Bury the Dead
Brickdust in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre
Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead, about six dead soldiers who defying orders and refuse to be buried, fits the current commemoration of the First World War and may seem to be about its waste of young men’s lives but that is not its setting.
He wrote it in 1935 and sets it in the future, in “the second year of the war that is to begin tomorrow night.” Its soldiers are American but director Rafaella Marcus and designer Verity Johnson put them in anonymous uniforms that could be any army.
Playing in-the-round, a patch of earth is framed by crates that could be ammunition boxes and in the half-light shrouded shapes are carried in before the play starts with soldiers digging for their burial.
A padre and a rabbi have already begun a funeral service when bodies begin to stir and stand up and the surreal situation becomes a theatrical reality. With 26 named characters played by a cast of 11, three actors stand in for six bodies whom Sioned Jones’s doctor certifies dead but this is no problem in a play that is somewhat symbolic. These victims, their awful wounds represented by networks of red, not make-up, stand for more millions, the generals (Malcolm Ward and Simon Balfour) who issue the orders and the junior officer charged with seeing them followed represent classes rather than being individuals, though the actors give them character.
The men claim the right not to be covered with earth and forgotten. "I didn't chose to give my life for four yards of bloody mud," says one, another that, "maybe there's too many of us under the ground now. Maybe the earth can't stand it no more." But the young Captain (Guy Warren-Thomas) in charge of the burial detail argues, “men must die for their country's sake—if not you, then others. This has always been. Men died for Pharaoh and Caesar and Rome two thousand years ago and more, and went into the earth with their wounds. Why not you?”
When the dead are adamant the top brass send for their women folk, most of whom would also prefer to have them below ground and their dying forgotten, only the good things in their lives remembered. In a serious of six duologues with wives, lovers, an almost forgotten sister and a devoted mother, the men argue as individuals and become people, not symbols: the older man who could never communicate with his wife, the boy who has spent 20 years preparing to be a man and now finds that denied him, the mother who longs to see her son’s face but he hides it knowing it’s too frightening (Sioned Jones reacting in awful anguish).
One woman understands and asks, “why didn’t you stand up before?” That cry from the pacifist thirties that still resonates. Shaw’s play was written by a young man who unsuccessfully entered for a play competition then found it being staged on Broadway by the Group Theatre in 1936 and in London two years later. It is of its time (think Maxwell Anderson and Auden and Isherwood) and may seem very simplistic today in a world that offers different horrors.
The first part of the play risks being repetitious but finds more humanity in its later scenes and can still be very moving, especially with our present added awareness of the losses on all sides in what was then called the Great War.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton