'War Horse' Rides to Broadway

A scene from Nick Stafford's play "War Horse," now showing at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Paul Kolnik

The First World War was perhaps the last war in which the ancient synergy of man and horse was employed, and to devastatingly little effect. The prestige of cavalry had long outlasted its usefulness against machine guns, as if the lessons of the Charge of the Light Brigade—that futile British advance against Russian guns in Crimea—had simply not sunk in. That lesson is being retaught in War Horse, which just opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, following an award-winning run in London. (Steven Spielberg has already adapted it to film.) The play, based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book, tells the story of a thoroughbred horse, Joey, who serves in the British and German armies—as millions of such horses did in real life, most of them ending up as crater debris or on butchers’ blocks.

World War I is a difficult conflict to dramatize. There is no good-versus-evil animating it. Unlike the Second World War, the heroes and villains are not clear, perhaps because they are not as cartoonish or deranged. The kaiser was no Hitler, and the czar was no Stalin. War Horse depicts the naive patriotism of the British war recruiters as they storm into a Devon village with pennants flying, the shock and awe of mechanized warfare as it collided with men and horses, and the surreal battlefield collages of pointless heroism and random brutality. The interpersonal stories are less compelling than the clash of the machines and the horses. The horses surge around the stage like creatures of our nightmares; yet they can also be calm and sweet and stunningly lifelike.

Each horse is manned by three puppeteers, two inside and another guiding the movement of the head. The puppeteers provide the snorts, snuffles, and wheezes of the horses as they feed, probe, and react to human kindness and cruelty. “We wanted the horses to connect with the audience in the same way as real animals do,” says co director Tom Morris. “This resonates with the overall theatrical language of the show, in which puppeteers are clearly visible to the audience, often holding scenery as well as the animals and birds. The audience is invited to imagine the life of all the characters, animal and human, in the show.”

Watching these creatures move across the stage is to be reminded how ancient an art puppetry is. The puppets are the creation of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones. The couple, gay white South Africans who moved to Botswana in the early 1970s to escape military conscription, were influenced by the African traditions of the Bamana puppeteers in Mali. The team believes puppetry accesses the subconscious in ways that verbal communication cannot, and can evoke the inner world of animals far more effectively even than real animals themselves.

In War Horse, the horses’ eyes in particular seem alive with liquid emotion. “The eyes allow the audience into the mind of the horse,” says Kohler. “The iris of the eye is cast and painted, and then a clear lens is cast over it which allows some light play inside to keep it alive.” The effect is strange indeed. The mute horses end up being more eloquent than the humans. The animal realm comes alive to us as puppetry, and the human invention of war comes to seem more and more unreal.