When the first part of Lincoln Center Theater's production of Tom Stoppard'sThe Coast of Utopia was about to open in November, 2006, The New York Times published a guide to its 19th-century Russian characters, and commented, "If ever a play required a reading list, The Coast of Utopia is it." Stoppard quite rightly responded to the newspaper with a letter in which he said that no advance reading was necessary.
Advance reading is even less necessary for War Horse: its story is so clear and universal that even those theatergoers who know nothing about its time frame, the First World War, will be able fully to enjoy its themes. All the same, there are a handful of books that, should the potential theatergoer have the inclination and the leisure, might heighten his or her enjoyment of the production's era. These books were among those consulted by War Horse cast members during rehearsals early this year, and I suspect that the production's next round of recruits will be digging into them as well.
The Guns of August - Barbara Tuchman's classic account of the war's first month, in 1914, focuses on the German campaign into Belgium. Its portraits of the conflict's main players are bitingly apt. Its brilliant discussions of armaments and materiel may be too detailed for some readers, yet everyone - even those without time to glide through the whole volume - should read the book's opening chapter, which spectacularly draws the curtain on the 19th century with a set piece describing the May 1910 funeral of Edward VII of England.
All Quiet on the Western Front - One of the strengths of War Horse for American and British theatergoers is its presentation of the conflict as seen by German soldiers. This 1929 novel, by Erich Maria Remarque, a veteran of the war, also describes the war's effect on Germans under fire. Remarque's genius is to render not only the stress endured by soldiers during the war but also the enduring anomie experienced by them once they returned home.
The Missing of the Somme - This eloquent 1994 volume about the war by the British writer Geoff Dyer has just been reissued in paperback by Vintage. The book opens with Dyer looking at photos of his maternal grandfather, whose experience as a young man in the First World War echoes that of many of the lads in War Horse. Dyer describes him as a "farm labourer. Able only to read and write his name. Enlisted in 1914. Served on the Somme as a driver (of horses), where, according to family legend, he once went up to the front-line trenches in place of a friend whose courage had suddenly deserted him."
The Great War and Modern Memory - Lauded by Dyer and many others, this extended cultural and literary essay, written by Paul Fussell and published in 1975, was assigned to me in a high-school-history class. I've lost at least two copies of it in various house moves over the years, but I always purchase a new one, which immediately gets marked up in the margins. Fussell offers a reading of the war's prominent British poets (Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfrid Owen, Rupert Brooke) that is hugely insightful. Fussell, himself a veteran of the Second World War, also describes friendship between soldiers with aching care. And he persuasively makes the case that the First World War marked the moment when the West entered its modernity: the Age of Irony.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.