As the church bells rang out in Shrewsbury to celebrate the Armistice on 11th November 1918, a telegram was delivered to the house of Thomas and Susan Owen. The telegram read: “Deeply regret Lieutenant W.E.S. Owen, 2nd Manchesters, killed in action November 4th 1918. The Army Council express sympathy”. Wilfred Owen was killed in action just seven days before the Armistice, during an attack across the Sambre–Oise Canal in Northern France. He was 25 years old.
In my view, Wilfred Owen is not only the finest poet of the Great War – he is one the finest poets in the English language. His poetry touches our hearts through captivating imagery and a profound understanding of the soldier’s experience of this shocking war. There is no cynicism in his verse and little criticism of the enemy. Owen wrote of ‘the pity of war’ and this sense of pity runs through his poetry. His empathy for his men ran deep. He was not obliged to return to the front after his convalescence from shell shock, but he decided he must return. He wanted ‘to cry my outcry’ on behalf of the ordinary soldier – he ‘heard the sighs of men, that have no skill to speak of their distress’ and he believed that ‘this time I must go’. He returned to the front line at the end of August 1918. Six weeks later he was dead.
I have devised this play based on Owen’s poems and his letters to his mother. The poems have been arranged to tell the story of the war from the enthusiastic send-off, through battles and military hospitals, to the final ‘drawing down of blinds’. These outstanding poems will be delivered in dramatic settings, some spoken by soldiers and some by the women who observe them. The play also contains live music with hymns and songs from the war sung by the actors. It also contains extracts from Owen’s letters. He wrote home extensively, mostly to his mother, to whom he was very close. These letters include statements that are as intense as his poetry, but they also show us Owen’s enjoyment of new socks and Munchoc! The letters also tell of his developing relationships with leading writers of the time such as Robert Graves, H.G.Wells and, particularly, Siegfried Sassoon. He met Sassoon when he was in hospital in Craiglockhart in Scotland, being treated for shell shock. Sassoon became a crucial mentor for Owen as he developed his poetic voice.
A hundred years after his tragically early death, Owen still speaks to us today through language that is vivid, profound, and deeply moving. And above all he speaks, as he intended, of the pity of war.