The agony and literary ecstasy of ‘Great War’ poets Sassoon and Owen

Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen
James Howard (left) as Siegfried Sassoon and Ben Ashton as Wilfred Owen in Not About Heroes

Not About Heroes: Blackeyed Theatre – Lighthouse, Poole

It is 100 years after the start of the war that was supposed to end all wars. What better time to reflect on Stephen MacDonald’s 1982 play about the appalling slaughter on the Western Front and its profound effect on two of the finest literary minds of the era?

The shameful events of 1914-18 changed the world but not for the better. Generations of old soldiers, traumatised by what they had been through, rarely spoke of its horrors.

In this centenary year the First World War is finally a subject for widespread commemoration and analysis. However as we honour the courage and sacrifice of the those who gave their lives, opinion remains divided over the actions of the generals and politicians who orchestrated the carnage.

Not About Heroes is uncompromising in its stance and delivers a hammer-blow to those who would be apologists for British commander Douglas Haig’s war of attrition.

MacDonald’s play examines the wider effects of the conflict, not least its contribution in changing poetry forever. It focuses on the meeting at the Craiglockhart Military Hospital for nervous disorders of two of the finest of the ‘Great War’ poets – Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

Both have been invalided out of the living hell that is the ongoing Battle of the Somme. Owen, a young idealist at the start of what promises to be a brilliant writing career, is determined to tell the truth about the horrors of the battlefields. He is being treated for shell-shock.

Sassoon, just half-a-dozen years older, is established as both a poet and a war hero. His arrival at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh has been ordered by his commanding officers in response to a public and embarrassing (to the authorities) condemnation of the war. Best to pretend he’s suffering from nervous exhaustion!

This excellent production from Blackeyed Theatre, directed by Eliot Giuralarocca, evokes beautifully the curious mixture of despair, fear, weariness and thrill of what can still be achieved.

Viewed through a series of flashbacks, it is set on a bleak stage populated by ghosts and books, we witness a rare meeting of minds.

The nervous young Owen (Ben Ashton) and the arrogant Sassoon (James Howard) forge a friendship that gradually finds them becoming utterly inter-dependant. The homoerotic attraction between them is tangible but destined to remain unexplored.

As Owen’s confidence as a writer grows he finds literary success thanks to the ever supportive and well-connected Sassoon. MacDonald deftly weaves their powerfully emotive poetry and letters into the story. Atmospheric lighting and sound enhance the sense of dread as they both return to the front line

War-weary Sassoon is back in hospital within weeks after taking a sniper’s bullet to the head. Owen, with so much still to give, dies in a hail of machine gun fire… exactly a week before the end of the war. His death leaves Sassoon bereft amid the ringing of bells and ‘victory’ celebrations. The play, which slips back and forth in time, finds the older man wracked with guilt and tormented by nightmares….like hundreds of thousands of others. Nothing will ever be the same.

Jeremy Miles