Great War, Great Drama

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

War and drama have always been closely linked. Aeschylus, the world-s first great dramatist, fought against the Persians in two wars, so it-s not surprising that his earliest known work, The Persians, is based on his experiences in Athenian military victories. In the 2,500 years since Aeschylus, great battles - from Agincourt to Zama - have consistently provided writers with great dramatic scenarios.

For the past 60 years, the war of choice for authors has been World War II. The Twentieth Century saw many wars, but the Second World War, with its huge scope, clear sides, and unimaginable tragedies, has effectively dwarfed all others - especially the First World War, once called &quotThe; War to End All Wars," even though it also yields strong, if less triumphant, dramatic material.

Two recent productions - one in Los Angeles, the other in London - try to reacquaint audiences with that seemingly antiquated, but still relevant conflict - one that both the U.S. and U.K. joined despite great popular protest.

At the Geffen Playhouse, War Music, a recent work written by a local playwright, Bryan Davidson, looked at The Great War through the life of a British composer, Frank Bridge.

War Music-s first act centers on Bridge and a composition of his entitled At Dawn. (Act II and III deal with Anton Webern and Olivier Messiaen - two other 20th Century composers - but sadly their movements are nowhere near as interesting as Bridge-s.) The drama is set in a British Military Hospital where the nurses and doctors try to deal with the steady flow of wounded soldiers. One soldier is a former music student who lost his arm in combat - so Bridge composes At Dawn as a piano work to be played with only one hand.

It-s a great story. Unfortunately, the script- and production at the Geffen - don-t add much to it. The tone of the war scenes is uneven. Broad M.A.S.H.-style antics clash with the more realistic parts of the writing. Most of all, the Bridge storyline feels orphaned in a larger work which makes it feel like a chapter from a history book, instead of a real life, vividly rendered on stage.

That is not a problem with Journey-s End, a 1928 play written by R.C. Sherriff based on his experiences at the front line. Currently running at the Comedy Theater in London-s West End, the production marks the 75th anniversary of what was the first piece of theater to really portray World War I

In 1928, only ten years after armistice, there was concern whether such a serious subject could be made into an evening-s entertainment, but Journey-s End proved a huge success and ran in London for almost two years.

This excellent revival shows why. Journey-s End is a simple play - it all takes place in one bunker along the western front - but R.C. Sherriff learned that the real horrors of war need no narrative or theatrical gimmicks.

Nonetheless, the production is first rate. The set painstakingly recreates a World War I foxhole, where you almost see the earwigs crawling around the rations. But the main draw here is the acting.

In Los Angeles, the cast of War Music seemed to be simply playing their parts. The performances were good, but there was no sense of gravitas... which is likely due to the fact that here in America, World War I is seen as just another highlight in our spotless history.

In Britain, where the fighting was closer and the casualties greater, the Great War is still treated (despite victory) as a tragedy to reflect on, much like Vietnam here in the United States. The Journey-s End cast seemed dedicated to portraying the integrity and heroism of the soldiers despite their flaws (and quietly, the absurdity of the situation), which gives this production an added weight.

Finally, while on the subject of war and music, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthall-s opera Die Frau Ohne Schatten is back in L.A. This magical opera was written during the years 1914 through 1917 and its brooding score reflects that dark time in Europe. This vibrant David Hockney production was seen in London last fall, but it is currently running at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion until March 13th.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.