$200. That’s what it cost me to see War Horse last month. Bus fare, ticket, meals, driver’s tip. I’m reading Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution right now, so I’m wincing at the admission. His remarks about consumerist Christians feel up close and personal.
But let me tell you about War Horse. I’ve read the book, seen the movie, but “the play’s the thing.” With minimal staging, we were cleverly ushered into farmyards, village squares and even battlefields. I loved how scythes could become fences simply by turning them over and butting them together, farmers becoming immobile posts. I loved how stringing pennants up into the audience could rope us effortlessly into a celebratory town meeting, the recruiter cajoling us with stirring patriotic rhetoric. “It’ll all be over by Christmas!” he vows. This is the pulse of drama, suggestiveness coupled with imagination, disbelief suspended. Thomas Merton said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” And it’s true. I’m there, ready to sign up for King and country.
A screen above the stage, like a huge torn scrap of paper, afforded further orientation. Simple pencil drawings, sketched live, outlined the geography – patchworked pastures and village rooftops. Archival film footage of the crossing of the English Channel and the twisted, charred tree trunks of No Man’s Land lent sobering realism. But abstract images were equally powerful, a single red drop spreading like blood on the white canvas, dripping, metamorphosing into poppies with quavering paper-thin petals slipping off the edge.
The puppetry is the wizardly part of the production. It’s beyond description really – life-sized horses operated with flawless choreography by agile puppeteers. In seconds you’re mesmerized, hoodwinked, believing the horses are real, every snort and hoof beat credible. They even breathe. The puppetry, not only with respect to the horses but also the larks, crows and a comical goose, represents a phenomenal achievement.
Celtic folk songs smoothed the transitions between scenes, universal and timeless ballads of mothers, wives and sweethearts longing for their men to come home, for their families to be reunited, for the fighting to be over. The plaintive melodies were juxtaposed against the deafening din of battle scenes, the booming artillery reverberating with terrible authenticity. Music, noise and silence combined to generate a subliminal kinesthetic commentary – physiological meaningfulness penetrating muscle and bone.
The story starts small with the love of a boy for his horse, but ripples out concentrically, encompassing the family, Albert, his alcoholic father and long-suffering mother, the village, with its petty local rivalries, and, finally, the whole world, nations engaging in cataclysmic confrontation. Within these overlapping circles, the enduring questions keep bumping against each other: the whys and what ifs.
Was the $200 well-spent? I marveled at the talent and ingenuity of the production, my awe undergirded by praise and adoration for a creative God, the God whom we image in every artistic human endeavour. T.S. Eliot, in Choruses from the Rock, sums it up so elegantly: The LORD who created must wish us to create / And employ our creation again in His service / Which is already His service in creating.” Amen and amen.
But, further, I’m grateful for any artistic expression that allows us to not only lose ourselves, but to find ourselves, to perceive the multiplicity of our own being – the wild amalgam of nobility and degradation, holiness and profanity that we are – because such discovery can propel us toward the “other,” the neighbour who is not so different from us, after all. The fact that Joey, the war horse with an oh-so-human name, served on both sides of the combat deliberately places such recognition in the crosshairs of our consciousness. As we gaze upon the fractures in Albert’s family and in Europe, upon the dead and dying horses in the mud of Flanders, we also see the cracks and fissures in our own families, in our own neighbourhoods and in our world. But as Christians, we’re invited to look with the eyes of Jesus, the Saviour who ignites redemption and restoration through Incarnation, the supreme example of embracing the “other,” divine embracing human. What Marilynne Robinson said about fiction is true of all the arts: “I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.”
Exiting the theatre, a turbaned teenager stepped back to allow me to leave ahead of him. I smiled and thanked him. It was … priceless. And when I got home, Shane’s book still on my night table, I gave a donation to our church’s school-building project in Belize: my heart stretched, perhaps, by this exercise of its “capacity for imaginative love.”