In silent defiance, six soldiers, their uniforms bloody and tattered, stand waist-high in a gaping trench, unmoved by the shrill commands of their general.
Waving a doctor’s report, the general barks, “You’re dead. Officially. All of you. … I command you to lie down and allow yourselves to be buried.”
But, fueled by collective moral indignation against the war that tore holes in their bodies, the U.S. Army privates in Irwin Shaw’s “Bury the Dead” refuse to retreat into the earth.
In a stark and minimalist staging of the 90-minute play, written in 1935 and performed on Broadway a year later, The Actors’ Gang offers an intimate and subtly powerful rendering of a work with unsettling echoes of the war in Iraq.
Highlighting the universality of its themes, the play doesn’t identify a specific war, but Shaw drew inspiration from the horrific conditions endured by World War I soldiers, including the stench of bodies piled into trenches.
Shaw, who gained literary success writing short stories and scripts for radio and film, drew from his experiences serving in World War II for his first novel “The Young Lions,” published in 1948. Blacklisted by Hollywood during the McCarthy era, the author moved to Europe and continued to write novels, including “Rich Man, Poor Man,” until his death in 1984.
Commenting on “Bury the Dead,” his first play, in a 1936 New York Times article, Shaw warned that “the time is coming, and not so far away, when young men will be asked to put their lives on precarious firing-steps to be shot at by the monstrously well-organized war machine of any one of two dozen nations. I feel that life is too fragile and fine a thing to be treated as butcher’s meat in the markets where nations buy and sell land and honor in their discreditable transactions.”
In the play, the six men, two days dead, rise up in unison from trenches turned into makeshift graves. Disturbed that their defiance will affect the morale of fellow soldiers, two generals enlist the women in the men’s lives, including wives and a sister, to convince them to accept their deaths. In the play’s most powerful moments, one by one, the women beseech the soldiers to allow themselves to be buried.
Through this dramatically compelling premise, Shaw explores the exploitation of the working-class soldiers, who lament the disruption of lives barely begun.
One private confides to his mother, “I spent 20 years practicing to be a man and then they kill me.” Another soldier tells his sweetheart, “It’s not a fair bargain – the exchange of my life for a colored pin on a general’s map.”
Shaw’s impassioned language dwells on the visceral details of war but also unveils lyrical passages that juxtapose the delicate beauty of life with its brutal realities.
Under Matthew Huffman’s direction, the ensemble handles the blunt and tender moments capably, though some performances are more nuanced than others. In a sensitive portrayal, Simon Anthony Abou-Fadel’s philosophical captain sympathizes with the rebels and even suggests stopping the war. Also particularly affecting are Andrew Wheeler as a private who reminisces about the simple pleasures of a farmer’s life, Donna Jo Thorndale as a wife embittered by the meager existence to which she is consigned, and Colin Golden as the soldier who spurs the insurrection with his fierce determination to stop people who “pick up guns to go fight other people’s wars.”
The play’s title resonates on more than one level. Not only does it echo the repeated plea to the soldiers to surrender themselves to the grave. It also reflects public reluctance to confront the face of war casualties, a refusal reflected in the Pentagon ban on press photos of the military ceremonies of dead soldiers returning home from Iraq. As one of the callous generals in Bury the Dead exclaims, “Wars can be fought and won only when the dead are buried and forgotten.”
The play runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through September 13 at The Actors’ Gang, Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. For information and reservations, call 310.838.4264 or visit theactorsgang.com.