For those who think the 21st century, with technology’s wild advances, has wiped the slate clean of every old tradition, theatergoing right now must be hell. In movies and TV, after all, the bulk of the product is, at least nominally, “new.” But the theater, with one eye always cocked on the past, can jolt you at any moment with another reminder that today is just a version of yesterday; tomorrow’s headlines will be built out of the problems we still haven’t solved from last year, 1950, 1900, or, for that matter, the 5th-century BC, when futile, ill-conducted wars were destroying better civilizations than this.
Yes, the old wars are our wars, the old issues are our issues tricked out in hobble skirts and puttees, or whatever. The past used to be thought of as haunting the present; it might be more accurate to say that the present haunts our view of the past. So the revival of plays from the decades just before and just after World War I, a steady trickle in these past few years, is no accident: That time is a locale our restless spirit has chosen to haunt; we left unfinished business back there that we still yearn to resolve.
Lit as darkly as a séance, the Broadway revival of R.C. Sherriff’s 1929 drama, Journey’s End, raises the ghost of our current misbegotten adventure in Iraq, holding it up for comparison with the equally hideous pointlessness of World War I, when, as now, both sides were pouring troops into hopelessly wasteful battles that left only destruction in their wake. At the end of R.C. Sherriff’s play, the characters’ evasions and confrontations and struggles to get along in the claustrophobic atmosphere of their dugout are all forgotten, for by then they are all either dead or offstage doing battle. At this point, David Grindley’s production treats us to a prolonged symphony of deafening war sounds (sound design by Gregory Clarke), and anyone whose thoughts don’t wander east to Baghdad is probably missing the point. Up till then, we’ve only encountered the war itself as an offstage effect; the substance of Sherriff’s play deals with how the war affects men’s relations to those on their own side. In the final darkness—the only total darkness of the evening—Grindley brings the violence outside, aurally speaking, front and center. Because we’ve come to care for the men, and empathize with their concerns, the prolonged moment is doubly chilling: This is happening to people we know.
In one respect, Journey’s End‘s people aren’t so easy to know: The play is the definitive portrayal of the English-officer class’s decency and stiff-upper-lip-ness, which subsequent war plays, novels, and films have spent decades taking down a peg or two; by 1929 there had already been a flood of such works, in which officers, even English officers, did not always come off as either the brightest bulbs or the kindest hearts on the battlefield. Other plays had already noted with bitterness the agonies of the war’s soldier victims: O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie and Maugham’s The Sacred Flame; produced in 1928, both feature a survivor crippled by a spine wound, prefiguring the one that ends the life of the newest arrival in Sherriff’s dugout. In contrast to these deeply disillusioned works, Journey’s End is fatalistic, accepting the military do-or-die ethos as a simple fact of life to be faced, like the privation, the stench, the bedbugs, and the miserable food that inevitably accompany it into the trenches. The coward’s funk, the moralist’s scruple, the hedonist’s pleasure, and the schoolmate’s favoritism are all to be set aside when duty calls. The multiple tensions stirred up when war shoves these contrasting types together all have to be tamped down; the result is a series of deadpan seethings that alternate with emotional explosions, captured so skillfully that Sherriff’s versions of these moments have become iconic, repeated or parodied in countless battlefield plays and films, war after war.
Grindley’s astute direction keeps the English impassivity from seeming quaint by playing it tautly, as close to the vest as possible. Jonathan Fensom’s stark set and Jason Taylor’s minimal but never murky lighting keep any air of artificiality out of the bunker; the performances, all first-rate, elegantly dodge every chance of pumping suppressed-sob heroics into the script, with Grindley carefully granting Hugh Dancy, as the suffering hero Stanhope, just enough histrionic leeway to set and steer the play’s emotional tone. This unforced approach means that the characters accrue gradually, naturally, making the story one of ordinary men under pressure rather than a facile rant at the inhumanity of war. That both Sherriff and his original director, James Whale, ended up in Hollywood, where Whale found his niche making stylish horror flicks, some of them written or script-doctored by Sherriff, tells you something about the material’s potential for the kind of hysteria Grindley has wisely eschewed.
War breeds ghost stories; the omnipresence of death makes people ponder both the afterlife and the transience of this one. James M. Barrie, who had a knack for putting an individual spin on quintessential human fantasies, built his 1920 ghost romance Mary Rose by standing the war’s tidal wave of maternal grief on its head: In this play the young soldier comes safely home to find that the mother he barely knew has become a ghost, haunting the house where he grew up. Touched by a supernatural experience in her childhood, she has vanished rather than maturing; her return to the adult world (years after the rebellious son has run away from his father has been the shock that killed her. Now an adult himself, the son is able to give his childish mother’s spirit surcease. The psychoanalytically inclined could have a field day parsing Barrie’s fantasy; in a stronger production, its multiple twists and hidden depths could rivet an audience. Unhappily, Tina Landau’s direction gives the ghostly tale a leadenly everyday tone, while pushing, somewhat too heavily, the whimsies with which Barrie pads it out. And though her excellent designers were clearly ready to evoke the spooky atmosphere unaided, Landau insists on spelling it out by having dapper Keir Dullea recite Barrie’s stage directions—intended for readers trying to envision the play outside the theater. So many paragraphs of prose can break even Barrie’s mighty spell.
Less unhappy, though with a marginally less riveting script, is the Mint’s latest venture into prewar British drama, Granville Barker’s 1909 survey of male-female relations in the industrial era, The Madras House. Enshrined as an innovative director and a major Shakespeare critic, Barker is only now being discovered by New York as a playwright, for the good reason that the power and intelligence in his dramas is sometimes veiled by a self-effacing grayness in his sensibility; he rarely paints in the bold colors of his close friend and colleague Bernard Shaw. Still, dust off the gray cobwebs and the gritty substance underneath rings as true to 2007 as to 1909. Set among the owners and staff of a fashion house, Madras cunningly runs through almost every situation sexual attraction can supply between a man and a woman; Gus Kaikkonen’s production lays it out lucidly, if unthrillingly. When a bold performer like Laurie Kennedy or Roberta Maxwell seizes the moment, you might think you were hearing a forgotten work by Shaw.