An unexpected timeliness to a WWI anti-war play

Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2003

NEW YORK -- There is an unexpected timeliness to ''Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,'' an examination by Irish playwright Frank Mc-Guinness of war's brutality and profound sense of loss.

The anti-war play -- concerning eight Protestant soldiers as they prepare for what would become the bloodiest battle of World War I -- is opening as a U.S.-led war against Iraq becomes ever more likely.

''We didn't plan to have it open on the eve of war,'' says director Nicholas Martin of the current Lincoln Center Theater production. ''But I don't see how anyone could see this play and not draw parallels to what's going on right now.''

The play's stance on war is distinctly negative, painting it as wasteful and tragic, albeit deeply entrenched in human nature.

''What I was trying to do in the play was to show the pity of war, the sorrow and the suffering of war,'' McGuinness says. ''I wanted to get that through.''

Martin's motivation in directing ''Sons of Ulster,'' he says, was not to make a statement about current events but to introduce the play to American audiences. The current production, which originated in Mass-achusetts almost two years ago, is the first it's ever had in the United States, although the play has been revived often in Europe since its 1985 premiere.

McGuinness, one of Ireland's most respected playwrights, has had one original play -- ''Someone Who'll Watch Over Me'' -- and an adaptation of Ibsen's ''A Doll's House'' on Broadway.

''Sons of Ulster'' is ''the play that I most wanted to direct even before I had any real dreams of directing professionally,'' Martin says. ''It's one of the greatest anti-war plays. But it's also a love story and a character study.''

The production began life at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2001, several months before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. It had a run in Boston last spring.

The ''Sons of Ulster'' are eight soldiers from Northern Ireland, fighting on behalf of England in World War I. McGuinness follows them from their arrival at a Northern Irish training camp to their participation in the infamous Battle of the Somme in 1916. Allied forces gained only five miles in the months-long offensive, at a cost of some 1.3 million lives.

The 49-year-old McGuinness didn't hear about the battle until he was in his 20s. It was well known among Northern Irish Protestants, who had suffered significant casualties in the battle, but McGuinness grew up Catholic. Comparatively few Catholic Irish fought in the battle, so it was mostly excluded from his history lessons.

McGuinness also knew little about the history of Protestantism in Ireland -- another topic his Catholic teachers avoided. So he had to do a huge amount of research before he began writing.

''I was trained to look on the other side, the Protestants, in this simplistic and rather dense way,'' he says -- namely, to think that they weren't true Irish citizens.

But writing the play changed his perspective. ''I became aware of their profound love of the place they live in. That was a big shock to me. I thought only my side loved Ireland. But in their own very different way, they do as well.''

McGuinness' sympathy for the Prot-estant soldiers shows in his warm, detailed characterizations. One soldier is a goodhearted caretaker who helps a new arrival make his bed; another is a lapsed Protestant evangelist reassessing his faith.

Two of the soldiers even fall in love. When the play first opened nearly 20 years ago, McGuinness says, it was the first time two men had ever kissed on the Irish stage.

That the soldiers become so familiar to audiences underlines the tragedy of their deaths. All but one die at the Somme.

''It's the personal loss of these lives which is affecting,'' says Martin. ''The notion of writing an anti-war play by concentrating on eight soldiers and their relationships has always killed me.''

Two of the actors who have been with the production since Williamstown -- Justin Theroux and Scott Wolf -- say the play's messages about war have become more vivid in recent months.

According to Theroux, 31, who starred in David Lynch's film, ''Mulholland Drive,'' the play criticizes the euphemisms and propaganda that can surface during times of conflict -- a phenomenon he observes today.

''Someone was speaking on the news the other night about taking down a 'target.' I remember thinking, that's insane -- they're actually talking about killing someone,'' he says.

''This play peels back those layers. The soldiers arrive (at the camp) saying, 'I hope they teach us about guns.' Gradually, they realize it's going to come down to walking into a piece of lead.''

By the end of the play, none of the soldiers is quite sure why he's fighting. But each also realizes his job, as is true of all soldiers, is not to raise questions but simply to fight.

''There's just the fight,'' says the play's lapsed evangelist as he prepares to march to his death.

''The good fight?'' asks another.

''The everlasting fight.''

That's a key exchange, says Wolf, 34, best known for his role in television's ''Party of Five.''

''There's never any re-evaluation of what they're doing. They just go,'' Wolf says. ''That's part of the theme of what Frank says: (War) is just so wasteful. A generation of young men from Northern Ireland was decimated by this battle. And for what?''

Theroux agrees. ''There's a reason soldiers are conditioned the way they are -- so they don't think about what they're doing,'' he says. ''If you think about it, you're not going to do it.''

But will today's audiences be receptive to the play's pacifist message?

Some, at least, have been.

Following a recent performance, an elderly woman wearing a fur stole approached a young man in the theater lobby and took hold of his arm.

''If I had started chanting 'no war' during the ovation, would you have joined me?'' she asked.

The young man nodded yes.

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