THE POETRY AND THE PITY
On this evening of Armistice day a hundred years on, no more fitting place to be than at this finely drawn revival of Stephen MacDonald’s two-hander about the WW1 soldier-poets. Here are Sassoon and Owen, young men in an unexpected friendship struggling with their own nightmares but also with the need, as a terrible new world dawned, to escape from orotund late-Victorian lyricism and express the grief of war without empty phrases or sentimentality. It was Wilfred Owen who wrote that his book would not be about heroes or “glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion or power”: simply the pity of war, the poetry in the pity. He also wrote that his elegies would not be consolatory to his generation but “may be to the next”.
And so they are. More, in a way, than his friend Siegfried Sassoon’s: nothing in the century matches Owen’s immaculate directness in Anthem for Doomed Youth. When he reads it to his friend halfway through the play, a palpable tremor runs through the room, as if the bugles were still calling from sad shires.
But the power of the play – a respectful but inventive imagining of the friendship they forged at Craiglockhart War Hospital for nervous conditions – lies in more than the skilful use of letters, journals and poems, and in more than pathos.
The men rise as personalities, their friendship jokey, combative, and evolving with Owen’s growing confidence. Young men laugh sometimes, whatever times they endure, and so may we, surprisingly often. Alasdair Craig is Sassoon: taller, chiselled, with an upper-class brittleness. He was few years older and already a published poet, and a decorated war hero so independent-minded that he risked an public statement of “Wilful Defiance” against the war’s prolongation in 1917 and threw his military cross in the Mersey. So, with political cunning, he was sent to Craiglockhart rather than court-martialled.
Knocking on his door comes little Owen: stammering, hero-worshipping, sweating with social diffidence, Simon Jenkins is every inch the provincial clerk of the period: smooth centre parting and small moustache, a figure like Forster’s Leonard Bast. The relationship begins with Sassoon as amused mentor and critic, until he recognizes the ardent gift and becomes Owen’s champion, introducing him to figures like Robert Graves (“A man one likes better after he’s left the room”). Woven into their passionate discussions of poetry are moments of war news, of 250,000 lost at Passchendaele. For both will go back, Sassoon with death-wishing anger -“More like being drunk than being brave” – Owen because he is afraid after his first experience, and needs to know whether he can endure side by side with those whose deaths he mourns in verse. He could. He died a hero, a week before the Armistice. Sassoon had to live on nearly fifty years, but published his friend’s poems.
Caroline Clegg’s magnificent, understatedly fine production for Feelgood has toured to Craiglockhart, to Catterick, across Britain and to Northern France. It is good that it finds a home so close to the Cenotaph this winter. Don’t miss it.