The centennial of World War I. Five decades since the death of Catholic literary convert and war poet Siegfried Sassoon, the 60th anniversary of his conversion and reception into the Church. And the centenary of Sassoon’s anti-war statement, “A Soldier’s Declaration.”
The confluence of these milestones will be taken to the stage for the June 9-24 production of “Death Comes for the War Poets” at the Black Box Theater of the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in Lower Manhattan.
Renowned Catholic author Joseph Pearce, a native of England, makes his debut as a playwright in the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre and Storm Theatre Company production. Father Peter Cameron, O.P., Blackfriars Theatre founder, is the producer. Peter Dobbins, the producing artistic director of the Storm Theatre, is the director.
Blackfriars Repertory Theatre is an apostolate of the Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Joseph. Storm Theatre is an off-Broadway company.
On the centenary of the United States’ entry into World War I, what is billed as a “dramatic verse tapestry” grapples with the horror of trench warfare as experienced by war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The play is viewed through the eyes of the poets themselves and also through the Spirit of Death. It examines such questions as, 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?
The cast consists of Nicholas Carriere as Siegfried Sassoon; Michael Raver as Wilfred Owen and Sarah Naughton as Death.
“On a deeper level,” Pearce said in a phone interview with CNY May 22, “it looks at not just a conversion of Siegfried Sassoon passing through the inferno of World War I, through the purgatorial experience of that and the years afterward, into, ultimately, please God, paradise,” but also “the conversion of Death…herself—Death is a character in the verse drama, she’s a female spirit—and we see her also converted.”
On the metaphysical level, continues Pearce, “death itself is changed by our belief in God and in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.”
Death itself, he said, is defeated.
“It’s not a straightforward play,” Pearce explains. “It doesn’t actually fit neatly into any literary genre. The very format, the way that it plays itself out as a drama,” is not something audience members will have experienced anywhere before, he said.
“The whole thing is surprising, hopefully pleasantly surprising, and hopefully even astonishing.”
History is liberating, Pearce said, “in the sense that the more history you know, the more you realize that even the darkest centuries and the darkest decades…there still is the presence of the Catholic Church, the presence of Catholic artists, writers, musicians” who “serve as candles in the dark as a procession of great goodness, truth, beauty, culture, through 20 centuries and counting.
“I do see Siegfried Sassoon as one of those light-bearers in the 20th century.”
Pearce said his title, “Death Comes for the War Poets,” is powerful as it conveys that death “is not just something abstract and thereby diluted,” but “something very real and concrete and incarnate.”
Dobbins shared how he personally has been drawn into the play when he spoke with CNY May 15 before a rehearsal in the auditorium of Corpus Christi School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“You go on this journey from this very idealistic young man who writes this very sweet nature poetry and then World War I happens and he winds up having a very jingoistic, very idealistic, romantic, heroic view of war.
“Then that’s blown apart and it becomes this very bitter, cynical, savage verse. His next journey is post-war, and he’s not someone who really fits in the new, modern world at all.
“From there, you go to World War II,” Dobbins said, and “all this is happening over again.”
“What we see is death through Sassoon’s eyes, and his vision of death changes as the play goes on…”
The play has a serious demeanor in terms of the subject of death, “but there’s also a lightness and a playfulness,” Dobbins said, “that winds up taking you a little off guard and allowing you to have a deeper experience. I don’t think it will be what people think.”
How Sassoon, a World War I dissident poet, finds the Church and what it means to him is a core component of the play. “This is an actual soldier who’s been decorated with the Victoria Cross,” Dobbins said. “The way I look at it, it’s his journey from innocence to experience to finding God, in his kind of coming home, as it were, to the Catholic Church.”
“It’s a very Catholic experience, the whole show,” Dobbins continued. “The way it’s been put together is almost like a medieval mystery play…It’s this journey and then this peace and freedom at the end of the journey, which is really beautiful, which we’re all hoping for.”
Performances will be held Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. There will be an additional performance Sunday, June 11, at 2 p.m.
Pearce is scheduled to make cameo prologue appearances during the play’s opening weekend.
On Thursday, June 8, the night before the play opens, the Sheen Center will host a conversation between Pearce and Father Cameron, at 7 p.m.
A talkback with Pearce and Dobbins, moderated by Dr. Cole Matson, Sheen Center programming associate, follows the matinee performance on Saturday, June 10.
Tickets to the play, $25, are available at (212) 925-2812 or via www.sheencenter.org.