at Stage Left Theatre

A play about Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon? I could understand a play about Verlaine and Rimbaud, those scandal-and-outrage 19th-century punks, but Sassoon and Owen were the best kind of war heroes (World War I, yet), and besides, they only knew each other a little over a year. It figured to be a short play.

Even to this day World War I is called the “Big War,” and rightfully so. Not only was it the first actual world war, drawing forces from virtually every country in the Northern Hemisphere, but unlike other wars, which were made up of maneuvers, confrontations, and movement, World War I was a battle of endurance, armies facing each other in a line of trenches extending from the Swiss border to the English Channel, with the victory going to the side that wore the other out. Four years of it ended in the loss of more than ten million lives; if it was not “the war to end all wars,” as another popular slogan named it, it was the war that forever made the idea of war unacceptable, a thing to be avoided–at all cost, some felt.

Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were among those who felt that way. At a time when even such an internationally respected philosopher as Bertrand Russell could be fined and imprisoned for his antiwar opinions, these two men preached the new and dangerous idea called pacifism. Who better to speak out against the war than “Mad Jack” Sassoon, recipient of the Military Cross (roughly equivalent to our Bronze Star) and other distinguished service awards, all of which he threw into the Mersey River after the Bottle of Somme failed to be the “great advance” it was promised to be? (Instead it exacted the greatest number of casualties in British military history.) And what more credible witness to the inhumanity of war than Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, who was awarded his Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry” a mere month before being killed in action at the age of 25, one week before the signing of the armistice that would end the war?

Alas, you have to listen closely to get any of this from Stephen MacDonald’s play. It consists largely of Sassoon weeping like a Hollywood widow over the untimely death of his lovely young protege, and Owen gushing schoolboy rhapsodies over his wise and fatherly mentor. (The two were actually far closer in age than presented here, and Sassoon himself denied that Owen’s war poems were modeled on his own, claiming only encouragement and the possible introduction of new ideas as his contribution to Owen’s literary genius. MacDonald has him peering over Owen’s shoulder and marking up his manuscripts like a doting teacher helping a pupil with his homework.) Was the friendship between Sassoon and Owen homoerotic? Would it have become so had the latter lived longer or society’s attitudes changed faster? These are the questions that seem to preoccupy the playwright. Alliances of intense devotion are frequent among men in a combat environment, providing as they do a respite from a brutal milieu. But MacDonald seems to have left the war out entirely except as a topic for small talk. Without constant reminders of the cataclysmic social upheaval surrounding the lives of these two battle-shattered veterans, their fortuitous bonding is reduced to Oscar and Bosie at the USO. The story of Sassoon and Owen asks far more important questions than “Are they gonna kiss this time or aren’t they?”

So without the war, without the pacifist movement, without the literary ambitions, what do we have left? A magnificent tour de force for two actors, for one thing, and a performance of almost excruciating restraint, for another. Not About Heroes has no supporting characters to help shoulder its presentational burdens, and almost no bombastic speeches or tricky stage business on which an actor might coast temporarily; it forces its two performers to rely solely on subtleties of intonation and phrasing to sustain the energy level through its two-hour running time. Credit is due to director Frank Farrell for keeping this level low without allowing it to collapse, and for keeping a tight rein on actors who must have wanted to break and run. Not to take anything away from Dale Westgaard and Richard Grubbs (the latter of whom does look uncannily like Wilfred Owen, or at least like his photographs). Both are quite capable actors, well able to carry the responsibilities of this difficult script, and both deliver finely crafted performances, particularly when called upon to recite passages from their characters’ and several other writers’ poems without losing any of the rhythms or inflections of natural speech. (This is not as obvious, or as easy, as it may sound. David Marshall, casually spieling Shelley as if it were everyday conversation in Blind Parrot’s Bloody Poetry last year, is the best I’ve seen at this sort of thing; Westgaard and Grubbs are now among the top contenders–in my book, anyway.)

“This book is not about heroes . . . ” says the preface to Owen’s posthumously published and only book. “My subject is War, and the pity of War.”

“Have you forgotten yet?” asks Sassoon. “Look down and swear by the slain of war that you’ll never forget.”

We had forgotten by 1965, when troops were sent to Vietnam on a “police action,” but it’s never too late for a reminder, even a watered-down reminder, especially when it comes from these courageous souls who were among the first to warn us about wars of attrition and the terrible toll they take. And if that’s not your idea of an entertaining evening–well, here’s a nice gay soap opera too.