On the one hand, It Is Easy to be Dead is a play dedicated to the memory of poet Charles Sorley, and to the memory of lives lost too soon in World War I. On the other, it is a play struggling with biography, with how to piece together lives lost and create a memory that can tell us something about ourselves today. The play opens with Janet and William, Charles Sorley’s parents, standing onstage like ghosts in an amber-lit mist. As ‘In the Gloaming’ plays on the radio, we witness that fateful day in 1915 when they receive a telegram that shatters their lives. From there, we move backwards, following Charlie’s life as his parents read through his letters and his poetry to remember the son they’ve lost and to craft for us a history of the poet figure and the war in which he died.
Charlie himself first come onstage in a burst of energy, exuberantly declaring his early poetry as he goes for a run. He is bright-eyed, youthful, and insightful, condemning Oxford and British patriotism in his letters and poetry. He is sent off to Germany, where he tells us that he has fallen in love with the language and culture, and even the nation itself. (His parents, in their present-day 1918, tell us that perhaps Charlie also fell in love with his landlady, and we see this editorial annotation in action: when Charlie is sadly set off for university, he shares a quiet, brief, tender moment with his silent landlady in which he sneaks a gentle kiss upon her forehead). He tells us that he would never join the army for Britain, but he would be proud to be German. His naïveté is strangely endearing, and his complaints of public school and tee-totaling German philosophy groups are a peek into a privileged class that was blindsided by World War I. Charlie’s world falls apart around him in mere days, and we watch and listen as war is waged, he is drafted, and his poetry falls into despair, before he is killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.
Charlie’s parents’ interjections, and Janet’s determination to publish her son’s letters for the world to read is a punctuated reminder that this play is an act of grief and coping. Janet cannot understand why her husband does not want their son’s work to be published. It’s helping others who are experiencing the same thing, she explains. “I do not want to share my son!” William shouts back. This family’s private grief has become a public symbol of loss and a public, shared experience of mourning. And clearly, we too are still coping with the loss of millions of soldiers over the past 100 years from wars beyond World War I and II, as we still cling to these artifacts of poetry and life in order to revisit lost lives, and imagine and remember.
Charlie’s life is also a history lesson, cozily fitting into the memorial practices of Armistice Day. As he tells us in verbatim quotes from his letters about what we understand as a historical event, scans of photographs, text about historic battles, dates and the names of the deceased appear like annotated footnotes on the back wall of the set. Unfortunately, these annotations often feel like a school powerpoint, awkwardly juxtaposing historical fact with Charlie’s subjectivity. Transitions in Charlie’s life are punctuated by songs, from war poetry to German opera and British military marches. It is in these transitions, and in Charlie’s poetic expressions that we feel history rather than just seeing it. We feel the moments of shock that lead into grief, and the panic of being in the trenches, watching as your battalion is wiped out. Without these moments of vulnerable expression, the play would feel like a live reenactment for the Imperial War Museum, still important, but not as impactful.
Fortunately, we are given a simple, poignant production that celebrates the life of the poet and the role of his poetry in grieving. I am left wondering not ‘why did this happen?’ but ‘how can I use his poetry to grieve for the losses since then?’ The play has given us a time capsule of materials to use to address the grief in our own lives, and to bring the past into the present.
It Is Easy To Be Dead is on until 3rd December 2016. Click here for more details.