'War Horse' men

By Allan I. Ross

The author and the puppeteer reminisce on the story's transition from page to stage

It’s a heartbreaking story, made all the more touching because it’s based on actual events. In the early days of World War I, a British family has to sell their beloved horse to the frontline cavalry. The family’s son, too young to fight, lies about his age in order to enlist so he can find his horse among the ranks and bring him home.

In the early 1980s, British children’s author Michael Morpurgo turned that account into “War Horse,” a book geared for elementary schoolers that spawned the popular stage play, which hits the Wharton Center for a five-day run starting today. If that doesn’t exactly seem like happy story time reading, Morpurgo was never a writer who saw his audience as one having divisive lines drawn through it.

“I don’t write for children — I write for everyone,” he said, talking from his home in England. “I write about children, and sometimes this strays into difficult territory, such as grief and loss. The problem is that most people concern themselves with what children ought to be thinking about and don’t stop to think about what they actually are thinking about.”

Morpurgo wrote “War Horse” during the Cold War, during a time when most kids weren’t reading — or even thinking — about bloody hostilities in the world.

“War had been put on hold for a bit, in a way,” he says. “All that fighting seemed far away. But then when the wars started breaking out, they started to realize that, sadly, this is how we solve problems.”

Morpurgo has worked closely with children for over 40 years as a teacher, an author and through his charity, Farm for City Children. He says the biggest change between this generation and all previous batches is its almost unlimited access to information. Which is good, if you can handle that kind of access.

“These days, the world comes into your bedroom, whether you like it or not,” Morpurgo says. “The world of the children and the adults has considerably overlapped, but they’re not being taught how to deal with the feelings they have for what they’re seeing. In our countries, sadly, coffins are coming home. Children see this and they know perfectly well that someone has died. They know this is serious, they’re frightened and upset, but they only have a superficial understanding of what all these things mean — this war, this suffering. It’s important that we don’t fill their lives up with useless information. We still need to touch their emotions and hearts.”

Morpurgo set “War Horse” during WWI, which he thinks has a different cultural resonance than other modern wars, particularly in the way it affects British and Americans differently.

“You lost twice as many people in World War I than you did in World War II, but the former gets such short shrift,” he says. “I’ve always wondered why that is. I think that’s why (Steven) Spielberg chose to make this into a movie. I think he wanted to discover something new about history that he never knew before. I knew when I started I didn’t want to write another war story about one side or another. I wanted to write a universal story about the suffering that happened that killed 100 million people.

“That’s what was unique about telling this story through the eyes of a horse. You don’t see in German and French anymore. In a way, this story becomes a metaphor about war.”

When “War Horse” was published in 1982, it “did all right,” according to Morpurgo. He said it then “sat around rather quietly” for 25 years, selling 1,000 or so copies per year, until he was approached by the National Theater of London, which wanted to make a play of it. He agreed, but when he heard how they were planning on portraying the horses, Morpurgo balked.

“Puppets?” Morpurgo remembers thinking. “It’s a searing story — I just didn’t see how that could work. But then I saw something on a video that the company had done with a giraffe, and it blew me away. I didn’t know puppets could have that effect on me, to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”

To bring the novel to life on stage, the play’s producers enlisted South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, under the direction of the company’s co-founders Basil Jones and Adrienne Kohler. The two formed the company 31 years ago as a teaching tool for schools, but a national emergency in 1985 cut off all their funding and forced them to turn to television and theater for work. Jones said it was here that the dramatic qualities of the medium really took hold.

“Puppets make the every day extraordinary,” Jones said recently from the Handspring headquarters in Cape Town, South Africa. “Just the very act of leaning forward, stretching for a glass of water — these small things become epic when they’re being done by a puppet. Actors struggle to die. Puppets struggle to live.”

Their first “adult” puppet show was “Episodes of an Easter Rising,” a play based on a banned radio script about two women living on a farm together who harbor a man subversive to the government.

“One eventually becomes aware that the women are lovers, which was only incidental to the story,” Jones said. “But sexual politics had influenced their macro-politics. For Adrienne and I, being gay, that really spoke to us. It was a great way of starting to do this kind of work.”

The show was a huge success, giving Handspring a solid foothold in the genre of dramatic puppetry. It also allowed them to explore aspects of theater that are impossible to try with human actors — namely, the phenomenon of having a living, breathing, acting and reacting animal on stage. They created chimps, hyenas and the 15-foot tall working giraffe that got under Morpurgo’s skin (go ahead and YouTube it — it’s really impressive), which also earned them the job with “War Horse.”

“We are presenting animals as part of the lives of people — you usually can’t do that in theater,” Jones said. “We feel it’s important to show how animals are part of our lives, especially with (“War Horse”) which commemorates our ancient relationship with horses. For 10,000 years, that relationship was so vital to us for transportation, for companionship. Only recently have we parted company. It’s so intense to see them on stage like this. I think it triggers a part of popular memory that we’ve lost, that togetherness with another animal.”

The show’s horse puppets aren’t physically realistic — they are made out of bent cane tied together with wire, and each one has three visible puppeteers operating them. But Jones said that the manner in which the puppeteers create the illusion of breath really sell those raw materials as a real, living animal.

“One of the most amazing things happens in this show,” Jones says. “You have four horse legs and six human legs, but the humans disappear about five minutes into show. It’s absolutely astonishing. You can see them, if you want to, but don’t. The puppeteers get so into it. The level of devotion is so complete, it’s almost religious. They are the priests of the puppet.”

“War Horse”
Wharton Center
Through Dec. 9
7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 1:30 & 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 & 8 p.m Saturday; 1 & 6:30 p.m. Sunday