There’s a moment in the second act of Doctor Scroggy’s War when Major Gillies, a military surgeon and one of the central characters, speculates about how best to describe suffering. What is the proper adjective? The hammer? The waltz? How can we talk about mass suffering? I’ve admired thus far the English responses to the one hundredth anniversary of World War One, kicking off this August. Notably, this includes the ceramic poppies filling the moat at the Tower of London, one for every soldier killed in the war. The production of Doctor Scroggy’s War, set in World War One and written by Howard Brenton, was also programmed with the anniversary in mind.
There’s probably no one today who would bother to argue that World War One was necessary. An utterly senseless loss of life, the tragic clash of old-fashioned tactics with cutting edge technology, slaughter and destruction on a scale no one had ever seen. One unforeseen consequence was the extent of the violent facial injuries suffered by the soldiers in the trenches. After the war, it’s said, some European towns placed special benches in their parks, brightly painted, so that passersby would know that the men sitting on them were horrifically disfigured and could avert their eyes or alter their path as necessary.
The characters in Brenton’s play are kinder than this, which is perhaps surprising in light of some of his brutal earlier works. But perhaps he found that the facts of the war itself were vicious enough without also plunging into every possible depth of human cruelty; the eponymous Doctor Scroggy’s war, running in parallel to the big one, is in part a battle of human resilience in the face of unfathomable and pointless violence and suffering—and in that conflict, ultimately, lies Brenton’s tragedy. Because like World War One, it’s a battle where victory can be as devastating as defeat.
The play begins in 1915, and deals with the intertwined lives of Major Harold Gillies (James Garnon), a pioneer in facial reconstructive surgery who is both appalled and fascinated by the opportunity presented by the war; and Captain Jack Twigg (Will Featherstone), a “temporary gentleman” who is another in dramatic literature’s long history of boys eager to prove themselves in battle.
“You know what’s going to happen to me,” Jack says suddenly to the audience in act one, and of course, we do. It often feels like war stories all follow the same playbook. You’re sure you know what will happen as soon as you meet the arrogant young lordling, the society miss who claims to disdain officers, as soon as a young soldier’s mother prays nothing will harm her son’s beautiful eyes. But Brenton finds unexpected cracks and angles, not the least of which is the premise of the play itself: the work performed by Major Gillies and the injuries suffered by his patients. While Gillies in part wages a war against fear, despair, and the other psychological wounds that we now so widely recognize as souvenirs of battle, the bandaged faces of the soldiers in act two are a striking visual reminder of the physical toll that, strangely, often feels forgotten. In old war stories, men either live or die. Maybe sometimes they’ll lose a leg or even an arm, which is of course traumatic, but always seems to be something you believe they’ll manage to move past.
“He has no face,” is a frequent refrain. It’s something that I found disturbingly difficult to imagine. In a film of this story, I assume one would be treated to plenty of lurid shots of missing noses and shattered jaws, or perhaps euphemistic angles and lighting all building to a shocking reveal. But director John Dove does not try to replicate this with stage makeup or prosthetics. It results on the one hand, in the imaginative gap that I mentioned: the actors do have faces, of course, even swaddled beneath bandages. But as it was said again and again– “he has no face,” “he has no face”– and I found I still couldn’t imagine what that might look like, the pain and horror of the circumstances became much clearer than any fright makeup could make it.
In certain moments, Brenton and Dove do seem to long for modern stage conventions, particularly blackouts, which the Globe’s open air lighting scheme forbids. But on the whole they made good use of the theatre’s demands, notably well-used direct address and asides to the audience. Even though it’s a new play, the actors aren’t scared to engage the audience like Shakespeareans, and the cast without exception is engaging and skilled.
This all sounds very heavy, which it is, but that means it’s necessary to mention the fantastic lightheartedness that permeates most of the play, and not just the ironic levity of the bright young chaps who chat happily about what a lark battle will be. The play is largely very funny, which comes to be part of Major Gillies’ point. How do you talk about suffering? You can’t, at least not continually. And both Gillies and, fortunately, Mr. Brenton recognize that even beginning to understand suffering and carnage on the scale of World War One requires a break to laugh.