Not About Heroes

Christchurch Art Gallery, Te Puna o Waiwhetu, Christchurch

24/04/2008 - 26/04/2008

Production Details

A Note from the Author

When Wilfred Owen was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital for Nervous Disorders in June, 1917, he was suffering from shell-shock after four months in the trenches in France. It seems that his Commanding Officer equated shell-shock with cowardice. Owen was completely unknown. He aspired to be a poet, but had achieved nothing of note. He was killed in November, 1918. He had won the Military Cross a month before his death. He is now widely recognised as the greatest of the many British poets of the First World War. Not About Heroes is concerned with this transformation and how it might have happened.

The crucial event was the meeting with Siegfried Sassoon. He was a well known, acclaimed poet and a soldier of remarkable courage, who had achieved notoriety by publishing a protest against the evil and unjust conduct of the war. He was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital at the end of July, 1917, possibly to undermine the strength of his protest by questioning his sanity. Wilfred Owen nervously introduced himself about two weeks later. They had little in common but a warm and loving friendship developed. Owen described it fully in his letters, but Sassoon waited until 27 years after Owen’s death before he expressed the strength of his feelings in Siegfried’s Journey, and even more in the manuscripts for that book. The friendship seems to have been the key which unlocked Owen’s genius as a poet. I also believe, from the tone of Owen’s subsequent letters, that it liberated the man.

The story of their friendship is told almost entirely in my own words. The play is neither a compilation nor a documentary. While I have not intentionally falsified any of the known facts, the Letters and Memoirs leave considerable gaps which I have bridged with scenes based on ideas suggested by the available sources. I have used phrases from Owen’s letters (and frequently links sections from several of them to form a single letter) but there are no surviving letters from Sassoon to Owen. The Sassoon letters in this play reflect his feelings and opinions at the time, but they are not his words. 

Sassoon decided on several occasions that he would write a memoir of Owen, but clearly found the prospect too painful. I believe that the inevitable guilt of the survivor was something he had to live with throughout his long life. He was a deeply reticent as well as a turbulently emotional man, and I hope I have respected his reticence. My motive was to try to understand how a relationship that remains at heart mysterious, could leave such an indelible mark on the literature of their war – and so on our understanding of war itself. My best hope is that Not About Heroes might refresh the memory of who these men were and what it was they had to tell us.

Stephen MacDonald  

Siegfried Sassoon: Roger Gimblett 
Wilfred Owen: Patrick Magee 

Wardrobe:  Lissa Knight
Sound Design:  Michael J Schell
Lighting:  Owen Gimblett
Text Control:  Joyce Birch
Graphic:  Kit Messham Muir
FOH:  Athol Grey & Team

1hr 50 mins, incl. interval

Flawless teamwork and timing

Review by Lindsay Clark 26th Apr 2008

As is often the way with stories that are deeply moving, this is, in essence, a simple account of the friendship between the acclaimed literary figure, Siegfried Sassoon and the shell-shocked aspiring poet, Wilfrid Owen. The time span is brief – June 1917 to November 1918, but it is richly significant, not only because it covers Owen’s extraordinary transformation as a poet, but because it encapsulates compellingly the eternal, questions about the ethics of war and courage. 

In the playwright’s words, the piece is ‘neither a compilation nor a documentary’. It is rather a cleverly linked sequence of probable scenes, narrated by Sassoon. From the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Nervous Disorders, where they meet, to the dugout in Flanders where Owen is tragically shot, the unrelenting challenge of war is the background to the friendship, which unlocks his poignant and bitter poems.

War and its consequences are thus a given, but what really drives the play and holds a thoughtful audience engrossed is the developing bond between two brilliant contrasting individuals. Each faces demons. As master wordsmiths, each struggles to find the right words. And together they provide plenty of cut and thrust to keep the piece very alive and very absorbing.

Simple effects and stage dressing support its progress. Overhead projections contribute the introductory images, with one especially haunting shot of a young soldier looking back at the world he is leaving as he follows those ahead into the trench. A lightly stated soundscape gives us the ominous thunder of guns at times, but it is the two actors themselves who create and sustain the living presence of the play, mostly unfolded back in Blighty.

Sensitively directed by Carla Moore, Patrick Magee as Wilfrid Owen and Roger Gimblett as Siegfried Sassoon are in superlative form. Both build flesh and blood characters whose interaction is impeccably detailed. In the shared narration of letters or poems their teamwork and timing is flawless.

In a letter dated 31 December 1917, quoted in the programme, Wilfrid Owen is commenting on war and accounting for his return to the front. ‘It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it, I think I must go back and be with them.’ Insightful as he was, he could hardly have imagined that in the next century two intrepid actors on the other side of the world would be using his words and the words of his best friend to do just that.


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