Of all the words that have attached themselves to the stage production of War Horse, the one that keeps claiming my attention is "sentimental." I find the term slightly puzzling. In the context of this production, what exactly does it mean?
The lexicographical discussion should be clear enough. Webster's defines sentimental firstly as "expressive of or appealing to sentiment, especially the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia: a sentimental song."War Horse, the story of a boy's affection for his steed and his losing it to the 1914 conflict, is certainly suffused with tender emotions. It is, as well, brimming with the love of parent for child, child for parent, and friend for friend.
Webster's goes on to define sentimental as "pertaining to or dependent on sentiment," as in "We kept the old photograph for purely sentimental reasons." Again, such a meaning finds resonance in War Horse. In the play, for example, the character Arthur Narracott passes on to his son, Billy, a knife that he has used as a soldier in the Boer War, and that Billy's grandfather used in Britain's earlier conflict in Afghanistan. The weapon, indeed, carries heavy sentimental value.
The fourth definition of sentimental, "characterized by or showing...refined feeling," carries a tinge of class-based emotion that would seem to be quite absent from the War Horse story of a farming family and of English soldiers who are primarily working-class. Yet refined feeling, too, finds a way in. If the physical production itself, so beautifully envisioned by designer Rae Smith, and if the drawings in the play sketched by Lieutenant James Nicholls do not bespeak refined feeling then I am at a loss to understand what that phrase signifies.
You will notice that I glossed over the third definition of "sentimental." Namely: "weakly emotional; mawkishly susceptible or tender." The Oxford English Dictionary contains a sharper rendering: "Addicted to indulgence in superficial emotion; apt to be swayed by sentiment." Unlike the other definitions, I am flummoxed by the application of such a meaning to the production on the verge of opening at the Beaumont. This is a story about a war in which 10 million soldiers and eight million horses lost their lives: a monumental slaughter that is made specific in the drama. In what way are these instances "superficial?" Those who equate War Horse with other supposedly superficial equine stories set in England, such as National Velvet, a tale that I revere but which contains scant carnage, seem to have overlooked, or insufficiently processed, all the pain of the battles enacted at the Beaumont.
When I read applications of Definition Three to War Horse I sometimes wonder if the speaker or writer watched the play's final tableau very closely. I will not give it away by naming the characters involved. I will simply say that if you think it expresses unalloyed sentiment - if you decide it stands for mawkish resolution - then you took in only two of the people standing in that spotlight. You failed to notice the individual left yearning.
As I was collecting these thoughts about War Horse's sentimentality, I raised the subject with a few members of the cast. Though they are by job description caught up in the play and not necessarily the people optimally positioned to offer answers, the actors - what an admirably sensitive lot they are! - gave helpful answers.
Stephen Plunkett, who portrays that artistic officer Nicholls, said: "When people say the play is sentimental, maybe what they really mean is that at times it's deeply sad." He added: "What they may also mean is that it's tragic. And it IS tragic." Further: "Maybe some people overlook the fact that War Horse is not just about the horse but about war - how can it not be tragic?
Kate Pfaffl, who plays the Song Woman, added: "I'm not sure I would callWar Horse a sentimental story as much as I would say it's a story about hope. I wonder if people who think 'hope' is sentimental have ever known just how painful profound hope can feel."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.