Not About Heroes

Like love and death with which it is intimately bound, war defines the boundaries of human experience. It has captivated men throughout history, both with its glory and its horror. And while we may think of poets as possessing sensitivity beyond that of most men, this does not make them immune to the seductions of war.

Photo of (L to R) John Kissingford as Siegfried Sassoon and Benjamin Summers as Wilfred Owen
(L to R) John Kissingford as
Siegfried Sassoon and
Benjamin Summers as Wilfred Owen
Photo: Christopher Bogush
In Chasm View Productions' Not About Heroes, we intimately experience the effects of World War I on two real-life English poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. With a fluid, poetic style in keeping with the subject matter, playwright Stephen MacDonald freely cross-hatches reminiscences with live action and renderings from the works of both men, giving the story a blend of dreamy, visceral, and literary moments.

It is through Sassoon that the relationship and the proceedings are framed. He is already a poet of note when they meet in Craiglockhart War Hospital for Nervous Disorders. Owen has been admitted for "shell shock" (neurasthenia), while Sassoon was assigned there at the appeal of fellow poet Robert Graves, to avoid a court martial for his Declaration against the war, which had been read out at the House of Commons.

At first, the worldly Sassoon is impatient when Owen approaches him to autograph one of his books, his acerbic sense of humor going right over the head of his young admirer, who still stutters and shakes from his battlefield encounters. But gradually, as the two men get to know one another and Owen gains the courage to share his own poetry, Sassoon comes to appreciate his friend's wealth of talent and substance.

In addition to a script derived from correspondence, medical notes, and published work, the relationship drawn by John Kissingford (Sassoon) and Benjamin Summers (Owen) is exquisite in its emotional detail. Both actors layer their performances with uncanny idiosyncratic physical indications and heartfelt expression, creating an intimate, caring atmosphere that adds immeasurably to the emotional stakes of the drama.

Kissingford displays Sassoon's curious mix of drollery and principle with aplomb, moving as effortlessly between these traits as he does between the musings of memory, the presence of conversation, and the reverie of verse. His character's shift in attitude toward Owen, from cynic to lifelong friend, is marked by a series of delicate revelations notable for their uncalculated naturalness.

Summers begins with a debilitated Owen, shattered by horrors he's witnessed in the fields of France. Shaking and stuttering as his level of excitation demands, Summers captures the fragile nature of Owen's psyche in the hospital. Then, encouraged by his friendship with Sassoon, we watch amazed as Owen gradually blossoms, first mentally, then physically, with Summers remarkably breathing life and confidence back into his character.

It is ironic that these two sensitive men found it necessary, even for a time, to test their mettle on the battlefield. Yet as they both discovered, contrary to the ancient popular notion immortalized in one of Owen's poems, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" (it is sweet and right to die for your country), the battlefield is Not About Heroes, only about the agony and stench of death, and lost love for our fellow man.

Chasm View Productions' Not About Heroes runs through May 7th. 303-402-0482.

Bob Bows


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