Art & Culture

  • Bury the Dead banner

Theatre of War and War in the Theater: Theatre Arts' Fall Production of "Bury the Dead"

  • Bury the Dead thumb new
Next Story Previous Story

Theatre of War and War in the Theater: Theatre Arts' Fall Production of "Bury the Dead"

The Theatre Arts Program’s fall production, Bury the Dead, addresses questions of never-ending war, ghosts, and military structure. 

Written by Irwin Shaw in 1936, the play set “in the second year of the war that is to begin tomorrow night.” Six unnamed young soldiers are set to be interred when they slowly rise up, pleading not to be buried and to be allowed to rejoin the living. Word of their refusal spreads rapidly up the ranks, across the battlefield, and among the media, creating further calamity throughout the war zone. Must the dead yield so easily?

The play will be performed by an ensemble company composed of members of the Penn undergraduate community and is directed by Theatre Arts Faculty Member Dr. James F. Schlatter. 

For Penn Art & Culture, Kathy Vinogradoff interviews Dr. James Schlatter:

KATHY VINOGRADOFF: First thing’s first, who are you?

DR. JAMES SCHLATTER: Well, I’m Jim Schlatter, and I’ve been on the theatre faculty at Penn for twenty-six years. I direct productions and teach a variety of required and elective courses in the major. I have a great interest in twentieth-century American theatre and drama. I’ve also been teaching a course on public performance and art for the last several years.

I love teaching. I love working with both young students who are thinking seriously about working in the theatre, but also working with people who are new to the whole theatre experience. The work we’ve done on our current production of Irwin Shaw's Bury the Dead is very much tied to our academic mission, which is to provide students with great opportunities to learn practical things about the theatre but also to learn about its importance—its value as a political experience and social experience. So this play really epitomizes everything I love about working at Penn.

KV: Tell me a little about Bury the Dead.

JS: I’ve known about the play for a long time and always thought about doing it. The play deals with a battlefield that has become a gravesite where American soldiers are being buried during the middle of this unnamed war. Just as the soldiers are about to be buried, they stand up and refuse to. So the central question is how they can get these soldiers to lie down and be buried. If they don’t lie down, they’ll stink, and the smell of war will permeate the world, bringing everything to a cataclysmic end. So they try to work out ways to get these young men to lie down and be buried.

They come to the decision later on in the play that the only way to get the men to lie down is for a woman to talk to each soldier into lying down. A wife comes to talk to a husband, a sister comes to talk to a brother, a girlfriend comes to talk to her fiancé, and so forth. But it doesn’t work. In the end, the soldiers crawl out of the grave and walk off into the world.

And I think that at this moment in our American history, right now is exactly the right time, or exactly the wrong time—because of the very provocative nature of this play.

KV: What do you mean by that? What about our current political climate led to that conclusion?

JS: Well, today with our current endless wars, a lot of young men and women are enlisting because they want to serve their country—but they also want to be able to come home. They eventually want to start their home lives, have help financing education, receive pensions, and so on.

The very moving and timely thing about the play is that it’s not about death or coming home with PTSD—which are very real things. It’s about six young soldiers who went and served and will not have the life that they were hoping to have. When you’re killing another human being, it’s like you are literally taking thirty, forty, fifty, years of life. When they refuse to lie down, they’re saying I should have a right to live, whether that be watching the sun come up, seeing Paris for the first time, or smelling fresh cut grass.

KV: So, the soldiers are not directly protesting against war; it’s more of a rally for the life unlived. How does that fit with the notion that this is an anti-war play?

JS: I’ve always asked the question: is this a war play or an anti-war play? And how does that affect the audience, especially considering that some of them may be veterans? You might say, well, if this is a war play it has to be anti-war. It’s a tough issue that I’m not sure if I am qualified to comment on. When I decided to do this over the summer, I reached out to the Student Veteran Association and told them that I’m thinking very seriously about doing this play and that I’d like to create some partnerships. I sent them a copy of the play and asked them for their response.

As far as what we’re doing in the production, Shaw wrote Bury the Dead in 1936, and we’re setting it very much in the sort of WWII era. In preparation, we’ve watched a lot of WWII movies and listened to a lot of romantic love songs from the period. The abundance of love songs in the play points to the notion that they’ve got to sell this war, that they really have to make your heart soar when you see the flag wave. These six soldiers signed up for that—the flag waving and the romantic music, but they got the short straw when they ended up dead. So it’s only an anti-war play to the degree that we have to talk about war honestly. We’ve asked thousands and thousands of young men and women to go and risk their lives. But for what?

    • Bury the Dead 42
    • Bury the Dead 38
    • Bury the Dead 39
    • Bury the Dead 7
    • Bury the Dead 1
    • Bury the Dead 32
    • Bury the Dead 6
    • Bury the Dead 31
    • Bury the Dead 30
    • Bury the Dead 36
    • Bury the Dead 8
    • Bury the Dead 37
    • Bury the Dead 33
    • Bury the Dead 34
    • Bury the Dead 3
    • Bury the Dead 21
    • Bury the Dead 22
    • Bury the Dead 24
    • Bury the Dead 25
    • Bury the Dead 26
    • Bury the Dead 4
    • Bury the Dead 27
    • Bury the Dead 2
    • Bury the Dead 28
    • Bury the Dead 29
    • Bury the Dead 5
    • Bury the Dead 20

KV: How do you think that type of theatrical advertisement interacts with the United States’ current treatment of veterans? Some of them have jobs, some of them are in college, but so many of them are left by the wayside.

JS: I think that the ultimate statement is that yes, joining the army is a jobs program. There are risks, and there are benefits. Sure, that’s all well and good. However, we are framing this in incredibly theatrical ways. My feeling is that we still have this sort of theatre of celebration and we’re still selling this as great heroism for the love of God and Country.

I always say that war is not accompanied by a country western song. We live in this culture of commemoration and memorialization, with the splendor of giant flags and what not. We have this whole theatre built around the glory of going to war. But when that’s done, whether you die or come home—often facing great physical and emotional challenges...we don’t like to think about that as much.

KV: You mentioned that you reached out to some of the Vet groups on campus earlier in the summer, have you, or the cast had any other interactions with veterans?

JS: We tried to make sure that veterans felt welcome to audition, so the UPSVA (Penn Student Veteran Association) newsletter sent out an audition notice. A student and Vietnam veteran named Dennis Foy saw the notice, knew the play, and came and auditioned. We ended up casting him as one of the top generals in the production. I think the fact that this Vietnam veteran knew and loved the play and wanted to be a part of it, even though he has no acting experience, just further reinforced my idea that this is something to do now. It’s been very special to have him be a part of the work and he’s doing a terrific job. 

I also thought from the beginning that we would find a way to invite veterans to come and watch the rehearsal and offer their thoughts. We were very fortunate to have a young man named Daniel Mitchell come and watch part of the show and offer thoughts about it. We were also put in contact with the Philadelphia chapter of Warrior Writers, which is a national nonprofit that offers a variety of workshops and publishes artwork and writing by vets. So on one night, a number of veterans from UPSVA and Veterans Upward Bound came and watched a couple scenes and talked to the cast about their experience watching the rehearsal.

The cast then participated in a writing and art-making workshop with the vets, based on their experience of the rehearsal and the prompt for it was “thoughts of home,” which closely allies with the message of the play. A lot of writing and artwork was produced, and there will be a display in the lobby for the run of the production. It’s all unfinished work; if it was produced longhand on lined paper, that’s what’s going to be displayed. The focus is not on polished, finished pieces, but more on the extraordinary work in the workshops being created by Warrior Writers, UPSVA, Vets Upward Bound, and the Theatre Arts Program.

    • Bury the Dead 9
    • Bury the Dead 12
    • Bury the Dead 10
    • Bury the Dead 11
    • Bury the Dead 13
    • Bury the Dead 14
    • Bury the Dead 15
    • Bury the Dead
    • Bury the Dead 17

KV: What about during the run of the performance, for members of the community who didn’t have access to the rehearsals?

JS: Of course we very much want veterans to be of the audience. Veterans with I.D. are granted two complementary tickets if they ask for the deal at the Annenberg Center Box Office. We are also holding a post-performance discussion on Thursday, November 19th, where everyone is welcome to discuss some of these ideas.

I also wanted to be sensitive to any issues that a Veteran audience might have. I’ve talked with the veterans both the UPSVA and Veterans Upward Bound about whether or not the subject matter or the sound-effects that could possibly trigger something in a veteran. In response, we are going to make very clear at the beginning of the production that people can leave at any time. There will also be a list of available resources in the program, for those who may need help.

KV: What do you hope the audience takes away?

JS: Well, this is a bit of a spoiler alert. We’ve added a short epilogue at the end, which holds the immediate meaning of the piece. Simply put, the soldiers say, “Put yourself in my place.” It’s difficult because you obviously can’t put yourself in the place of a dead soldier—but you can think about the men and women who are hoping to come home. You can put yourself in their place.

This production runs from November 18th–21st in the Annenberg Center Live's Bruce Montgomery Theatre, with all performances beginning at 7:00 p.m. Tickets for Bury the Dead are available now on or at the Annenberg Center Live Box Office. If you are a Veteran, be sure to take advantage of the complimentary ticket offer. The Veterans Night Panel Event will take place on November 19th, after the performanceall are welcome.

View additional photos from the production on Flickr>

Kathy Vinogradoff is a Filipino-Russian-American playwright and dramaturg from the greater Washington DC area. Her work explores magical realism, cultural expectations, and Asian identity. She is currently a senior in SAS under the Liberal and Professional Studies Program, majoring in English with a specialization in Creative Writing.