A long century separates us from the Great War and the “lost generation” that suffered through it—lost, but not forgotten, for it produced a series of talented literary figures, whose work still communicates the anguish and world-weariness of that era. Now, in Death Comes for the War Poets, English Catholic convert and literary biographer Joseph Pearce has woven a new design from the words of the Great War’s poets, principally Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen—though others, such as Hopkins, Chesterton, and Eliot, are briefly included as well. Originally a book, Pearce’s work was adapted for the stage by Blackfriars Repertory Theatre and, under the direction of Peter Dobbins, is now showing at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture. The production—which will conclude its run on Saturday night—poses anew the questions that confronted witnesses of the carnage of 1914–18: How does a human soul cope with the horror of war? Is there room for hope? And what of the spirit of Death, ever present in times of war and peace? Can Death itself be changed?
Theater-goers should not expect a traditional play with discrete acts and a clear narrative. It is a fluid, ballet-like performance—accurately dubbed a “verse tapestry”—of a few profound themes: the horror of World War I; the loss of youth’s innocence; cynicism and hope in time of war; death; and, ultimately, faith and conversion. The script consists almost entirely of the poets’ unaltered verse, with Pearce’s prose filling occasional gaps. At a given moment, it may be difficult to locate the precise point being depicted in the protagonist’s interior life. But of the seventy-five minutes the play consumes, none are dull.
The drama features three characters—Sassoon, Owen, and Death—and opens abruptly. Looming in darkness as if invisible, Death (Sarah Naughton) speaks first, her prophetic verse sparring with that of the youthful Sassoon, who rhapsodizes in maudlin, pastoral lyric. Her ominous lines—“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, / the lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, / The plowman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me”—push back against Sassoon’s jauntier melody—“Old English songs, you bring to me / A simple sweetness somewhat kin / To birds that through the mystery / Of earliest morn make tuneful din.”
Early on, Death is concupiscent, almost seductive. She taunts, haunts, and flirts with Nicholas Carriere’s Sassoon as he comes of age and enters the war, manipulating him into a literal danse macabre. Viewers are drawn into an interior battle: Sassoon’s joie de vivre struggles against the cynicism and gloom of the war. Eventually, Sassoon publicizes his criticisms of the war and the military authorities in his famous “Soldier’s Declaration,” for which he is sent to a military hospital, and deemed of unsound mind.
It is there that Sassoon meets and befriends Wilfred Owen, himself convalescing from what was then called “shell shock.” The two young men have experienced unimaginable horrors—friends blown to bits, countless countrymen cut down by the impersonal, scientific machinery of modern warfare—and they begin to resent the war, seeking to expose its atrociousness.
Owen, whose anxiety and brokenness Michael Raver adeptly captures on stage, was killed just one heartbreaking week shy of the war’s end. His is the lesser and naturally the more tragic role. Though Owen’s character is less fully developed than Sassoon’s, the scene of his defeat by the spirit of Death is artfully choreographed, avoiding sentimentality—a feat not to be taken for granted in a death scene. Sassoon, by contrast, survived the war and lived to old age, eventually entering the Catholic Church under the influence of a fellow-convert, the Msgr. Ronald Knox. Sassoon’s character blossoms thereafter, and some of the concluding scenes are too beautiful to spoil in a review.
But Sassoon’s is not the only conversion. The spirit of Death also undergoes a gradual transformation, conveyed through the verse itself, her softening voice, and a new flapper-girl wardrobe. She remains mocking and shadowy, but she loses the overtly menacing and quasi-demonic aspect that characterized her appearance in wartime.
The final scene accomplishes a kind of inclusio. We are again watching a poetic exchange: The aged, faithful Sassoon, kneeling before the crucified Savior, in the light of whose life and suffering Sassoon now understands his own, accompanied by a radically transfigured, angelic spirit of Death. Those who believe the declaration of the Catholic faith—“Indeed, for your faithful Lord, life is changed, not ended”—know that the same is true of death. Death itself can be changed.
“Keep death daily before your eyes,” counsels St. Benedict in his ancient rule for monks. It is an instruction well-heeded by all, within the cloister and without. No one should be surprised that death waits, patiently but confidently, to embrace every living being that populates the earth. But since we know neither the day nor the hour, to the one convinced of the immortality of the human soul, keeping death daily before one’s eyes constitutes a holy occupation, “an occupation for the saint,” to borrow Eliot’s words. The light of faith rescues such an occupation from morbidity.
In an age that aspires to tame death by sanitizing and manipulating it technologically, from the womb to the grave, Christianity reminds us that death, while inevitable, is not beyond redemption. Death Comes for the War Poets successfully proclaims this Christian truth in a milieu with little tolerance for preachiness. It is a genuinely elevating production in an industry that too often settles for less.
Fr. Sebastian White, O.P., is chaplain of The Catholic Center at N.Y.U.