It was the summer of 1917 at a war hospital in Edinburgh when English soldier Wilfred Owen met poet Siegfried Sassoon, and the encounter changed the lives of the men personally and professionally. Owen went on to become one of the most renowned poets of the early 20th century. Their story is told in Stephen MacDonald’s 1982 play Not About Heroes, running November 2–18 at the 7 Stages Theatre Back Stage, courtesy of Aris Theatre. Aris, which was founded four years ago and is dedicated to Celtic storytelling, is hosting a series of events in commemoration of the centennial of Armistice Day that explore the long-term cultural impact of the First World War.
Frank Miller, who has been a mainstay in the Atlanta theater scene, is making his Aris directorial debut with this production. Miller was a freelance director from 1982 to 1999 and taught theater at Georgia State University, where he directed plays by Shakespeare, Caryl Churchill and Noel Coward. Since retiring, he has returned to freelance directing, and we caught up with him to talk about his debut with the acclaimed company and this intimate two-man production.
ArtsATL: How did Not About Heroes come up?
Frank Miller: Aris offered it to me, and I was incredibly moved by it. I was in a restaurant finishing it and trying to fight back tears. I was very moved by it, particularly the idea of mentorship, which I had been doing at Georgia State, and what it is that makes one a good mentor. You have to care about the people you mentor, and you have to give up yourself in order to help them.
ArtsATL: Can you talk about the relationship between the two men in the play?
Miller: Sassoon was slightly older and from the upper middle class. He was raised with money and privilege. He could have gone to Cambridge but left after a year because he didn’t feel he was a scholar. He was a poet before the war, and after a few years of fighting he sent a protest to his supervising officer that was so strong, they decided they had to court martial him or declare him mentally ill. They said he was mentally ill and sent him to Craiglockhart War Hospital. It was for people who had developed mental disorders from the war; back then they called it shell shocked.
There he met Wilfred Owen, who was dealing with shell shock of his own. Wilfred was slightly younger and working class. He too wanted to be a poet and was just finding his voice. I have read his poetry before the war, and there are flashes of brilliance, but a lot of it is terrible. They forge a friendship, and Sassoon helps Owen find a voice. A week before the Armistice, Owen was killed in battle. It was a month before Sassoon found out about it.
ArtsATL: How does Sassoon help Owen find that voice?
Miller: He helped him refine the way he writes, make proper word choices, and he provided himself as a really good editor. At one point, Sassoon tells Owen he can do better than copy his style. He helps Owen realize what he wants to say and the best way to say it. Sassoon felt Owen wrote better poetry about the war than he had. One of the best scenes is when they are working on “Anthem for Doomed Youth” — one of Owen’s best poems.
The playwright was gay and wrote this so he could play Sassoon. The gay element is very subtle. I tell the actors — I think that a gay audience or gay-friendly audience will realize they were gay and there were feelings between them. Another audience is going to see that they were very good friends. When Owen died, Sassoon destroyed some of Owen’s letters that were too overt about his own homosexuality. The implication I get from the play is that it was circumstances that prevented them from ever hooking up. It was a very negative time for gay people.
ArtsATL: What can you tell us about the cast?
Miller: Eric Lang plays Sassoon, and Chris Harding plays Owen. They are a very good match. The audience needs to live with these characters for two hours. They are very responsible and working incredibly hard. I’m impressed at how they are open to ideas and what they bring to rehearsal. They are up-and-coming actors who I think will be working at lot. After auditions, I saw Chris in [Theatre Buford’s] See Rock City, and it made me really happy I cast him.