“NO MORE WORDS”: Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” on stage in Edinburgh

Regeneration by Pat Barker, adapted for the stage by Nicholas Wright, a Touring Consortium Theatre Company and Royal & Derngate, Northampton Co-Production.

Voices of War, poetry reading in association with the Scottish Poetry Library and Veterans First Point, part of the Scottish Festival of Mental Health.

by Andrew Rubens

Muteness. The unsaid is the filigree which threads Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. The direct acknowledgements of its presence are the stammers of an impossible voice which can only hint at the gaping absence beyond. A shell-shocked man is introduced to Doctor William Rivers for questioning. He nods and shakes his head to signal his comprehension, but cannot speak. Two gentleman officers can allow just the tiniest nuance of ambiguity into their dialogue to hint at the unacknowledgeable existence of homosexuality. Wilfred Owen, clinging to a Mallarméan ideal of the nobility of poetry, initially seeks to protect its hallowed domain from the horrible lexicon of war. A private, a horse-handler and in some sense a spectator, is struck dumb by the spectacle of horrors at the front endlessly playing out in front of him, and is further brutalized by electro-shock treatment which recovers his empty, functional speech but leaves the sense of his experience untouched. The silent spectre of class, made modern in the form of the proletariat by the same mechanisation which lead to Gatling guns and prototype tanks, is kept at bay by ritualised gestures and ritualised spaces such as the Conservative club, whose waiters are proud to serve the members who treat them as though they were invisible, while class distinctions are being unspeakably blurred across the channel under the levelling reign of death. The silence of the masses without experience of the front, and the ‘callous complacency’ with which, in the words of Siegfried Sassoon, they ‘regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not, and which they have not sufficient imagine to realise’. The silence of shame and guilt and the incapacity of words to manifest the memories and nightmares and hallucinations of the men confined to Craiglockhart hospital for shell-shocked officers, the stoppering of catharsis and the unlikeliness of expiation. The doctor presses the mute officer as he lies in his bed. Finally the man scribbles upon a pad: “No more words.”

1910 is sometimes discussed as a threshold of modernity, but the years 1914-1918 could easily be approached as the significant passage. The industrialised scale of the carnage is certainly a factor. In the play Sassoon mentions that over 100,000 men had died only the previous month. Yet, again, the words are empty – they struggle and fail to pull his experience of death into a multiplicity (in 2011, NATO dropped 7700 bombs on Libya. Estimates of deaths in the conflict range from 10,000 to 50,000, of whom uncounted thousands must be civilians. A friend, having seen a figure of 15,000 deaths caused by the bombs alone, recently tried to understand this by picking out a grain of rice as a corpse. Using his kitchen scales, he estimated this to a kilogram bag of rice. The Battle of the Somme represents around 20 bags.). And it is this failure of words, the great signifying absences of discussion of the war, that torturously births a certain kind of modernity. Owen’s great poem Anthem for Doomed Youth is a rejection of poetry’s preservation in beauty, but it is not a description of the war. As Kate McLoughlin writes in her essay in the play’s program, ‘An Anthem that is not an Anthem,’ not a word is said about mud or blood or wounds or broken bodies… instead, the poem is about funerals. In fact, it’s not even about funerals. It’s about the absence of funerals about a lot of missing things.

The slaughter began in the first days of the war. But Sassoon’s courageous declaration rejecting it, Finished with the war (quoted above) came only in 1917. The change the war engendered was more than one of ‘efficiency’ or scale. Action reality had become detached from symbolism. Even when machine-gunning Zulus, the British Empire had been able to sufficiently convince itself of a noble cause, a mission of pacification and the spread of ‘civilisation.’ By 1917, it had become evident that 1914’s righteous cause of preventing the perceived unethical expansion of Germany’s own Empire was no longer driving the conflict on the Western Front. The soldiers were not only dying in horrific ways on a horrific scale, but pointlessly. It is for this reason that the ‘Great’ War (the adjective surely a borrowing from the French which gains rather too much in translation) marks a turning point. In pre-modern cultures from the Aztecs to the red killing fields of the Thirty Years’ War, even extreme violence was enmeshed into a system of signification, myth, ritual and religious belief, from the purification of warriors to the redeeming power of Christ. Such systems were torn apart by the blatantly senseless and godless destruction of World War One. There is a powerful gesture towards this comparison in the play, as Doctor Rivers recounts his experience of a funeral he participated in during his stay among the Solomon islanders, whose ‘primitive’ culture was able to integrate tragic death into a shared signification and thereby release it. The soldiers in the modern theatre of combat are viewed, conversely, by their commanders, only as parts in the great machine of war. To be reasonable in such a society is surely to make oneself the mad one. The response to the war was Dada quite literally if we think of writers like Apollinaire and Futurism, two great attempts to draw attention to the dislocation of words from sense, and the prose of Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s great wrenching of language and narrative from their traditional joints, formally underlining the inadequacy of logical language to approach reality, and indeed its complicity in hiding the gaping truth. The war-traumatised character of Septimus Smith struggles under the ineffability of his suffering, his eventual suicide an acknowledgement of the inability to communicate, a foreshadowing in some ways of Woolf’s own ultimate self-silencing. Her suicide is a reminder that the mental illnesses of modernity ripple out beyond those directly affected by war, that the cultural malaise of modernity the inability of reason and ‘progress’ to replace the symbolic orders and metaphysical certainties we have lost – is one we all share. This loss of meaning into silence is encapsulated by Sassoon’s remarks on his brother’s trauma at attending their father’s funeral; the ancient meanings of the Hebrew prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, which derive from the wellspring of our Judeo-Christian civilisation, are reduced to mumbo-jumbo.

This is a play about mental illness, but the dangers to our collective mind-set are unmistakeable. Sigmund Freud saw these lucidly, and is jokingly quoted in the play in relation to his aim of turning “hysterical misery into common unhappiness,” the best that can be hoped for in a world of personal and generalised existential crisis. His modest aim finds a macabre parallel in the duties of the various psychiatrists represented in the drama, who, whether humane or brutal and brutalising, are under orders not to cure their patients but to make them fit for the front once more. The pioneering work of Doctor Rivers, subtly celebrated in the play through his experiences treating patients at Craiglockhart in Edinburgh – the play is also a brilliant imagining of the encounter there of Owen and Sassoon, though their fame is not allowed to overshadow the widespread tragedy of the context and the skilful depiction of trauma and its ramifications – is significant not simply for its humaneness but for its consequences. As Rivers is shown to do in the play, a sustained and honest engagement with trauma and its sources can only lead to a questioning of the why of its genesis and therefore an interrogation of the meaning of war. When just causes are lacking, when the framework of signification upon which society relies is shown to be painfully inadequate – and even false – in terms of comprehending such violence and sacrifice, refusals like those of Sassoon – who declares himself not to be a pacifist – occur. The subversive anti-militarism which must follow from an analysis of soldiers’ post-traumatic stress disorders is perhaps one reason why Rivers’ legacy at Craiglockhart is not better acknowledged, or why Sassoon and Owen’s voices are drowned out by politicians falling over themselves to proclaim the greatness of the British dead, paper poppies on display, even as they push to turn people in far-off lands (and still, though in smaller numbers these days, British soldiers) into statistics for the vaguest of justifications. Let’s not forget that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are all major producers and consumers of arms.

Today schoolchildren read Owen’s poem, but mostly the focus is on political manoeuvring, with a bit of mud and blood and wounds thrown in. The War was a great tragedy, and its horrors need to be remembered. But as a society we have failed to move on from the Dadaists. We still cannot find the words. Instead we act as if the great existential challenge to our way of life made evident in the First World War does not exist. Mostly, we are silent. Perhaps this fracture is why we have had no generally-read poet since Tennyson. For poetry to be for the many, perhaps society must share some kind of collective meaning, and the War sundered any we had. McLoughlin writes “if Owen had tried to describe the full scale of the slaughter, the ways in which the industrialised weapons of mass warfare could destroy the human body, the horrors seen on a daily basis, he – like any other poet – would have lacked literary means to do so. But in 14 lines about the impossibility of giving proper funeral rites to the numerous dead, he invites the reader to imagine a destruction on a scale that defies commemorative marking.”

In this year of commemoration, the need is stronger than ever to acknowledge our collective trauma and resist the simplistic glorification of the combat of soldiers who were heroes, desperately brave and self-sacrificing men, but not like the heroes of Greek legend beloved of the Edwardian upper crust, not fighting for the honour of their cause but for each other, and because they had to. This applies, of course, to the men of both sides. Let us remember, too, the courage of the men who refused to fight, who, if they were officers like Sassoon, were sent to psychiatric hospitals, or, if they were from the rank and file, were court-martialled and shot, like Ewan in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song, a touring adaptation of which begins at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh on the 7th of October. Let us not ‘excuse’ those who broke down from the stress and trauma, for they need no excuse. They, along with all who fought, need to be honoured, along with the complexity of their legacy. Owen voluntarily returned to the front after Sassoon was retired by injury, because he felt strongly that there needed to be a poet in France. For the poets, the fashioning of their experience into poetry, even poetry which cannot grasp its subject but only highlight its (and our) inability to do so, may have been a cathartic if not curative alternative to breakdown. These men who lived the war and reflected upon their experience did not seek to glorify their comrades for their valour, but to honour them for their humanity. This is perhaps the act of celebration – not a revelling, but a comprehending, which includes the tragic as well as the joyful – which the late Chinua Achebe attempted to articulate in a speech he once gave at Oxford. Honouring such tragedy also means re-actualising it, reaching towards its signification, or understanding what the impossibility of its signification entails for us. “Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs – / the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells,” Owen wrote in 1918. The rehabilitation of silenced voices is perhaps possible. There is finally a War Poets exhibition at Craiglockhart and thanks to the work of Doctor Rivers and those who came after him, PTSD is today far better understood in all areas of life. But soldiers continue to return, from Afghanistan, from Iraq, suffering its effects and ending up on the streets. The suppression of their voices, the silence which cloaks their plight, is symptomatic of our wider reluctance to question the purpose of our wars and our failure to articulate a vision for our societies beyond a hollow narrative of progress and the waving of flags.

Regeneration runs at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh until Saturday 4th October. There is also a screening of the 1997 film version at 6pm on the 8th of October at Craiglockhart as part of the Scottish Mental Health Festival.

Sunset Song runs from the 7th until the 11th of October at the King’s before touring.

Voices of War, a reading of Owen and Sassoon’s poetry and the writings of Captain WHR Rivers organised by the Scottish Poetry Library and Veterans First Point, is at Edinburgh Castle at 7.30pm on the 9th of October as part of the Scottish Mental Health Festival (booking required).

The War Poets Collection is a permanent exhibition at Edinburgh Napier University, Craiglockhart Campus, Edinburgh EH14 1DJ.

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