WWI drama at Charity Randall Theatre centers on friendship, sacrifice of 8 Irishmen
by Alice T. Carter, Trib Total Media
Joseph Stalin may or may not have said, “One death is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
Regardless of who said it, statistics from the World War I battle of the Somme speak to the statement’s truth.
It’s difficult to wrap your mind around the death of 57,470 soldiers on the first day of that battle or the more than 1 million who died during the siege that lasted from July 1 to Nov. 18, 1916.
Playwright Frank McGuinness puts human faces on those losses with his drama “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.”
The story follows eight young Irishmen who have volunteered to serve in the 36th Ulster division that was formed in August 1914.
The eight represent the thousands of young Irishmen who put aside their religious, political and personal differences to fight for their country. As they train together, the men develop friendships and loyalty as they face the horrors of trench warfare.
The battle of the Somme was only one event in the four-year conflict that pitted soldiers against recent technological inventions such as flamethrowers, tanks and poison gases.
On the first day of the battle, the 36th Ulster division had more than 4,900 casualties — 79 officers and 1,777 enlisted men died; 102 officers and 2,626 men were wounded and an additional 378 were missing or taken prisoner.
Pict Classic Theatre’s artistic and executive director, Alan Stanford, chose the drama as part of the company’s season because he believes its significance is timeless.
“This is a play about how a group of men who start out with intense dislike for one another turn into a ‘band of brothers,’ ” Stanford says in the company’s promotional materials.
It’s a play that Matt Torney, who grew up in Belfast, takes very personally.
“It’s the story of their sacrificing their lives for Ulster — something that they believed in more than their lives,” says Torney, who is directing the production that runs Sept. 4 to 20 in the Charity Randall Theatre in Oakland. “In the first month, there were 700,000 deaths. No one had ever seen anything like this before.”
Despite the horrific loss of life, the drama is not completely grim, Torney says. There is humor and lighter moments in the drama, and that comes from interactions between the men as they get to know and care for each other.
“They all have a real sense of camaraderie,” Torney says. “They are people with country, class and political sensibilities who are faced with the trials of war, people who are willing to die for a cause. To see them on the last day marching and dying for each other is a beautiful thing to witness.
“There’s a great sense of hope and uplift in seeing this kind of friendship.”
Ultimately, Torney says, it’s about people who believe there are things worth fighting for.
“They love Ulster and the land in the same way Americans love America,” he says. “If I play it as just relentlessly depressing, it misses the point about feeling things and finding the poetry of the human spirit.”
Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.