Michael Morpurgo again

Michael Morpurgo’s article in Wednesday’s Guardian (‘First world war centenary is a year to honour the dead but not to glorify.’) contains some odd assertions. He writes of his play War Horse (which has, he modestly reminds us,been called ‘the greatest anthem to peace’ ever seen on stage, and which has now opened at Der Theater des Westens in Berlin.)

This autumn, the National Theatre’s iconic production of War Horse opened in Berlin. It is, I am told, the first play about the first world war to be put on there since the first world war began.

I am no expert on German theatre, but I wonder who told him that. Clearly someone who had never heard of Piscator’s famous 1927 production of The Good Soldier Schweyk (which starred Peter Lorre, and had Bertold Brecht and George Grosz on the creative team). The informant had also never heard, obviously, of the scandal surrounding Fritz Kortner’s production of The Silver Tassie at the Berlin Schiller-Theater in 1953.
I bet there have been more German plays to add to this list (Did none of Toller’s ever reach Berlin?) but I can also inform him that an English-language production of Journey’s End was shown in Berlin in the late twenties (and drew praise even from the right-wing press) and that Joan Littlewood took Oh What a Lovely War to Berlin in the late sixties. (She tries to release balloons to fly symbolically over the newly-constructed Berlin Wall, but unfortunately the wind was going in the wrong direction. I wonder if this gave her a momentary sympathy with the British officers who messed up the first gas attacks?)
So Mr Morpurgo is misinformed. But then he never was one for letting the facts get in the way of a good story…

In this article, he implies that he was moved to write War Horse by meeting with Great War veterans. This time, though, he does not mention that inspiring picture of a horse in the village hall, which he recently admitted, never actually existed.


  1. Ms Baroque
    Posted January 4, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Yes, it’s awful when absolutely every element of a fiction isn’t completely true. And imagine never having heard of Piscator’s famous 1927 production of The Good Soldier Schweyk! I can hardly believe it.

  2. Posted January 4, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Yes, an author’s note may perfectly well be part of the fictional text, as may an epilogue, end-notes, footnotes, introduction.

  3. Posted January 4, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    The problem with Morpurgo is that he always wants it both ways. He makes large claims for the truthfulness of what he writes (as in the Guardian article) while making very full use of a fiction-writer’s privilege to play fast and loose with historical actuality (as in Private Peaceful, which has Charlie executed for what would not have been a capital offence).
    His relationship with the truth seems a very flexible one, and he seems to believe what he wants to believe, as when he accepts uncritically this rather silly claim that no previous theatre production in Berlin has ever treated the First World War. I suggested a couple of instances that prove him mistaken, but I’m sure that there must be many more.

  4. Jon Lighter
    Posted January 4, 2014 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Today’s lit-crit mob mentality usually prefers an entertaining “fiction” (a stupid fabrication, a uninformed assertion, or an outright lie) to anything that claims objective accuracy. It’s because Heisenberg and Goedel proved (for non-physicists at least) that all “facts” are an illusion.

    Thanks for opposing that now superannuated trend.

  5. Bill
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    I believe Oh What a Lovely War toured to both East and West Berlin, so Ms Littlewood could have released her balloons from either side the wall, had she wished. (And, of course, Theatre Workshop’s earlier version of Schweik was based on the Piscator version, although not toured in Germany as far as I am aware)

  6. Bill
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    To throw another one into the pot, the Guardian comments on Morpurgo’s piece also come up with :

    The Last Days of Mankind [Der letzten Tage der Menscheit] by Karl Kraus is one of the most famous of books/plays on WWI, though very long and notoriously difficult to stage. Its epilogue was staged in Berlin 1930 by Bert Brecht. It was performed as a reading in East Berlin in 1974 and has been shown all over Germany and Austria in more recent times, as well as in England.

    There’s the English translation here

    It is a savage and terribly accurate satire of the jingoism and collective madness of European society of that time, though as Kraus wrote in his preface:

    “The humour is merely the self-reproach of a witness who has not gone mad at the thought of surviving these times with his mind intact. But except for those who reveal their share in this shame to posterity, nobody has any right to that humour. The rest of the world, which allowed the things recorded here to happen, should put the obligation to weep before the right to laugh. The most improbable deeds reported here actually took place; I only painted what was done. The most implausible conversations in this play were spoken verbatim; the shrillest inventions are quotations”

    It is to the Kraus play, seen in Edinburgh, that Niall Ferguson attributes his interest in German and in history.

    As with most of those who comment on OWALW, I suspect Ferguson, Gove et al have only ever seen the film, not the stage production. As with “War Horse” film and stage are wholly different experiences.

    • Posted January 9, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      Thanks. Kraus’s play was one of the ones that I was sure must have been seen in Berlin – but I couldn’t find a definite reference, so didn’t mention it in my original post.

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