All antiwar plays are plays of good will. But nowadays, so sanctimonious has the air become, it might teeter on the callous to suggest that a play described by its author as “a gigantic plea against war” is a plea made small by its own worn-out formulas and war-is-hell clichés. There will be those, for sure, who will welcome the timeliness of Lincoln Center’s production of Frank McGuinness’ Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme . But I’m afraid that we’ve come to expect Lincoln Center to play it safe rather than to rouse whirlwinds. Its middlebrow repertoire isn’t created to frighten the horses. But only Lincoln Center, in what we take to be its antiwar effort, could make us feel safe about war.
Everyone’s intentions, of course, are exactly and honorably the opposite. Mr. McGuinness wants to remind us what war really means to the young men who march to their death. Everyone involved in the production surely believes we can learn something vital from the play, including its conscientious young cast members in their smudged makeup on the stage battlefield of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. But what if the drama itself is little different from a thousand mundane war movies we’ve already seen, with their familiar, comforting tales of camaraderie and cowardice, glory and death?
“Were you not there in all your dark glory?” goes the play’s overblown prologue-a dispute with God. “Have you no conception of the horror?” the elderly character named Pyper demands. But God, offstage and unseen, doesn’t hear. Nor, if we’re being honest with ourselves, do we.
The horror of war is presumed from the beginning of Observe the Sons of Ulster . Even Francis Ford Coppola’s tremendous, flawed Apocalypse Now waited nearly three hours to say the word. But Mr. McGuinness never keeps a formula waiting. “A passion for horror disgusts me. I have seen horror,” the fevered prologue continues melodramatically, with Pyper all but shaking his fist at God. “I enlisted in the hope of death. But mine was not the stuff of heroes …. “
We’ll soon meet Pyper as a young man: He’s the only soldier of his Ulster platoon to survive the Battle of the Somme. Observe the Sons of Ulster is set in France and Ulster during World War I, and Mr. McGuinness has based the play on the Protestant Ulstermen who fought in the British Army and were wiped out in 1916. But Pyper the Elder gets us off to a shaky start. (The horror, the horror!) It doesn’t help that Richard Easton-the outstanding A.E. Housman in Tom Stoppard’s Invention of Love -plays him like a haunted version of Sir Donald Wolfit, to whom he bears a resemblance in the ghostly half-light. Mr. Easton, declaiming in his dressing gown, worn cardigan and jaunty neck scarf, appears to be playing a half-mad ham actor. In fact, the older Pyper is a half-mad gay sculptor. So it’s close-but we don’t know that at the time.
Pyper the Younger (Justin Theroux, with a posh, plummy accent) is the Irish toff who volunteers for the ranks. He’s responsible for a woman’s death in Paris and is punishing himself, apparently. But Pyper seems half-mad from the start. He’s the self-hating artist who plays the clown, the lost upper-class chump, the bitter cynic who finds love on the battlefield.
As the line goes when the new recruits turn up, “Takes all sorts to make an army.” The response is breezily ironic: “Never know. We could end up dying for each other.” Mr. McGuinness’ tone is often elegiac and solemn. A sampling of his soldierly dialogue gives us the idea: “I wanted to save somebody else in war and that somebody else was me.” “I can see death as sure as I can touch your hand.” “Why have we been spared?” “It’s all lies! We’re all going to die!”
Pyper is The One Who Wants To Die (but is bewilderingly spared). But look at the other types as they gather like lambs for the slaughter. There’s the proverbial Army Bully (who will crack up); the Amiable Innocent (with a family secret); the Lapsed Priest (who might renew his faith); and the Good Soldier of Ulster, who wonders what’s it all about, Alfie.
We’ve met them all before, though Mr. McGuinness’ premise is unusual. The Protestant Ulstermen’s war wasn’t really with Germany, he claims, but with the Irish Catholics at home. Mr. McGuinness, a Catholic nationalist, wanted to see the Ulstermen and the Great War from their own point of view. But from the play itself, you might think the Battle of the Somme took place in Ireland, so much do the sectarian wars intrude. Mr. McGuinness even has the boys re-enact the Battle of the Boyne before they go over the top (which is going over the top).
Otherwise, the arc of his play goes according to pattern-from brawls in the barracks and boyish bravado to inevitable disillusion and death. A bit of buggery on the battlefield is new. But Observe the Sons of Ulster belongs to the traditional antiwar dramas that travel all the way back to the likes of Willis Hall’s 1960 The Long, the Short and the Tall . The imaginative sweep and daring of Joan Littlewood’s unforgettable satire of World War I, Oh! What a Lovely War , is absent. Now, there was a play and a production about the idiocy of war!
But though Nicholas Martin, the director of Observe the Sons of Ulster , handles the ensemble well, his dated disco-light-and-sound show on the eve of battle scarcely rouses the spirits. At best, Observe the Sons of Ulster is a worthy evening at the theater. But who would settle for worthiness ?
In a recent Times article, that old warrior Arthur Miller asked despairingly: “Is a lively, contentious, reflective theater beyond our reach, our imaginations?”
Mr. Miller, incidentally, was a founder of the original Lincoln Center Theater in the 60’s. His desperate plea for more danger and more risk from our leading theaters applies urgently to all. But the Lincoln Center plays are as safe as houses, and meanwhile their aging subscribers hold up an invisible sign: “Do Not Disturb.”
The unadventurous productions themselves are characterized by revivals and imports. There was the recent Dinner at Eight -better known as George Cukor’s vintage 1933 movie. Before that came another revival of Paul Osborn’s trusty 1939 porch play about growing old in the Midwest, Morning’s at Seven . Then again, Horton Foote’s fugue for old age and memory, The Carpetbagger’s Children , was first produced at the Alley Theatre. The forthcoming Lincoln Center production on Broadway, Vincent in Brixton , was first staged in London. And the current Observe the Sons of Ulster is both an import and a revival. Written in 1985, it was first staged at the Williamstown Theater Festival.
The outcome is that Lincoln Center has become no different from any other civic theater. It could be anywhere. It no longer leads, but follows. When is our friend André Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center, going to produce new plays? When is he going to risk far, far more?