When young soldier Wilfred Owen met towering poet and military hero Siegfried Sassoon while they were convalescing in hospital in 1917, it was a lightening bolt that sparked some of the best, rawest and most profound poetry to come out of the First World War.
Stephen MacDonald’s excellent 1982 play dramatises that moment, where an unknown, lower-class fanboy Owen knocks on the door of the highly decorated, upper-class Sassoon. ‘Not About Heroes’ shows how Owen’s writing flourishes with the help of Sassoon’s input, and the two become very close. Just over a year later, Owen was dead – killed a week before Armistice – but in that time he had written the likes of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘Strange Meeting’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.
‘Not About Heroes’ tells the fascinating tale of Owen and Sassoon. But the play is also a superbly subtle story of a nightmarish war that took the lives of over 16 million (twice the population of London). The dialogue is fictional, but by using the poems, letters and the bare facts, MacDonald has built up a brilliantly plausible portrait. It’s through Sassoon and Owen’s reflections of their experiences and through what happens to them, that we’re reminded of the unnecessary length, brutality and waste of the conflict. The nagging, unhappy thought you’re left with by the play’s end is: had he lived past the age of 25, what could Owen have gone on to write?
MacDonald’s play is finely drawn, fluid and funny. He delves into the lives of his real-life protagonists with delicacy, never plying us with emotion. Like much of Owen’s best writing, it feels as though we’re being presented with a vision of what happened, until the poignancy and poetry of the tale has already crept up on you.
Simon Jenkins and Alasdair Craig are excellent as the two poets. Jenkins’s Sassoon is the brighter, more relaxed of the two, while Alasdair Craig’s Owen is a contrasting bundle of jittery nerves. They keep the pace up and speak the numerous poems quoted throughout very well. Revived for the centenary of World War I, the play is a potent, sad reminder of what we lost over those four long years.