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[whitespace] Poetry From the Front: Charles Shaw Robinson (left) and Paul Sulzman star as WWI friends and poets in 'Not About Heroes.'

Photograph by Dave Lepori

War and Friendship

'Not About Heroes' depicts the bond that grew between WWI poets Owen and Sassoon

By Heather Zimmerman

THE PEN WASN'T MIGHTIER than the sword so much as it transcended it in the case of Wilfred Owen. Owen published only five poems in his lifetime, but among them was "Dulce et Decorum Est," one of the best-known pieces of antiwar literature. Owen, who was killed in World War I only a week before the armistice was signed in 1918, wrote his most recognized work in the last year of his life, when he also made an influential friend, Siegfried Sassoon.

Playwright Stephen MacDonald explores the friendship between the two poets and the blossoming of Owen's work in his drama Not About Heroes, presented by San Jose Stage Company in a sensitive, intelligent production.

MacDonald draws much of the play's dialogue from Sassoon's and Owen's poetry and letters, with the result that the play is both beautifully poetic and densely literary; it gives a sense of how entrenched in their art these two poets were but also how poetry was the language with which the two friends hoped to reach the public with the truth about the horrors of war.

Owen (Paul Sulzman) and Sassoon (Charles Shaw Robinson) meet in a hospital in Edinburgh for officers with "nervous disorders." Owen has been diagnosed as shell-shocked, and Sassoon, a decorated war hero and well-established poet, has been sent to the hospital after writing an antiwar treatise. Sassoon, recognizing Owen's talent, begins mentoring him. The friends share a passion for their art and in their conviction that the senseless slaughter of the war must end.

Director Michael Butler captures this energy in the poets' friendship and uses it subtly, but very effectively onstage. Long scenes of discussion and literary critique have an almost rhythmic, dancelike quality as the two characters circle each other in the midst of intense conversation.

Sulzman and Robinson meld excellent individual performances into an impressive rapport. As Owen, Sulzman tempers the young poet's exuberance with vulnerable hesitance, but beneath Sassoon's high-society confidence, Robinson lets us see that the older, wiser poet is equally vulnerable.

Though both Sassoon and Owen have become cynical about any noble motives behind the war, there's still a sense of comparative innocence in both characters that MacDonald shows us that makes this play not only a historical drama but a timely one, demonstrating how far humans have not come in almost 100 years. Though it seems ironic now, at the time, World War I was called the "war to end all wars"--in a combination of wishful thinking and a disbelief that humans could ever be willing to do anything worse to each other.

Both Sassoon and Owen express hope that if their work can make people realize the gruesome horrors of war, they may be able, at the very least, to help shift popular opinion away from support for the war. But at the same time, both men feel compelled to return to the battlefield, not only to supply first-hand accounts attesting to the hell endured by young soldiers, but also to live up to an ideal of heroism that neither subscribes to but that both still feel beholden to.

MacDonald has crafted an effective antiwar drama with no scenes of actual violence, developing these historical figures enough to show us that despite outward appearances, Owen and Sassoon are both men shattered by the atrocities they have seen and experienced. But MacDonald also lets us feel the power of the poets' own words, letting Sassoon's and Owen's poetry speak for itself, demonstrating the healing capability of literature but also its potential for salting wounds that should never heal over. The works of Sassoon and Owen may not have prevented wars but they stand as vivid, indelible reminders of the cost.

Not About Heroes plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through April 2 at The Stage, 490 S. First St, San Jose. Tickets are $16-$25. (408.283.7142)

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From the March 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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