As the UK marks Remembrance Day, War Horse author Michael Morpurgo tells Official London Theatre how he came to write the World War I drama, why he thinks the stage adaptation has been so successful and why it is important that children understand the effects of war:
The inspiration for War Horse came from the place that I live, in the middle of Devon, in the village in which it is set, and from an old man who had been to the First World War. This was a man who had been there with horses, had walked the mud and had suffered along with so many of his comrades. It was an extraordinary conversation.
Then there was a picture which my late father-in-law left us, which was not something you would hang on the wall because it was so sad and cruel. It was a picture of British cavalry charging up a snowy hill towards a wood. It was dated 1917. The really tragic thing was that there was barbed wire in front of this wood and behind the barbed wire was the German infantry shooting at the British cavalry coming towards it. Some of the horses had reached the wire and were tangled up in it. That horrified me; it upset me a lot. In the entire war between eight and 10 million horses would have been killed, and killed, of course, in the same way that the men were killed; they were blown to bits, they drowned in the mud, they died of disease. It doesn’t bear thinking about but, of course, you do think about it.
I wrote War Horse because of these experiences, the horror of it and the sadness of it, growing up after the Second World War and seeing the grief in the faces of my family when they remembered my uncle who’d been shot down in the RAF. You knew that the grief went on and the ruin of lives went on and so it simply saddened you and saddened you and saddened you.
I determined to write a book about the First World War, but I did want to make sure it wasn’t from one side or the other. What I really wanted to do was write a story which told it from all sides about the universal suffering of this war. So I decided to tell it through the horse’s eyes.
It is interesting trying to present it for children. If you talk to children straight in a language that they really can comprehend and in a way that makes it interesting for them, then they can tackle great depth of feeling and concern because they have feelings and concerns just the same as adults, it’s just that they are not as developed in sophistication terms, but they feel as much as we do.
Children are very open; they have wide eyes and if you tell them a story about the suffering of war, they know. They have televisions in the corner of their bedrooms; they know that war is a horrible thing. This is a way, in effect, of allowing them access to what is going on in the lives of these people and has been going on for hundreds of years.
It is critical that they understand the effects of war because they are future voters; these are the people who are going to make our democracy a healthy one or an unhealthy one. If we have ignorant people as the majority in our democracy, I’m afraid the way they vote and the things they want to do will be based on ignorance. That way lies more tragedy. We have to understand that it is only education and a real comprehension and understanding of what war does, before you go to war, so that it absolutely is the last thing that you do, that must be the way forward.
The stage adaptation of War Horse is this extraordinary fusion of the genius of many, many people. You have got the best designers, the best composers, these extraordinary puppeteers, the best directors in Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott and everyone at the National Theatre; all of them, who came together to make an extraordinary theatrical event. It’s not a play. It’s not a show. It’s not a musical. It’s a theatrical event like no other. It’s unique.
Why does it work? It is really hard to know. I think it is the genius of the puppets and the atmosphere of the music. I hope the story does also touch people’s hearts. The lovely thing I have noticed is that the audience includes kids, their parents and their grandparents; everyone from each generation is bringing what they have inside them to this show.
When I wrote War Horse, people thought young people weren’t interested in history, and they weren’t interested in the First World War; that it was all a bit passé. This was at the time of the Cold War, when not much was being written about war. It was something that people, in a way, could forget about.
For the last six or seven or eight years, this country has become used to seeing coffins coming home draped in the Union Jack and suddenly the whole business of what happens when you go to war has come home. Maybe that is also part of what has struck a chord in War Horse, maybe the suffering that we know goes on and we know perfectly well went on in the First World War is relevant now and not passé. Sadly war seems to be this endemic situation that human beings live through.