Since Irwin Shaw’s expressionistic, ritualistic Bury the Dead opened on Broadway in 1936, five more major wars have come along to prove its horrific accusation: Old men called "generals" march young men off to their slaughter while spouting jingoistic exhortations that civilians accept and industrialists turn into profit. It was Shaw’s first play. He was 22.
His play is back, with accusations intact and ritual inflated, in a co-production between The Carnegie Center in Covington and UC’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).
Six 20-year-old soldiers have been killed in appalling ways. Four comrades dig a mass grave. But when the shrouded bodies are laid in an alphabetic row, the six dead men stand up.
They refuse to be buried, to give up their hold on lives they’ve barely begun to experience.
The generals and medics and ever so compliant chaplains beg, cajole and order the men to be buried. No way. Mothers, wives and girlfriends are summoned. They, too, fail to convince the corpses to lie down.
With 34 mostly student actors racing through 90 minutes of ritual, there’s little time for subtlety and seemingly less inclination for it on the part of the director, CCM drama professor Michael Burnham, who appears hell-bent on portent and spectacle. The first 30 minutes are paced at a shouting, stuttering gallop with a lot of added marching and stomping and cadence calling that add little but noise.
Then come six quiet duologues, giving each dead soldier the chance to state his case to a female relative. The first of these six confrontations is the most effective; the last is the least.
When seeking to make a show portentous, it’s all too easy to make it pompous instead. And it is.
BURY THE DEAD, presented at Covington’s Carnegie Visual Performing Arts Center, continues through April 24. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.