Britain is a small, insular isle and the British are famous for the passion of their shared hatreds (the Irish, popery, Germans, French) and their loves (gardening, dogs, horses). Horses loom particularly large in the English imagination. It’s no coincidence that Jonathan Swift, when he wanted to show a master race of super-rational beings, had them be horses in "Gulliver’s Travels". Or how blinding a stable of horses is seen as the ultimate anti-social act ("Equus").
So "War Horse", a sensation on London’s West End getting a wondrous production at Lincoln Center here (and, it seems, equally ecstatic audience reaction), continues in the English tradition of paintings, royals, songs and everything else horsey. The show shamelessly milks the love of these dedicated, intelligent and eminently noble beasts.
Whether it succeeds as theater will come down to how you view sentiment. As an avowed animal lover (vegan, anti-fur, maniacal variety), I was fully prepared to be blubbering by the last scene. That I left "War Horse" dry-eyed was a disappointment, although, judging from the sniffles all around me, maybe I missed something.
Certainly the script by Nick Stafford doesn’t spare the get-out-the-handkerchief moments. Adapted from a children’s book by British writer Michael Murpurgo, it details (over-details, I think, but more of that below) the story of Joey, part-runner (that is, hunter as in foxes), part-race horse, all thoroughbred, bought for an apparently enormous sum (I’m not up on my guinea conversion) by a drunken lout who outbids his more prosperous brother in the rural county of Devon.
The father brings the horse back home, to the great consternation of his stern, long-suffering wife, and bequeaths him to his son Albert. It’s here that the play really begins -- and should have begun. The auction scene could have been disposed of in two sentences of exposition, and the play’s overly leisurely frame and literalness to the text is its greatest handicap.
Once there, however, the waterworks will start if you’re of a sentimental nature. There’s no question that this horse is a showman determined to pull at your heartstrings like a harpist playing Wagner. Or like Lassie, Dumbo, Old Yeller or any of the other animals who have made their way into our collective imagination.
About that horse: Joey and the other horses we see later in the war scenes are everything you’ve been hearing about them. Constructed by a South African-based puppet company, he’s expressive in that profoundly anthropomorphic way horses have. The way Joey moves his head at a provocation, the flip back of his ears, his rearing up on his back legs: amazing. (That part of his make-up is leather -- torn from another large, sentient four-legged being -- is an irony only an animal nut like myself would notice, I guess.)
As graceful as the human-activated horses and the excellent cast are, however, the plot is somewhat predictable. Just as a scene that involves Joey in a fierce bet between the two estranged adult brothers ends (you won’t get any spoilers from me!), the church bells ring. "You know what that means," the town constable proclaims. "The Germans won’t leave Belgium." The lights are going out all over Europe, and the Great War has begun.
The scenes of the trenches in World War I is where the spectacle that has had so many critics and audience members in thrall really begins in earnest. This is the best recreation of any war I’ve ever seen on a stage, and it’s all in the service of showing the remarkable odyssey of Joey from an officer’s proud steed to a struggling plow horse, desperately trying to extricate a cannon from mud.
Joey’s descent culminates in the barbed wire that criss-crossed the entire Western Front and that so cruelly killed nearly every horse that was brought in to help fight the First World War for both sides in a cruel anachronism that mirrored the human carnage of that horrible conflict.
These scenes are properly wrenching, but even an animal lover like myself had trouble feeling more for the horses than for their even-more wretched taskmasters, the soldiers stuck in the trenches. This horse-eye view apparently comes from the original novel, which sees the war through Joey’s trusting eyes. But it seems a bit callous on the stage; Albert’s pursuit of Joey through the entire Western Front, on the other hand, comes across as merely improbable.
The penultimate scene, with Joey caught on the barbed wire, certainly is affecting, and the following scenes even more so. I didn’t like the ending -- Walt Disney would have known how to wring the last tear out of the audience with a strong dose of pathos -- but it seemed to be working for the rest of the audience.
Pity and fear is what Aristotle told us is the essence of good drama, and "War Horse" gives it to you by the shovel-full. As if Joey’s story weren’t pathetic enough, we get another noble officer’s steed brought low and even two starving horses.
Some stupid, narrow people will think this isn’t suitable for children, as if children don’t or can’t or aren’t supposed to comprehend suffering. The reason why the English have written far greater children’s literature than we have is because they don’t coddle them. This is actually a great entertainment for kids, who probably will handle it better than their parents will.
While I wasn’t completely taken in (and the two folk singers started to get on my nerves big time), there’s no question that this show demonstrates the power of theater, and why theater in a Class A production like this will always possess a power of immediacy that two-dimensional arts like film can never convey.
When I left the theater, I may not have felt the power of the production in the same way that others did and yet ... and yet ... I keep going back over it in my mind. If Joey’s story may not have affected me that deeply, he’s continuing to haunt my imagination. And that’s the essence of great theater.
"War Horse" is playing an extended run (extended following critics’ and audiences’ reactions) at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St. (enter on Ninth Avenue)
For tickets, go to Telecharge.