Backstage with ‘Bury the Dead’

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(Host) Students at Mill River Union High will perform a one-act play tonight that takes a unique and somewhat disturbing view of war.

It’s a challenging play that considers what’s lost when soldiers fall on the battlefield.

VPR’s Nina Keck goes backstage with the production of Bury the Dead.

(Keck) The stage has little in the way of props or scenery. The starkness is deliberate and unsettling. So is the play. A war is being fought – we’re not told where or what it’s about. But seven miles behind enemy lines, soldiers dig a shallow grave for four of their fallen comrades. Peter Bruno, Artistic Director at Mill River Union High School, says that’s when the story takes an unexpected twist.

(Bruno) “It’s a powerful play about a group of dead soldiers who refuse to be buried in a nameless war, and how the media and the powers that be deal with their refusal to be buried and their need to be heard.”

(Hamel) “You’re dead officially, all of you. I won’t mince words here. We’re a civilized race, we bury our dead.”

(Keck) Seventeen-year-old Dylan Hamel plays an autocratic military general who comes unhinged by the dead soldier’s macabre revolt.

(Hamel) “Private Driscoll, Private Morgan Private Levvy, Private Shilling, as commander in chief of the Army as appointed by the president of the United States in accordance with the constitution of the United States and as your supreme officer – I command you I command you to lie down and allow yourself to be buried.”

(Keck) But the four soldiers, who kneel on stage behind a dirt-colored tarp, refuse.

(Soldier) “You ask the general how he’d like to be dead at 20 – 20 general 20! Other men are dying. . . too many. Men must always die for their countries sake. . . . If not you then others. Men died for Caesar and Pharroh and Rome 2000 years ago and more and went to their graves with their wounds. . . . why not you?”

(Liam Martin) “I think one of the greatest parts of this play is that it takes war and steels its glory. It just strips it of its glory and it hammers home the things that really matter.”

(Keck) Liam Martin, an 18-year-old from Shrewsbury, plays one of the dead soldiers – a farmer. In this scene, he tries to explain to his wife Bess all that he misses.

(Liam martin) “Things you hear while you’re busy with the horses or pitching the hay and you don’t really notice them. But they come back to you Bess. Things like seeing the rows of corn scraping in the breeze all tall and green . . . .silk flying off the ears in the wind. Things like seeing the sweat come out of your horses fat flank and seeing it shine like silk fly off in front of you. Things like taking a drink of water out of the well after you’ve boiled in the sun all afternoon and feeling it go down and cool ya all from the inside out. Things like a brown haired kid playing all serious on the shady side of the barn. There ain’t nothing like that down here Bess.”

(Keck) Irwin Shaw, who’s perhaps best known for his book Rich Man, Poor Man, wrote Bury the Dead in 1936. Director Glenn Tarbell says seventy years later, the play has lost none of its relevance. This is not a theatrical protest for the war in Iraq, he says, or any war. Instead, Tarbell says it’s about looking at the costs of war in a different way.

(Tarbell) “I’m not to change anybody’s mind, but just to think about war and question and feel about it and move on with whatever they come up with.”

(Keck) Students will perform Bury the Dead tonight at Mill River Union High School in Clarendon. They’ll perform it again this weekend at Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon as part of a regional one act play competition.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.

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