Regeneration. Photo Manuel Harlan
Pat Barker’s 1991 Booker Prize-winning novel Regeneration, the first in a trilogy, has lingered long in the public imagination. It was filmed in 1997 with Jonathan Pryce and Jonny Lee Miller and has now been adapted for the stage by Nicholas Wright. Its easy to see what drew him to the novel in this, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, for its literary success is matched by a fascinating and slightly left-field take on a much-explored period in history.
Barker was inspired by the real-life meeting of war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen when they were being treated for shellshock at Craiglockhart hospital,although the nature of Sassoon’s illness is more questionable and perhaps of a more politically sensitive nature; he was sent to Craiglockhart not long after his infamous Declaration, in which he asserted that the war was ‘being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it’, was published in the national papers. Already a successful poet, Sassoon was something of a star to the younger, less experienced Owen, and they worked together on some of his own writing. Sassoon’s handwriting can be seen on the drafts of Owen’s poetry that sit in the British Library today.
“I suppose what I really like about it,” Wright tells me, “is that it’s about people who are traumatised – they’ve had the most horrifying experiences in the war – and now they’re institutionalised. Well they’re doubly institutionalised, a) because they’re in the army and b) because they’re in the hospital. But nonetheless, their human qualities and their creative qualities flow out of them, and they find ways to write poetry and to love each other. It’s the growth of human relationships in that rather cold, institutional setting that attracted me the most.
“That’s the sort of thing I love writing. I love the sort of – what I think of as ‘good’ emotions triumphing over cold and institutional ones!”
When Wright was asked by producer Matthew Gale to adapt the novel for stage, “I hadn’t read the book, I hadn’t read any of the books, but I liked the idea because I like the period…so I read the book and I liked it enormously. I had no hesitation about saying, ‘yes, I’d love to adapt it.’” The key to adaptation, Wright believes, is in “only adapting works that I really like – and if you like them enough, you usually have a fairly focused idea of what it is you like about it, what you want to bring out.”
Wright’s own plays include The Reporter, about BBC correspondent James Mossman and The Last of The Duchess about Wallis Simpson, or at least the public fascination with her; he’s also brought literary works to stage, adapting His Dark Materials for the National in 2003, and his powerful adaptation of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s book of the same name, A Human Being Died That Night, was at Hampstead Theatre earlier this year. Regeneration poses particular challenges in that it mixes real people like Sassoon, Owen and Sassoon’s doctor, the psychiatrist and anthropologist W.H.R Rivers, with fictional creations like Billy Prior, who comes to Craiglockhart mute – a physical manifestation of his breakdown. This mixture of real and fictional characters allows Barker to get beyond a meeting of poets and examine, in huge depth, not only the psychological effect of trench warfare on WWI soldiers, but the entire social backdrop of the age, taking in everything from masculinity to homosexuality to female autonomy, or the lack of it.
“The thing about the book is that it’s very, very accurate,” says Wright. He did a lot of reading around the characters in Regeneration, “but of course you can do that without fear, because nothing Pat Barker has written contradicts the truth. I’ve taken slightly more liberties, in fact – I haven’t taken many, but certainly more than her.”
Laughing, he adds, “Honestly, after months you’d open some book and on page 250 you’d find – ‘oh my god, she was here, she found this, she put it in the book’. That often happened.”
It’s not just piles of history books out there – the characters themselves “wrote all the time”, with Sassoon continuing to write about his war experiences until his death in 1967. Owen, who famously died just a week before the Armistice, on 4 November 1918, had by necessity less time for reflection, but “wrote lots and lots of letters, which I read, and of course if you’ve got the voice of the letters in your head that to some extent dictates the way he’s going to speak in the play.”
With so much written both during and after the war, the depth of research it’s possible to do is almost unimaginable: “Of course you can’t put it all in a play,” says Wright, “and the audience would be bored to death if you did. You must get onto the stories of the people and what’s happening between them.”
So was it easier or harder to write for the real characters as opposed to the fictional ones? A fictional character certainly gives a writer freer rein – and indeed Barker’s primary fictional character, Prior, comes to occupy a larger space as the trilogy progresses.
“Do you know, I honestly don’t think it really makes any difference? For me, the process of writing is that you sort of absorb this person and their voice, and when you’re writing for them you just sort of switch… it’s a bit like acting, you’ve been cast in the part and you improvise, and they come out in their authentic voice. It makes no difference to me at that stage whether they existed or not.”
But real or unreal aside, the character Wright “fell in love with” while adapting the novel, “who I didn’t know that much about, shamefully, was Wilfred Owen – a most loveable and brilliant, self-created person.”
Owen, just 25 years old when he was killed, is generally thought to be the greatest poet the war produced, his output far surpassing that of his mentor, Sassoon. “And you know,” says Wright, philosophically, “if he’d lived, if he hadn’t been killed, if he’d lived until he was eighty, he’d have lived well into my lifetime. He’d have been a delightful little old don somewhere in some Oxford college, like EM Forster… He’d have had a lovely time.”
Regeneration is at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, from 29th August – 20th September, and then touring.