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?