Drama Students!!!

I just got back from a great trip to New York City.  I saw two plays, and the review below will appear in the next issue of the St. Austin Review.  I'm posting it here because of what I say about arete (excellence), a virtue that all of you should cultivate, especially if you're drawn to the theatrical arts.


Michael Raver as Wilfred Owen (foreground) and Nicholas Carriere as Siegfried Sasson (background) in a scene from 'Death Comes for the War Poets' by Joseph Pearce at the Sheen Center in New York City.

Death and Poetry in New York
Kevin O’Brien

“There’s only one way this play will work,” I told Joseph Pearce.  “You’ve got to have an excellent cast.  Without three very talented and committed and hard working actors, this play will be a disaster.”

I was talking about “Death Comes for the War Poets”, a one act drama Joseph Pearce had written that features three characters in an abstract setting: World War One poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, pursued, observed and courted by a lady named Death.  The play combines the poetry of Sassoon and Owen with verse by T. S. Eliot, G. K. Chesterton, Francis Thompson and some of Pearce’s own poetry.  It focuses on Sassoon and his conversion, how, after the horrors of “the Great War” and the despair and nihilism it produced, Sassoon, as an older man, is surprised to find a home in the Catholic Church.  Sassoon writes ...

This, then, brought our new making. Much emotional stress -
Call it conversion: but the word can't cover such good.
It was like being in love with ambient blessedness -
In love with life transformed - life breathed afresh, though
       yet half understood.

This sort of poetry is beautiful, but delicate like all good poetry, and sometimes a challenge to understand even on the page.  How can it work in a spoken dramatic setting - especially in a show whose plot is propelled only by the verse and by the presence of Death, who serves as a kind of mocking Greek Chorus to much of what transpires?  

At one point I had hoped to produce this play myself at the World War One Museum in Kansas City, but the museum had recently featured a show on these same poets, so it would have been a hard sell.  And I was unsure of the project.  Most of the actors I know in Kansas City and St. Louis could not pull this show off.

And this is not merely because of the level of talent in our Mid-western actors, some of whom are quite good.  And it is not merely because Pearce’s play is challenging and anything but “actor proof”.  It’s because of arete.


The word is “Greek to me”, but it’s the exact word that describes what I saw in New York.  New York is the city.  It’s the archetypical city.  It is a vivid melting pot of everyone and everything.  It contains all that is good about cities and all that is bad about cities.  And it is the center of the theatrical world in the United States.

Actors who move to Los Angeles (as a rule) want to be famous.  Actors who move to New York (as a rule) want to do good work.  This makes all the difference.   There are two streams flowing in the soul of every actor.  One leads to fame, fortune, attention - the world, the flesh and the devil.  The other leads to self-sacrifice, to Truth, Beauty, Goodness - to God.  Actors (selfish, volatile and puerile as we are) have a priestly function.  Since the beginnings of Drama in ancient Greece, our job as actors has been to bridge the audience to that which is beyond them, to connect them to a kind of communion with “the gods”, to draw back the curtain from the hidden glory that informs all reality.

And this can even be done with slapstick comedy.  The day after I attended the premiere performance of “Death Comes for the War Poets” at the Sheen Center in New York City, I saw The Play that Goes Wrong, at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway, a tremendously funny farce about a play in which everything goes wrong.  Unlike “Death Comes for the War Poets”, this play is not about anything deep or spiritually significant - except in so far as it elicits laughter and produces a kind of joy.  The actors portray actors who bravely forge through a performance of a mediocre murder mystery, despite disastrous and hilarious things going wrong with props and other actors all about them.  There is a kind of metaphor at work, for we all do our best to maintain the illusions we cherish, even when they are collapsing around us.

A scene from The Play that Goes Wrong
But, metaphor or no, what struck me more than anything else is that The Play that Goes Wrong is a kind of ballet.  The physical bits have to be finely choreographed and executed, otherwise it would be very easy for the performers to get hurt.  It’s also physically demanding, requiring the kind of agility and energy and focus found only in professional athletes … and Broadway actors.  

After the performance, I thought, “There is no way there could be a better performance of this play.”  I had witnessed excellence on stage - arete.  

The same can be said for “Death Comes for the War Poets”.  The actors had not only memorized the poetry they were performing, they had internalized it, so that the play was tight and had momentum and so that the intentions of the words could be communicated.  As with The Play that Goes Wrong, “Death Comes for the War Poets” was also well-directed and well-choreographed, also a kind of ballet, with moments of dance and movement that helped lift it all off the page and closer to the heavens.  

Nicholas Carriere as Sassoon was especially effective in his speech to parliament, his entire being expressing anger and frustration at how the war was being waged.  Michael Raver as Owen managed in his short time on stage to embody a shell-shocked and broken young man, and yet one who was at least partially saved by the transcendence of his verse.  Sarah Naughton as Death moved well, sang beautifully and fit in perfectly in a role that is sometimes functional, sometimes interactive.  The only weak point was Sassoon’s conversion scenes, which teetered on a kind of saccharine sentimentality at times, mostly because it seemed to have been harder for Carriere as Sassoon to internalize the complexities of conversion.  The anti-war frustration and rage in Sassoon as a young man shone forth with power and conviction, but the intricacies of joy and the surprise of absolution in Sasson as an old man did not seem genuine.  The latter, of course, is harder to play - though it would have been more effective to have done something to age Sassoon with costuming or make-up.

All in all, though, both plays were very well done.  And most of the actors I work with in the Mid-West could not have pulled off either - not so much for lack of talent, but for lack of commitment - the kind of commitment that says, “This is what I live for.  This is what God made me to do.  I am going to be the best that I can be and cooperate with my peers to produce the best production we can in the greatest city in the world.”  And with that comes sacrifice, loneliness, living in difficult circumstances, uncertainty - all the ups and downs in the life of actors that we pray for in the Fraternity of St. Genesius.  

Arete is excellence - the virtue of being the best, doing the best, fulfilling your potential, sacrificing your own needs and your own ego for something beyond yourself.  Actors in Hollywood want to be known and admired.  But how many Broadway actors are known and admired?  How many New York actors can you name?  I can look at the Playbill and know the names of the actors in the shows I saw, and I can admire what they did, but what they did is a product of who they are and at the same time transcends who they are.  Arete is doing good work, doing the best work you can.  It is producing art, and it is pointing to something beyond yourself.

That is the nobility in art, the arete, that the Church has lost.  So much of our modern church art and architecture, and all of our modern church music and even much of our liturgy has abandoned arete.  And yet the typical New York actor (confused, lonely, emotional, insecure, sexually promiscuous, needy) … the typical New York actor, in so far as he gives everything to the excellence of his craft, gets it.  

“Lift up your hearts,” we are told in the Mass.  “We lift them up to the Lord,” we respond.  And that is what art - especially acting - is all about.
Joseph Pearce delivers an introduction to his play "Death Comes for the War Poets" at the Sheen Center in New York City.