DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

War Horse

Throughout history, there have been moments when a symbol of a passing age has come face to face with the embodiment of the next era. Such was the case in World War I, as sword-wielding cavalrymen on horses bravely charged death-spewing metal tanks on the muddy, bloody battlefields of France. You expect photos and films to capture the horror of that historic confrontation. But when it is depicted on the live theater stage, its poignancy is somehow heightened.

There are many powerful scenes in the current production of the Tony-award winning play War Horse at the Kennedy Center, which opened last night and will run until Nov. 11. But for me, none captured the magic and message of the play better than the brief stage-sharing moment when tank and war horse (both brought to life by brilliant designers and on-stage manipulators) met amidst the night-shattering blinding flashes and ear-splitting sounds of that most savage of man's creations, war.

It would be impossible to leave a production of War Horse without pondering 2 questions. The 1st involved stagecraft and would be some variant of  - exactly how did they do that? My wife, who is no theater critic, probably said it best when at intermission she posited: "Those horses are simply amazing." And amazing they are. To understand the process better, here is a recent article from The Washington Post outlining how the horses come to life on stage. 

But the deeper, and, to me, more important question, is why, given the inherent horror and senselessness of war, do we continue to encourage and wage it? In fact, I would go so far as to add War Horse to the impressive body of modern anti-war works such as Johnny Got His Gun (also about World War I), Catch-22, and Slaughter-House Five. 

During the play, you are confronted with all the human darkness that war exacerbates - misplaced bravado,  barbarity, violence, and wanton killing. But you also encounter those greatest human emotions - care, compassion, loyalty,and love - all best embodied in the faith-restoring relationship between young Albert and his horse Joey.

But it is not simply the relationship between Albert and Joey that lets us leave the theater with hope. There is the character of the doomed German Captain Friedrich Muller, who proves that even "the enemy" is capable of warm feelings "just like us." And then there is that scene near the end of the play when 2 "unknown" soldiers, one English and one German, try to save Joey from the barbed wire and bullets of the gruesome No Man's Land separating the filth and rat- ridden trenches. Working hard to overcome the fabricated hatred and the language between them, the pair come to realize during their horse-saving effort that working together is always a better solution than war.

In War Horse, all the true pro-life messages, magnified by some of the best staging in a major production I have witnessed, are there. Of course, as always, it is up to us to bring them to reality in what often appears to be an increasingly hostile world.

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In a way, it was ironic that we saw War Horse just one night after a presidential debate that produced the less horses, less bayonets confrontation between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. That exchange created quite a series of humor-filled postings on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. (For the sake of full disclosure, as an Obama supporter, I have to admit that I participated in those postings) But sitting in a darkened Kennedy Center watching War Horse, it was impossible to disregard the fact that whether you are killed by a bayonet or a drone, you are just as dead and your death is just as tragic. In the 1960s, there was a slogan: "War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things." It was true then. It is true now. And if you want to fact-check that statement, don't watch a debate between 2 men who want to be Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military nation on earth. See War Horse instead.

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