Nov. 30-Dec. 4 and Dec. 7-11 and 14-18, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 5, 12, and 19, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$40. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=21117. Note 1: An assisted listening system and wheelchair seating are available at all performances. Note 2: The Dec. 10th performance will be "All Access Night," with audio description and sign-language interpretation and Braille and large-print programs. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/news/index.cfm?nid=22 [inactive 3/05]. The Wilfred Owen Association: http://www.1914-18.co.uk/owen/ [inactive 4/05]. Sassoon on the Somme: http://www.1914-18.co.uk/sassoon/ [inactive 4/05].