‘War Horse," a much-lauded theater production that is at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady Wednesday through Jan. 19, had an improbable journey to the stage.
Published in 1982, it was written by Michael Morpurgo as a children's book. It came in second for the prestigious Whitbread Book Award that year, which helped get the book published in the United States.
However sales were, at best, modest. Says Morpurgo, "Though it was much loved by many, including me and my wife, I had to agree with the experts that no one wanted to buy their kids a book about World War I as seen through the eyes of a horse. So it was put out to grass, so to speak."
No one was more surprised than Morpurgo when almost 30 years after the book went out of print the National Theatre in London approached him about plans to produce it for the stage. He says, when they told him the horse would be portrayed by life-sized puppets "there was huge doubt in my heart."
However, after the first show he became a believer. "The design and execution of the puppets are amazing. Within minutes they become real. The first time I saw it, it was magical as everyone watched in hushed silence. It's really a bit profound," he says by telephone, sounding still in awe of the experience.
What Morpurgo came to understand is that the puppets provide "neutrality and an innocence that could not exist any other way.
He explains: "Parents and grandparents see the horses' experiences as a metaphor for the universal suffering of all soldiers. Youngsters see a touching story about a boy and his beloved horse. For them it's boy loves horse, boy loses horse, boy finds horse - with the war getting in the way. "
The idea of telling the story of World War I through the eyes of a
horse came to him after seeing a painting of a Cavalry charge complete with horses caught on barbed wire. He later learned that England sent more than a million horses to the front and only 65,000 returned home. The numbers were even more tragic when he discovered many animals who served heroically were sold to French butchers rather than go through the expense of bringing them home.
All his thoughts crystalized one evening at a local pub.
"I met these three blokes at The Duke of York," he said. "They were old-timers who in 1916 served in the war with horses. One told me how at the end of the day when he would care for his horse he would talk to him about the horrors of the war and his private fears. He explained that he believed the horse listened and understood. It was a bonding experience between man and horse."
He admits the stage translation (as well as the Steven Spielberg film adaptation) of his work is not an exact replication.
"It captures the spirit of the book and that's what's important," he says.
That spirit, he explains, is to show "the universal suffering of that dreadful war."
It bothers him that history has failed to completely explain the insanity of a brutal war in which no one truly knows why people were killing each other in massive numbers.
He points out that no survivors of World War I are alive. "We are left to learn about that era through the stories of others."
Indeed, he finds it symbolic that on the same day "War Horse" opened on Broadway the last United States survivor of the war passed away. "I take such coincidences very seriously," he says.
Now 70 years old, Morpurgo sees his creation through the eyes of an elder of society. As such, he insists "War Horse" is not merely a story about man's inhumanity to man and other creatures.
"Yes, the characters in the play experience the horrors of war. It shows war can destroy the flesh and the spirit. Yet, the play is infused with longing and hope. Throughout, there is a sense the world will be all right. Things will work out."
Bob Goepfert supervises entertainment coverage and reviews and writes about theater for the Troy (N.Y.) Record.