Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Therapeutic Quality of the Horse: A Theme in War Horse

Spoiler Alert: I look forward to reliving some parts of this play through writing.  Future posts will discuss the play in detail, including the ending.  If you would like to see the play in person and feel that too much prior information may dampen your experience, then read no further.  That being said, if you live near New York City, London, or another city, which the production may visit in the future, go see War Horse.  If nothing else, I promise a unique theatrical experience, but I am confident that you will walk away with much more.  No prior knowledge of horses or puppetry is necessary to enjoy the show.  If fact, I would say that I do not really like puppets and found them a little scary as a child, but the puppets of War Horse are totally original, like nothing I have ever seen before. 

War Horse is a National Theatre of Great Britain production, based on the novel by Micheal Morpurgo.  The play was adapted by Nick Stafford in association with the Handspring Puppet Company.  I enjoyed a matinee show at the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont on Saturday, July 2, 2011.


The Therapeutic Quality of the Horse: A Theme in War Horse

The Premise
The war is World War I.  Albert and the horses are British, but the play also includes German and French characters who speak their native languages, though the audience hears them speaking English with their respective accents.  Albert and his parents struggle to pay the mortgage on their farm as well as manage the father's insatiable betting habit and unhealthy competition with Albert's uncle.  This eventually leads to Joey's sale to the army as an officer's horse.  The intent is for Joey to return to the family in six months, but when his officer is shot and killed in battle, the whereabouts of Joey become unknown.  This ultimately leads the distraught Albert to lie about his age and enter the army, without his parents' knowledge or blessing.  His hope is to find Joey and return home, but he does not know that Joey is now in the hands of the German army.

Winner of Five Tony Awards including Best Play!

The War and the People
This is where the story explores the dilemma of war.  Joining the service is not just taking up arms and defending one's country in glory.  The soldiers must dig trenches and face unexpected weapons such as automatic machine guns, tanks, and toxic gas.  The trenches are lined with barbed wire, which proves particularly treacherous for the horses.  Some of Joey's talents and training from his time with Albert save his life, as he is able to leap barbed wire and pull the medical wagon in a harness.  His willingness to adapt in order to survive is mirrored by a human character, the German captain, Friedrich.

In the second act, Friedrich finds himself separated from the German army.  It is very likely that all his men are dead.  His character seems delirious and confused.  Somehow, he has Joey and Topthorn with him as he wonders the battlefield.  He thinks of his daughter, Sophie, and wonders if he will see her again.  When he stumbles across a fallen medical officer, he decides to transform himself.  He removes his captain's jacket and steals the medic's clothing,  hoping that he may survive long enough to return to Sophie.  He has lost the zeal to lead the cavalry, which is certain death.  He offered this same transformation to the black thoroughbred, Topthorn, in an earlier scene.  Friedrich lamented that it was sinful to harness such fine horse flesh to a medical cart, but worse to see them killed in battle.  He tries to coax Topthorn to wear the collar by explaining that it may save his life.  Albert had much the same conversation with Joey earlier in the play, when Albert's father wagered Joey in a bet requiring that a horse bred for jumping and galloping be harnessed and drag a plow in a week's time.  Joey shows his heart and love for Albert when he learns to wear the collar and harness and drags the plow a short distance.  The implication in the play is that the plowing scene threatens to break Joey, as he nearly falls several times trying to cut through the earth.  This lesson saves both horses during the war, since Joey willingly wears the collar and harness, impressing upon Topthorn that there is nothing to fear.  Captain Friedrich was noble to put the safety of the horses first, but later his desperation leads him to also pick up a disguise, no longer thinking of victory or sides to the war.  He seeks comfort and companionship as he promises the horses that he will look after them.  They will survive together.  Over great distance, Joey is providing a similar solace to Albert, who rests in a trench with his comrade, gazing at a drawing of Joey and dreaming about when they will meet again.

Overlapping with Friedrich's scene is the introduction of Emilie, a French farm girl who is no more than ten years old.  Emilie was examining the fallen medic when Friedrich enters the scene.  She appears at first to be frightened of the dead soldier, but quickly reveals her resourcefulness as she searches his pockets finding chocolate.  She relishes the "chocolat" like a child who no longer expects things like candy and sweets, but reluctantly abandons the find, when Friedrich enters the clearing.  The man is unaware of her presence, but Joey finds Emilie hiding under a log almost immediately.  She is drawn to the horse, probably remembering when her family used to own horses.  In her attempt to prevent Joey from revealing her hiding place, Friedrich hears her and fires his weapon.  Even the audience is not sure if she has survived, as Friedrich drops his gun and wrings his hands.  She stands, unharmed, and swallows her fear of Friedrich in exchange for touching Joey's nose.  The German captain quickly realizes how the horses may help him communicate with the French-speaking girl, so he introduces the horses and then himself.  The French girl has an adorable accent, pronouncing their names "Shjoey" and "Top-zorn".  Friedrich tries to help her pronounce the "th" in Topthorn, which she fails miserably, in exactly the same fashion that my French-speaking Swiss grandmother used to struggle with the "th" sound.  I loved it!

Emilie wastes little time with introductions, immediately tending to the horses.  She finds two water buckets and some brushes, singing a little girl's song as she brushes Joey's red coat.  Friedrich second guesses himself, asking Topthorn if she is real or a ghost.

"Did I shoot her?"

In a poignant scene, he calls her "Sophie", which Emilie assertively corrects, but the audience has to wonder if what we are watching is real or fantasy.  Has Friedrich been overcome by his delirium?  Has war driven him mad?  Emilie's mother appears and the three of them decide to hide in the country, pretending to be a family despite their different countries and languages.  Friedrich places a crown of flowers upon Emilie's head and tosses her on to Joey's back.  The little actress giggles and clings to Joey's neck as he joggs in a circle behind her mother.  Their happiness is only temporary, as is their makeshift family, but for the time being they can forget the war.  A symbol of strength and normalcy, the horses are likened to children, innocent and worthy of protection even though the family has barely enough to survive themselves.

The Ending
War Horse is not a sugar-coated play.  Friedrich and Emilie are separated when a German regiment recognizes the deserting captain.  Friedrich promises to keep the horses safe, who are promptly confiscated by the German army, but shortly afterward he must watch Topthorn collapse under the burden of pulling a huge gun.  Friedrich cries for Topthorn, wishing that the noble and hardworking horse could return to Sophie, but Topthorn has never met Sophie.  Friedrich is speaking of himself and his own death is soon to follow.  Emilie reappears in a scene with Albert, but she is barely the same girl, dirty, tattered and without her mother.  She almost reveals to Albert that she knows Joey when he leaves the horse's picture on a carcass, having given up hope that his horse is alive.  Gunfire causes her to flee before she can utter Joey's name.  What becomes of Emilie?

Miraculously, Joey escapes the gunfire which claims Friedrich and gallops across trenches leaping barbed wire.  He finally becomes entangled in the wire, which is truly nightmarish, especially for any horse owners in the audience.  In an intriguing twist of fate, he is rescued by two soldiers, one German and one Welsh, who decide to raise the white flag in an effort to free the animal.  The attempt of the two soldiers to communicate in their separate languages is extremely amusing and well-done, ending in a coin toss.  The coin falls in the red horse's favor and Joey gets to return to the British medical base, where he will find a defeated Albert, temporarily blinded by tear gas.  Their reunion is highly climatic, as Joey nearly falls by a merciful bullet, only to be saved by Albert's call when he recognizes his horse's cries.  In a final tribute to the nobility of the horse, injured but mending, Joey carries Albert back to this family.  With all the destruction and death of war, their bond remains in tact, a boy and his horse.

War Horse: Unforgettable.
I believe that it goes without saying, but I loved this play.  If it did not cost a pretty penny to travel to the city and purchase tickets, I would see War Horse again in a heartbeat.  I have read that Steven Spielberg is recreating War Horse as a movie to be released at the end of this year and that the play will travel to Los Angeles in June 2012. 

Will the movie hold a candle to the play?  Only time will tell.  The magic of the story relies heavily on the puppets, which leads me to believe that War Horse, as a National Theatre of Great Britain production, will remain one-of-a-kind.


  1. I am clearing my calendar for June 2012!!!!!!!

  2. Hi Val. I stumbled over here from Mary's blog after seeing a picture of a Buckskin, being the proud owner of one myself.

    I've was not even aware of "War Horse" until I saw ads for Speilbergs movie. I'm pretty stoked for the movie to come out.

  3. Karen-I thought you might like that!

    Buckskins Rule (I agree ;) )-Welcome! I am also excited to see the movie. Your buckskin looks like he could be Harley's cousin.


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