It’s November now, which is to say it’s poppy season. Does that make it bad timing or perfect timing to confess that I have never liked “In Flanders Fields”? Its closing stanzas urging the reader to ‘Take up our quarrel’, justifying death with more death, always left a sour taste in my mouth. It’s certainly possible that American playwright Irwin Shaw read the poem, though he was only two years old when it was written, and I’d venture that he wouldn’t have liked that last stanza, either. His play Bury the Dead, which premiered on Broadway in 1936, reads a bit like a rebuttal to McCrae: the dead soldiers of Shaw’s play don’t call for others to follow in their footsteps. They don’t think their sacrifice was worth it. They’re furious to be dead. They have decided, in fact, not to be.
And that is where Shaw’s strange, spiky play begins: with a group of dead soldiers who refuse to let themselves be put quietly away where no one can see them. An expansive cast of characters, doubled and tripled up amongst the company of actors, swirl around this dilemma: the captain appeals to the generals, the generals to the priests; rumours spread, journalists salivate, jokes get cracked back home. And in the middle, in the pit of dirt at the centre of Verity Johnson’s set at the centre of the Finborough’s claustrophobically small theatre, stand the soldiers. For the first part of the play they form an impassive, unmoving audience to events, dressed in white shirts with splashes of bloody embroidery (Johnson also designed the costumes) that, especially when creeping across their shoulders and chests, subtly evoke our present-day poppies.
The play is surreal and cynical, veering from satire to philosophical discussion to straightforward outpourings of grief, both by the bereaved and the dead themselves. Writing and performances alike are strongest when the play deals either in satire—as in a doctor’s rote recitation of the soldiers’ death wounds that is chirpily echoed and then notarised by a stenographer—or in determined ordinariness, as in a vignette between two women who laughingly try to pick up men with wartime slogans, or a soldier who just wants a cigarette.
If the play ended there—with a scene of stillness amongst this swirl, a moment of communion in the mud and the rain between soldiers living and dead—it would be an almost exquisite little oddity, at times heavy-handed, but thought-provoking. But instead it goes on, and the final third is by far the weakest, repetitive and sexist. As the play slogs nearly twenty minutes past its listed 75-minute runtime, we see six variations on essentially the same scene of one-note wives and sweethearts, one for each dead soldier. Structurally, the sequence is both logical and essential: it’s the moment when we see the individuality and humanity of these men, when we finally understand why they have refused to die. In a play that is above all asking us to consider the human cost of war, we absolutely must be asked to stop and consider who these men are and to take in what they have lost. But director Rafaella Marcus and her cast cannot find sufficient variation within the scenes to keep them from tediousness, perhaps because the variety just isn’t there in Shaw’s script. By the time we reach the final two conversations—the two most interesting—their impact has been numbed.
The problem partly lies in the production’s slightly confusing doubling scheme, by which only three soldiers are initially present and then are joined by the remaining three when their actors have no more roles to play. Their six female relations (as well as all the other female roles in the play) are played by two actors. This depersonalises all of them, but the soldiers in particular. Though almost every scene of the six has at least a line or two of searing specificity, much of it comes off vague, just bland lyricism about the beauty of the earth and life, emphasised by the interchangeability that the doubling implies.
I wish the play’s cheeky and cynical side, the part that can roll its eyes at the puffed-up inhumanity of military brass on one side while smiling at the small ways ordinary people find to just keep going on the other, animated the entirety of the play. And while it doesn’t quite live up to its own good intentions, Bury the Dead is trying to say something worth hearing.
Bury the Dead is on at Finborough Theatre until 24th November. More info here.