War and Poetry: ‘Verse Tapestry’ Follows a Journey to Conversion
Joseph Pearce’s Death Comes for the War Poets will begin its run June 9 at the Sheen Center in New York.
NEW YORK — Catholic author Joseph Pearce has written a new verse drama, Death Comes for the War Poets, which tells the story of Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), a poet who wrote about the horrors of war and converted to the Catholic faith.
Pearce’s drama will be produced in New York by Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, in conjunction with the Storm Theatre Co., and will make its premiere Friday at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture.
Dominican Father Peter John Cameron, artistic director of Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, told the Register, “The piece is about the horror of World War I, and the role death plays in that, and it asks if death can be transformed by something greater than the war, which is faith. And by the end of the piece, there’s an answer given to that.”
The drama tells a story of three characters: Siegfried Sassoon, a talented young poet who joins the British war effort; his good friend Wilfred Owen, another poet; and Death, a female spirit.
Pearce told the Register that while much of the play concerns the nearly overwhelming horror of the First World War and the spiritual significance of the war, it also covers the poet’s life before his enlistment and the years afterward until his death.
He said the play arose to commemorate the significant anniversaries of Sassoon’s life occurring this year: the 60th anniversary of his conversion and 50th anniversary of his death.
As a verse drama, approximately 80% of the play’s text, Pearce explained, consists of the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, along with selections from other poets like G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
“I have written parts of it, but it’s also called a verse tapestry because I’ve woven together this great poetry into a narrative form that turns into a story,” Pearce said.
From Page to Stage
In Death Comes to the War Poets, Sassoon’s conversion provides part of the dynamism of the drama, Pearce said, but an equally exciting aspect for him is how Death, who begins the play as an almost demonic character, changes along with Sassoon.
“It’s an interwoven aspect of the drama that I find very exciting, alongside the spiritual growth and conversion of Sassoon,” he said.
After hearing of the new drama, a friend suggested Pearce get the script into Father Cameron’s hands.
“Thanks be to God, when Father Peter actually read the script, he loved it and was enthusiastic about bringing it to the stage. And the rest is history,” Pearce said.
At the opening weekend shows, Pearce will make a brief cameo to read the prologue to the drama.
For Death Comes for the War Poets, Blackfriars Repertory Theatre has partnered with its longtime collaborators, the Storm Theatre Co.
Blackfriars Repertory Theatre is a Dominican apostolate in New York that performs theater as an evangelical outreach.
Now in its 19th year, Blackfriars keeps the tradition of presenting excellent theater informed by religious belief.
Blackfriars and Father Cameron act as the producers of Pearce’s play, while Peter Dobbins, the artistic director of the Storm, oversees everything to do with the stage.
The two companies have frequently partnered to perform plays in New York City, drawn together by the shared vision of their artistic directors. Father Cameron said that while the plays they do together do not necessarily need to be religious, “they do have to be about redemption in some way.”
“If the play somehow has to do with the desire for the infinite, for mystery, for an ultimate answer to the longing of the human heart, then that play is for us,” he said.
Dobbins told the Register that the drama is a deeply Catholic work.
“It’s about this person that never feels comfortable or at home in the world until he finds the Church,” he said.
Theater, for Dobbins, expresses a celebration of existence and can be a way to recover the truth of that existence from life’s daily distractions. It also is a “prayer of thanksgiving,” he said, because it imitates the creative activity of God.
“This is going to be a very unique experience. It’s great that someone like Joseph Peace is writing a play, and I think it could be a real mark and step forward for theater with a Catholic viewpoint,” Dobbins said. “When I’ve been in rehearsal, I see the inklings of something amazing.”
Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Rochester, New York.
Death Comes for the War Poets runs June 9-24 at the Sheen Center in New York City. A book version has also been published by St. Augustine’s Press. For more information, please visit https://sheencenter.org/shows/poets/.