Robert Tanitch reviews Not About Heroes at Trafalgar Studios 2, London SW1
First performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1982 Stephen MacDonald’s Not About Heroes has had numerous revivals ever since. There are just two characters: Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The Great War poets met at Craiglockhart Army Hospital in Scotland in mid-August 1917 when they were both being treated for shell shock.
Two weeks ago I saw an excellent adaptation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration which covers the same story. The major difference is that MacDonald’s play concentrates on the poetry, not the shell-shock and its treatment.
MacDonald imagines what Owen and Sassoon might have said. The script is based on their poetry, letters and diaries. It is a story of admiration, friendship and love. It is also about the making of a Great War poet. Many think he was the greatest.
Lower middle-class Owen was in awe of the aristocratic Sassoon, both as a man and as a poet. Sassoon initially thought the stuttering Owen “shy, ordinary and provincial”, but quickly recognised his talent and actively encouraged him to write about the war. He helped to improve Anthem for Doomed Youth
“This book,” wrote Wilfred Owen in his Preface to his War Poems, “is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
Wilfred Owen died on 4 November, 1918, a week before armistice. He was 25. Sassoon survived the war and lived on until he was 80. He died in 1967.
Robert Tanitch’s version of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth is on You Tube: