It started with a spilled drink. There I was, standing next to the bar of the Vivian Beaumont lobby, watching a Wednesday-matinee crowd stream in to "War Horse." I felt something cold and wet splashed onto my back. Before I knew it, three generations of women were mopping me up, apologizing abjectly for the drink that the youngest of their party had dumped onto me.
I asked their names. The grandmother was Li, the mother Jun, and the daughter Celine. They live in Shanghai, China, but they were in the United States looking at university business programs for Celine, who is 22. It was only a few minutes to curtain, so we didn't have time to do much more than exchange pleasantries. Later that afternoon, though, as I was walking across the plaza while the matinee was letting out, I noticed the women strolling past. They said hello, I said hello. I asked them how they had enjoyed the play.
"I was very moved," said Li. (She spoke in Mandarin, and Jun translated.) "Even though I grew up in Shanghai, I was 'assigned' to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Of course, I had seen horses as a girl, but as a city kid I had never gotten close to one. In the countryside, I made friends with a mare named Blossom. I loved that horse! So I could understand in the play today how the boy could be so attached to an animal that he would leave his family and go off to war to find it."
"Unlike my mother," said Jun, "I've never spent much time in the countryside. I'm in the real-estate business in Shanghai. Very fast-paced. Not much time for leisure. But I remember as a girl that I read books about horses after I learned English. One of them was 'Black Beauty.' Another was 'National Velvet,' and I saw the movie version with Elizabeth Taylor. It seems as if all the horse stories I know are about racehorses, not war horses. But how can you not love Joey and Topthorn?"
For her part, Celine confessed that she was not much of a reader. She likes movies, however. "I know that Steven Spielberg made a film of 'War Horse,' but I haven't seen it yet. And I can't say that I know very much about the First World War, so I learned a few things today." She then made a remark which undercut her declared ignorance of the conflict: "Most of what we learned in school about the war was about how China declared war against Germany, in 1917, and sent thousands of men to France to support the war effort, but we were not rewarded once the war was over. The U.S. reaffirmed Japan's position in China. Unfortunately."
But did she like the play?
"Oh, yes," replied Celine. "I'm not sure who cried more at the end: me, my mother, or my grandmother."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.