The Horse That Went to War

Article excerpt

Byline: Lawrence Osborne

The Award-winning War Horse--soon to be a Steven Spielberg Movie--rides to Broadway.

The First World War was perhaps the last war in which the ancient synergy of man and horse was employed, and to devastatingly little effect. The prestige of cavalry had long outlasted its usefulness against machine guns, as if the lessons of the Charge of the Light Brigade--that futile British advance against Russian guns in Crimea--had simply not sunk in. That lesson is being retaught in War Horse, which just opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, following an award-winning run in London. (Steven Spielberg has already adapted it to film.) The play, based on Michael Morpurgo's children's book, tells the story of a thoroughbred horse, Joey, who serves in the British and German armies--as millions of such horses did in real life, most of them ending up as crater debris or on butchers' blocks.

World War I is a difficult conflict to dramatize. There is no good-versus-evil animating it. Unlike the Second World War, the heroes and villains are not clear, perhaps because they are not as cartoonish or deranged. The kaiser was no Hitler, and the czar was no Stalin. War Horse depicts the naive patriotism of the British war recruiters as they storm into a Devon village with pennants flying, the shock and awe of mechanized warfare as it collided with men and horses, and the surreal battlefield collages of pointless heroism and random brutality. The interpersonal stories are less compelling than the clash of the machines and the horses. The horses surge around the stage like creatures of our nightmares; yet they can also be calm and sweet and stunningly lifelike. …