At 7:30am, after prayers were said and hymns were sung, the Allied soldiers rose to fight. But the Germans knew of their plans in advance and, armed with newly-created machine guns and tanks, they easily cut down the rows of advancing young men. By the end of the day, 20,000 were dead and tens of thousands more were injured in what was the bloodiest day of World War I, or "the War To End All Wars" as it was also known.
On the front lines, and among the first to fall, was Ireland's 36th Ulster Division. The playwright Frank McGuinness pays tribute to these men with a sharp-witted, poetic and deeply touching drama that carries a mouthful of a title: OBSERVE THE SONS OF ULSTER MARCHING TOWARDS THE SOMME, which Lincoln Center Theater presented for a limited engagement at the Mitzi E. Newhouse.
McGuinness, one of Ireland's greatest playwrights, is best known in New York for his play Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, which received the New York Drama Critics' Circle prize and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play, as well as his adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House starring Janet McTeer, which won 4 Tonys including Best Play Revival. He also wrote the screenplay for the film version of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa starring Meryl Streep.
His first major achievement, however, was 1985's Observe The Sons Of Ulster..., which was all the more remarkable because it is written from the Irish Protestants' point of view, despite the fact that McGuinness is a Catholic.
His plays frequently dramatize an exchange of ideas and traditions between opposing sides in conflicting cultures or politics. Scholar Eamon Jordan wrote of McGuinness: "He appears to be drawn to what he sees as the key moments in Irish history. Yet the idea of a personal history, which both echoes and contradicts the public version, is never far away." Indeed, Observe The Sons of Ulster... is not a political play--it is a highly personal story, told in flashbacks. It begins as a survivor of the massacre addresses the ghosts of his fellow soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division. As his memories unfold, we see his battalion being formed and watch their training and bonding process, which turns them into a cohesive force to fight not just "the good fight" but the "everlasting fight inside us and outside us."