nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 25, 2006
I didn't know that some 300 British soldiers were executed for cowardice or desertion during World War I; even within the context of a conflict that seems pointless and brutal to us today, these 300 murders—presumably carried out to "set an example"—feel shockingly barbaric. But warfare, no matter when or where practiced, has very little to do with being civilized, and if you need to be reminded of that truth then look in on Private Peaceful, an enormously affecting one-man play that makes as powerful a statement against our age-old habit of lining up and shooting at each other as I can recall.
Imagine: a young man (16 years old, in this case) lives through weeks of trench warfare, with all the fatigue and boredom and moments of terror that that entails; he survives a gassing (that lethal weapon had not yet been outlawed in 1916, when this play takes place); he sees countless mates fall and die. When a commander gives an order to the exhausted and shellshocked soldier that will result in his certain death, he refuses...and is court-martialed and sentenced to death by firing squad. (And these are supposedly the "good guys"—i.e., the British.)
Private Peaceful deftly sketches it out for us, putting us inside the head of young Tommo Peaceful on his last night on earth, during the hours before his execution at dawn. Tommo does what I imagine most of us would do, savoring and treasuring every remaining moment, reliving memories good and bad of his short life. It's revealed to have been a hard and scrappy life: his father was killed when he was small, and he quit school at 12 or 13 to help support his family, which includes his mother, his older brother Charlie, and another brother, Joe, who is mentally disabled.
The recollections of these early tough years are nevertheless filled with a child's joy and wonder: the scary first day of school, the awesome stirrings of first love and sex, the thrill of seeing an aeroplane lumber out of the sky and onto the ground right in front of him.
A troubling experience sends Tommo into battle, vividly rendered in Simon Reade's script (which is adapted from Michael Morpurgo's book). Tommo, venturing into town one day, happens upon a recruiting rally:
TOMMO: Suddenly someone prodded me hard in the small of my back—a toothless old lady pointed at me with her crooked finger.
TOOTHLESS OLD LADY: Go on, son, you go and fight. It's every man's duty to fight when his country calls, that's what I say. Go on. Y'aint a coward, are you?
Mopurgo and Reade nail the misguided mix of machismo and chauvinism that calls men to arms (and women, nowadays). In a way, this scene is more terrifying than anything that follows depicting the actual war.
So to war Tommo goes, along with his brother Charlie; and the second half of Private Peaceful takes us first to training camp and then to the frontlines, relentlessly and horribly. We hear about the rats and the lice and the smells; the awfulness, the fear, the death. There's nothing glorious going on here—just a bunch of confused boys and men, digging trenches and occasionally shooting at so-called enemies a few hundred yards away from them. (I love that Mopurgo has Tommo call the city in Belgium where he's fighting "Wipers" (that would be Ypres)—he doesn't want us to forget how simple and uneducated these soldiers are.)
The final sequences of the play are wrenchingly painful as Tommo's defiance—perhaps the one true moment of bravery in the story, or at least of common sense—yields its tragic consequence. It's hard to sit through Private Peaceful and imagine that we ever have been—or ever will be, given the state of the world just now—the species we should be.
The production is flawless, featuring a simple but extremely effective design by Bill Talbot and a remarkable performance by Alexander Campbell. I'd go so far as to say that there is no more affecting portrayal on stage anywhere in New York at the moment: that's how deeply and honestly Campbell goes in creating his portrait of this naive, oh-so-ordinary young man. Reade's direction, just as spare and forthright, is invaluable.
So Private Peaceful stands as testament to the very worst that humanity can do and also to the very best that theatre can be. This is a play that wallops its audience. Can we get the people who most need to hear its message to listen to it and take it to heart?