Michael Morpugo, the author of the novel "War Horse" and thus the instigator of the international enterprise flourishing under that banner, is the unofficial inspiration for this blog. It is now time to pull back the curtain on him. Or, rather, to raise it, as occurred this past Sunday at LCT's Vivian Beaumont Theater, where the writer presented an evening called "An Evening with Michael Morpugo."
Morpugo, the author of many dozens of works, divided the event into four sections, some of which were enhanced by the musical performances of Katrina Yaukey. He talked about the genesis of "War Horse," read selections from the work of Great War poets (Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon), read from his own work (a story called "Excellent," which lived up to its name), and took questions from the audience.
Morpugo appeared entirely at ease at the Beaumont, which was fitted with a hard-back chair, small table, and a modest floral arrangement. The author has history on this stage. His father, the actor Anthony van Bridge, performed here twice in the 1960s, and Morpugo appeared as part of the ensemble at a "War Horse" matinee last December. (He also made a crowd-scene appearance in the London production and was an extra in Steven Spielberg's movie version.)
"An Evening with Michael Morpugo" was enjoyable in its entirety, but I confess to being especially drawn to the writer's remarks about the genesis of "War Horse." He began his accounting: "I was born in 1943, I'm a war child." Affected by his mother's enduring grief at the loss of her brother, Peter, an RAF pilot, Morpugo said he grew up "with an interest in what war did to people." That interest didn't find form until the writer, having moved away from his career as a primary-school teacher and, with his wife, Claire, chucking London for rural Devon, had a couple of indelible experiences. He heard a not-normally garrulous veteran talk about the cavalry of the Great War; and he observed a habitually quiet boy from Birmingham, participating in the Farms for City Children program established by the Morpugos to introduce urban kids to country life, talk to a horse.
Arriving home after observing the child, Morpugo told the Beaumont audience that he felt as if "someone were handing me a big story." He said that most books about war "tend to be about one side or the other. I wanted to write about the universal suffering of the First World War."
Joseph Stalin once said, "One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic." Yet when Morpugo continued his presentation by mentioning the number of English horses taken to France during the Great War (one million) and the number that returned home (around 65,000), I didn't feel the weight of a statistic but the thought of thousands upon thousands of individual horse owners bereft of their hard-working animal companions. As for cynics who discount the longevity of such animal-human bonds, all I can tell you is that at the age of ten I had a pet goat, Chester, taken away from me and I have never quite gotten over the loss. I suspect that other members of Morpugo's Beaumont audience reverted to similar sad thoughts of animals wrenched from their own lives.
But the evening's take-away was far from sad. There was simply too much beauty at stake: the songs sung, the poems read, the audience's questions, and the news Morpugo imparted about the "War Horse" stage production. There will, he said, be a Berlin staging of the show, premiering next year, as well as one in Paris. What's more, there is the possibility that in 2014, the centennial of the war's beginning, "War Horse" will be playing in most of the capitals of the major countries involved initially in the conflict. Can Moscow be far behind?
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.