1936. With Europe still licking the wounds of the First World War, an even more cataclysmic conflict emerges on the horizon. In Brooklyn twenty-two year old writer to be Irwin Gilbert Shaw, son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, writes his first play, “Bury the Dead,” a sort of expressionist diatribe on the devastating futility of war. In directing the play for Millersville University Theatre, Tony Elliot understands that Shaw “wants us to think about the moral and ethical challenges for the soldiers, their friends and families and for their communities.”
Elliot’s production has entered the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
“Bury the Dead” proposes an absurd but keenly dramatic conflict. Six soldiers about to be buried refuse to be laid to rest. This sets off havoc in officialdom. Military officers are in dire straits to break the determination of the corpses not to be buried. A priest arrives to say prayers for the dead. Perhaps God has the solution. However, the priest no sooner begins the ceremony than an anguished groan is heard. Slowly the dead soldiers rise up, (as Lazarus?) begging not to be buried. The corpses demand they be allowed to rejoin the living. News of their rebelliousness spreads like lightening—to the soldiers in the field, generals, politicians, and the news media.
In what is a clear anticipation of today’s wars, the military urge the editors to suppress the information about the protest of the soldiers. (Any discerning viewer might remember the "embedding" policy of the Bush Administration for journalists covering the war against Iraq). In desperation the military authorities then think they have found the ideal solution: the wives and girlfriends of the dead soldiers. Women are naturally conservative and patriotic, reasons the General, and therefore they can be used to convince the soldiers to be buried. The role of women as guardians of the family and patriotic values has certainly changed since the period previous to the Second World War, making this scene perhaps even more acutely ironic than Shaw imagined it in 1936.
The attempt of the ladies to get their loved ones to lie down and be buried sparks perhaps the most dramatically interesting scene in the play—at least in Elliot’s version. Wives, as well as a sister and even a mother arrive one by one to coax their beloved dead ones to be buried. They fail but in the process the affective relationships of the soldiers emerge to reveal the tragedy that all wars bring about. It is here that Shaw's visceral objection to war breaks from the structural confines of the play. In the end the frustrated General orders the “dead” soldiers to be shot. He cannot get a single soldier to obey his command; he varies tactics from militaristic jargon to common ordinary cajoling but cannot get anyone to shoot the "dead" soldiers. So the corpses march away, stomping over the rifle the lies on the floor, leaving the General to meditate.
True. The play has a rather arbitrary anti-war structure and the dialogues at times reveal the ingenuity of the young author concerning script writing. Yet this is offset by the creativity of the dramatic composition and the imaginative staging possibilities it opens up. Elliot chiseled down the exceedingly long text, eliminated some characters and envisaged a Brecht-like staging that was very effective in establishing the mood of the spectacle.
All of the actors in the performance are Millersville University theatre students. Kudos go to the women who performed the roles of the women who must touch strong emotional chords in their attempts to get their loved ones to abandon their protest and be buried like any other soldier.