‘Bury the Dead’ tells thought-provoking anti-war story

Katie Pryor
Arts & Culture Editor

Over the years, there have been so many plays focused on the senseless violence and death of war. Last weekend, University Theatre presented perhaps one of the more unusual, dark and emotional telling of war in their production of Irwin Shaw’s classic, “Bury the Dead.”

The two generals (Jules Diehl and Christian Kriebel) talk with the doctor (Hannah Kirkpatrick) and the sergeant (Ryland X. Beck).  (Katie Pryor/Snapper)
The two generals (Jules Diehl and Christian Kriebel) talk with the doctor (Hannah Kirkpatrick) and the sergeant (Ryland X. Beck). (Katie Pryor/Snapper)

Written between the two world wars by American playwright Irwin Shaw, “Bury the Dead” is a surreal play about the refusal of six dead soldiers during an unspecified war. It was written by Shaw in 1936 and was his first play, and it went on to become a major success when it was first staged in New York.

The play itself opens with three soldiers (Alexander Arnold, Justin Benson and Jen Trwehella) and their captain (Ryland X. Beck) burying six recently killed soldiers. A priest (Michael Falcone) arrives to say prayers for the dead, but then groans are heard from the newly dug graves. Slowly the six dead soldiers rise from the grave, pleading not to be buried and asking to be allowed to rejoin the living. Word of their insurrection spreads rapidly to the soldiers in the field and the news media with alarming rate and effect, and the two generals (Christian Kriebel and Jules Diehl) struggle to keep the bizarre situation hush and to persuade the soldiers to let themselves die.

Elizabeth Dean (Christine Furey) hugs her son, Private Dean (John Jones). (Katie Pryor/Snapper)
Elizabeth Dean (Christine Furey) hugs her son, Private Dean (John Jones). (Katie Pryor/Snapper)

What sets “Bury the Dead” apart from other pieces of war literature is the timelessness of the story and its messages. Shaw wrote the play during the time between the two world wars, but he was still able to capture the heartbreak and brutality of war, creating a story that is anti-war and anti-violence and providing social commentary that is still relevant today. The six soldiers refuse to die because they all felt that they were killed before they were given the chance to really live. As one of the dead soldiers, Private Dean (John Jones), explains to his mother (Christine Furey), “I was only twenty, Mom. I spent twenty years practicing to be a man, and then they killed me.”

Because of this timelessness and expressionist style of the play, “Bury the Dead” could be set during any war, or as Shaw once explained, “the second year of the war that is to begin tomorrow night.” For this production of the play in particular, with its settings portraying a barren desert and lighting splashed with reds and purples, it seems to be set in one of the more modern, Middle Eastern wars.

Private Shelling (Jesse Fulmer) talks with his wife, Bess (Alison Wray). (Katie Pryor/Snapper)
Private Shelling (Jesse Fulmer) talks with his wife, Bess (Alison Wray). (Katie Pryor/Snapper)

For a play about the senseless violence of war, the cast does a commendable job portraying the characters, whether they are the soldiers, their loved ones, the generals or the media or public learning about this strange occurrence. The ensemble of dead soldiers were particularly strong, with Tony Jadus as the intellectual bookworm Private Morgan, Anthony Stock as the working-class Private Webster, Luis DeJesus as Private Driscoll, the soldier who lifted his fellow comrades from their grave, and so on.

The general (Kriebel) unsuccessfully orders the six soldiers (Luis DeJesus, Jesse Fulmer, Tony Jadus, Anthony Stock, Jugens LaGuerre and John Jones) to die.  (Katie Pryor/Snapper)
The general (Kriebel) unsuccessfully orders the six soldiers (Luis DeJesus, Jesse Fulmer, Tony Jadus, Anthony Stock, Jugens LaGuerre and John Jones) to die. (Katie Pryor/Snapper)

Diehl and Kriebel are stoic and stern as the two generals. Some scenes feature arguments between an editor (Ny’aisha Nalley) and a reporter (Erica Fisher) of a newspaper. The reporter is determined to get the truth about the six soldiers to the public, while her editor is hesitant, nervous about stirring up controversy. The women who played the soldiers’ loved ones were also strong, with Rachel Faust as Morgan’s free-spirited-yet-suicidal girlfriend Julia, Alexa Smith as Webster’s stressed-out wife Martha, Furey as the mother of the young Private Dean and so on. Furey in particular had a memorable moment where, after finally persuading her son to let her see his face, breaks down at the sight of his torn-up face and runs offstage screaming in anguish.

Overall, “Bury the Dead” proved to be a powerful, thought-provoking and moving production.

“Bury the Dead” will also be shown this weekend at the Rafters Theatre in Dutcher Hall. Shows will be April 23-25 at 8 p.m. and April 26 at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $10 for general admission, $5 for students with ID when tickets are purchased in advance ($7 for students with ID at the door).