Months after watching War Horse on Stage, I was still turning over in my mind how a horse made of sticks galloping in front of a ripped piece of paper with surrealist artwork on a bare stage can reveal so much of our world to us, and extend our empathy to an animal, and through it to the million men and horses who lost their lives in a war fought almost 100 years ago!
Humans empathize with everything. If one were to hold a pencil in his hand and call it his sweetheart and break it into two, we would wince like he just broke his sweetheart! So, it isn't very hard to imagine that we are capable of seeing real horses in horse puppets, empathising with them and reflecting on our choices through them. And, in War Horse, we extend our empathy to the most silent character in the story. We see war through this neutral trooper - a horse that finds itself in situations, endures the shafts of human battle as part of British, German, and French militaries, but makes no judgments of anyone.
I was hoping the Making of War Horse would show me what went into making those beautiful life-size horse puppets that looked and behaved just like real horses. This was after I had watched a Ted talk demonstration of the same by the Handstring Puppet Company, followed by the play itself. I just couldn't get enough.
What I saw instead of the making of puppets was the rehearsal of the men who worked inconspicuously from inside the puppet to project a real animal onto it. I also saw them rehearsing wearing just horse hats made of paper, holding a rod that served as a whole horse puppet; and they synchronised their gallops and neighs, the movements of a ear or the tail. They weren't just letting the horses be horses, but were being horses themselves, and reacting not to dialogue, but the emotional temperatures of the scenes. It was like watching kids transform empty boxes into vehicles and themselves into beasts! Only, here, each puppeteer operated one bit of the horse, and together they determined how we saw the whole animal and reacted to it; so the audience was also engaging in their game!
Without going into the contents of the documentary itself, but continuing from where it left off, here is some of what the stage play captures beyond what meets the eye.
The first world war marked the beginning of the end of the old order in Europe. Technology was radicalized and warfare changed beyond recognition. Even as armies were learning to cope with the new changes and adapting their tactics, they were active at war and becoming casualties. Everything from aircrafts, machine guns, automatic rifles, tanks, poison gas, barbed wire and trenches were used for the first time, and what ensued was the bloodiest war the world had ever seen! You see the war in the play, and you see the stage turn into a dark war zone, as troops line up for battle, and huge tanks and machine guns come rolling out, overwhelming the British army. It is men on horses against machines!
The art movements of the time too were bloody but unbowed. The futurists saw war as cleansing the old orders, and the anvil upon which the 'new man' would be forged. Their aesthetic of art celebrated machinery and violence. Marinetti, in his Futurist Manifesto declared that "Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice". He saw war as inherent to life itself, and wanted art to "glorify war - the world's only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman". Britain too had its own Vorticists who wanted to wipe out all traces of the Victorian age and place the machine age at the very centre of their art work. You see these two cubist "offshoot" movements represented on the stage, in the backdrops and through the harsh lighting. Every scene was like Paul Nash's surrealist paintings, with stark landscapes, spaces full of darkness defined through light.
But none of this describes how bad the violence really was, and that's where Michael Morpugo's novel and the inspiration behind it comes in. He saw FW Reed's frightening painting of horses during the First World War, in which, Germans were shooting at the British cavalry charging up a hill into german lines. And as men were being shot at, a mass of horses had already become entangled in barbed wire. Later in the documentary, it is revealed that 8 million horses were killed during the first world war, and one to two million were from Britain alone!
With all the improved technology, the horses were still used for cavalry charges, because of the quick mobility they provided, and they remained the best means for moving scouts, supply wagons, ambulances, and artillery to the battlefield. But in spite of all that, the staggering loss of horses meant rural life throughout Europe would never be the same again. Some breeds were so reduced in number that they were in danger of disappearing. It changed the color and culture of the continent and also the ways in which things were done, including farming, mining and transport!
In a way the play captured and represented the fractured environments and inhuman landscapes of the early 20th century through a personal story, not of a soldier, or an animal, but of a collective people. It was a community going to war and returning to what little remained of home.
I enjoy that the whole story can be understood only by allowing ourselves to take in fragments of accounts through various mediums. It is a children's novel set in a historic context of World War I, with a central animal character, that came about as a result of the author's interactions with war veterans, his observations of a young boy's relationship with a horse, some old paintings and photographs of world war, and the poetry of Edward Thomas; It then got transformed into a stage play with puppets that introduced us to the aesthetic of various art movements at the time, and the folk songs that gave us a sense of the community… and together they wove something of a human narrative!
Slightly off-topic, but on the subject of human empathy, here is an interesting TED talk where Jeremy Rifkin explains how we are rethinking the human narrative.