BARRY HOOPER, director, introduces the play
Not About Heroes is told from the memories of Siegfried Sassoon who is trying to write a biography of Owen some fourteen years after their initial meeting. Sassoon relives the important moments in their friendship, re-examining their relationship from the letters they exchanged between their time at Craiglockhart hospital and Owen’s death in France. The strong friendship between the two is played out against the horror of war in warm exchanges, letters and some of the greatest and most vivid war poetry ever written.
After four months in the front line in France Wilfred Owen was admitted to Craiglockhart suffering from neurasthenia (shell shock), a condition that his commanding officer equated to cowardice. Although he aspired to be a poet he had, until that time, achieved little of note. He might well have languished in hospital had it not been for the surprise arrival of Siegfried Sassoon, who had been sent to Craiglockhart for railing against those in charge of the conduct of the war. Sending Sassoon to a military mental facility was a masterstroke by the authorities as it brought his sanity into question and greatly lessened the impact that his views might have had on the home front. After taking two weeks to summon up the courage, Wilfred Owen nervously introduced himself. This crucial meeting with Sassoon, already an accomplished poet and a soldier of remarkable courage, unlocked Owen’s raw talent. The exact debt owed by Owen to Sassoon is unclear, but in his short productive period he wrote poetry which surpassed that of his mentor. At Craiglockhart, a warm and loving friendship developed between the two men that stayed with Sassoon long after Owen’s untimely death.
The treatment of traumatised soldiers at Craiglockhart is vividly brought to life in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration
Sassoon was born to a Jewish father and an English Protestant mother. His father, Alfred, one of the wealthy Sassoon family was disinherited for marrying outside the faith. His mother, Theresa was a member of the Thornycroft family, sculptors who were responsible for many of the best-known statues in London. She thought of Siegfried as her second self and christened him with the heroic name of Siegfried, not because of any German ancestry but because she had a passion for Wagner. Siegfried made the comment: "Thank God we never had a sister. Can you imagine - Brünnhilde Sassoon".
He left Cambridge before taking a degree and became a poet and gentleman of leisure. He joined the army just before the outbreak of the Great War and, in 1915, was sent to the western front. His army service was marked by recklessly brave actions for which he was awarded the Military Cross and was recommended for the Victoria Cross. Depressed at the conditions the soldiers had to endure, thanks to the ineptitude of the generals (lions led by donkeys) he decided to make a public stand. He published A Soldier’s Declaration in The Times, which was also read out by a sympathetic MP in the Commons. Rather than court-martialling him for treason, the authorities sent him to Craiglockhart Hospital.
Wilfred Owen was considered a minor poet when he was killed exactly one week before the Armistice was signed. Yet his reputation now as the greatest of the World War I poets cannot be overstated. Unable to pass the entrance examination for London University he heeded the call to arms in 1915 and trained first as a private and then as an officer. He was posted to France in 1916. After being caught in an explosion he was diagnosed as having shell shock. After treatment at Craiglockhart he returned to the front.
For this production of Not About Heroes
I am delighted to have Ross Holland
as the ebullient, lively Siegfried Sassoon and Matt Friett
in the role of the introspective, intense Wilfred Owen.
At The Cenotaph
Siegfried Sassoon’s scorn for the politicians and generals who sent so many young men to an early grave never left him. One of many poems, written with his pen dipped in bitter irony, is this one, which we might recall when watching the usual obsequies on Remembrance Sunday.
I saw the Prince of Darkness with his Staff
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
"Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
Means; their discredited ideas revive,
Breed new belief that war is purgatorial
Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
Men’s biologic urge to readjust
The map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust
And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace."
The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
Bowed. And as he walked away I heard him laugh.
BILL BRAY introduces the author
Stephen MacDonald, who died in 2009, was brought up in Birmingham, where he trained as an actor. In 1971 he began his directorial career at Leicester Phoenix Theatre but, aware of his Scottish roots, he took the opportunity to move to the Dundee Repertory Theatre. There, as artistic director, he mounted new plays by Scottish authors, and turned around the theatre’s fortunes.
His next post was at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Whilst there he wrote his best known play Not About Heroes (1983), which concerns the relationship between World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. It has has been produced internationally including an off-Broadway run and a production at the National Theatre in 1986, where MacDonald played Sassoon. Not About Heroes is a gem of a play but has been neglected since its National Theatre presentation. The idea of dramatizing the meeting of famous people has recently been used again by Alan Bennett in his highly successful The Habit of Art, again for the National, which had a highly fictional and rather forced account of the meetings of W H Auden and Benjamin Britten. MacDonald’s play is more closely based on real events. When they first met, in a military hospital, Sassoon already had a reputation as a poet and, after an awkward introduction, he agreed to look over Owen's poems. As well as encouraging Owen to continue writing, he introduced him to such literary figures as Robert Graves (a friend of Sassoon's) which in turn, after his release from hospital, allowed Owen to mix with such luminaries as Arnold Bennett and H G Wells.
MacDonald described the origin of the play in 1986 as follows: "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 linked 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."
The period following his meeting with Sassoon was Wilfred Owen’s most creative, when he wrote many of the poems for which he is best remembered today. In June 1918 he re-joined his regiment at Scarborough and then, in August, he returned to France. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery at Amiens, but was killed on the 4th November whilst attempting to lead his men across the Sambre canal at Ors. The news of his death reached his parents on11th November 1918, the day of the armistice.