Wednesday, April 1, 2015


While writing the two previous posts about Miracle at Verdun, I was constantly reminded
about one of my favorite plays that I read in high school. During my freshman year in college, I
was assigned to perform a specific scene from this same play for the final acting exam. Bury the
Dead by Irwin Shaw (1913-1984) is an extremely strong anti-war play first performed by The
Actors’ Repertory Company during its 1936-37 season in New York City. It opened on April
18th and closed in July. Bury the Dead is a long one-act drama that runs about ninety minutes
without intermission so it fills an entire performance time.

The reason I was reminded of Miracle at Verdun is Shaw utilizes the same device of dead
soldiers who converse with the living and they are major characters in the plot. Since Shaw’s
play follows Chlumberg’s by several years, many newspaper reviewers were quick to point out
the “ghoulish” similarity. Bury the Dead was also originally labeled as expressionistic in its
style, although it was written after that movement was abandoned. Like ”Miracle” most of the
dialogue tends to be realistic despite the subject matter. The major similarities end at that point.
Brooks Atkinson’s April 20, 1936 column in the New York Times states: “If ‘Miracle at Verdun’
had never been written, the primary assumption of ‘Bury the Dead’ might be a more devastating
stroke of imagination in the contemporary theatre.” This type of commentary may have
dampened the critical reception of the play, but it did not erase it from the stage or the printed

Is Bury the Dead a World War One play? Not in the same sense that many other plays refer
directly to the war. It falls within a smaller group of plays that build on the first war as their
model for warfare and it also warns about another world war looming in the near future. Its
message is emphatically antiwar. Shaw sets the time for his play as “the second year of the war
that is to begin tomorrow night.”

The plotline is six young American soldiers, who died in battle, refuse to be buried. The
generals develop a strategy that they believe will solve the problem. The woman each young man
left at home comes to the burial site to persuade her loved one to accept his death as a hero and
allow himself to be buried. There are six scenes and each one features a woman pleading with
her specific loved one. Each scene is different and memorable. My favorite is the mother who
keeps pleading with her son to see his face one last time—this was not the scene I performed.
Each young soldier has the opportunity to address the fact that he has died before he has had a
chance to live the life that he envisioned for himself. Each soldier refuses to be buried. I will
not reveal the ending of this play, since I always find it dramatic and thought provoking.

Bury the Dead is the first play that Shaw had ever written. He was twenty-three years old so it is
amazing to realize that a professional theatre company would undertake this script for a major
New York production. It was successful despite the negative comments from some reviewers
since his plot does not replicate Miracle at Verdun. The emotional level spoke to audiences in
1936 and it continues to resonate with us today. Also it is haunting to think about the fact that
this play was being performed following the period when many World War One memorials had
been erected in villages, towns and cities throughout Europe and North America to honor the
men that gave their lives so others could live. Also the fact that the twentieth anniversary of the
start of the war had barely past and just like “Miracle” dramatized there were real tourist
excursions to major battle sites and burial grounds.

I recently read several reviews of college as well as professional productions of this play
performed in the past seven years. I am pleased that this play is not totally forgotten since it is
unique in many ways and significant in its insights.

If you have read this play or seen a production, please share your comments.

No comments:

Post a Comment