Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
Ever since the inception of theatre, there have been plays that have challenged the validity of war. In Ancient Greece there was The Trojan Women and Lysistrata, while in the early 20th century Bertolt Brecht addressed this subject with plays such as Mother Courage. The years between the First and Second World War also have the distinction of being the most prolific period in American history for anti-war plays. One of these was Irwin Shaw’s Bury The Dead – a Kubrickesque satire on the nature of war, and the complicated ‘relationship’ of soldiers in the eyes of ‘institutions’ and society at large.
Very much like the beginning of Act V of Hamlet, we meet gravediggers who are in a hurry to bury the latest American soldiers who have perished. Rushed prayers from Jewish and Christian clergy are said simultaneously – a scene that highlights the lack of respect for those fallen in battle, as well as the absurdity to come. However…
Like Schrödinger’s cat – dead and alive at the same time – the six men who are meant to be buried are akin to the figure of ‘Life-In-Death’ in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This metaphysical anomaly is distressing for the powers-that-be, and the soldiers’ ‘resurrection’ is perceived to be undermining the natural order of things. But why have the soldiers refused to be buried and what punitive measures, if any, can be carried out to someone who is already deceased?
Under Rafaella Marcus’ direction, the play accentuates the emotional reality of the situation. While the soldiers themselves are calm, the world about them is losing its mind. For the powers-that-be, the presence of ‘the fallen’ are a damning indictment on their actions, for if anyone has a right to judge the actions of the living, it is them.
Through ‘the Dead’, we come to understand their predicament. Far from finding peace and rest, the Dead miss the small things in life we take for granted and feel cheated about being deprived of the standard livespan of ‘three score and ten’. As for the generals demanding that they take to their graves, the army only has jurisdiction over them before death…
The heart of the play, however, is the army using the loved ones to emotionally manipulate the soldiers to ‘obey orders’ – or at least try to. While not overtly stated, one has the impression that even if the soldiers were alive, those supposedly closest to them have no way of understanding the thoughts and feelings of those conscripted to fight.
If Shaw’s play shows us anything, it’s that at a personal and a political level, the Dead are ‘spoken for’ and assigned labels that make it easier to compartmentalise them. However, if the Dead were to return – to take umbrage at how they are remembered and demand accountability for being sent to war – the world would be a different place indeed…
© Michael Davis 2018
Bury The Dead runs at Finborough Theatre until 24th November.
CAST: Simon Balfour, Keeran Blessie, Luke Dale, Liam Harkins, Sioned Jones, Tom Larkin, Stuart Nunn, Malcolm Ward, Guy Warren-Thomas, Scott Westwood, Natalie Winsor