Friday, April 15, 2011

Michael Morpurgo: Untimely Success?

War Horse
Photograph by Simon Annand
(Image from New York Times)

I'd heard of the hit play War Horse back when it came out in London's National Theater because I saw photos of the 'horses' and marveled at what I read of how equine puppets could take on such vivid life in the hand of skilled puppeteers, but I knew nothing of Michael Morpurgo, author of the children's book on which the drama was based.

I discovered him yesterday, however, in the Global Edition of the New York Times and located the article online by Sarah Lyall, "Undaunted Author of 'War Horse' Reflects on Unlikely Hit" (April 11, 2011), which I'm linking to here today for the convenience of anyone stumbling onto this blog entry, but also for myself because my paternal grandfather, Horace Hodges, after whom I am named, was something of a horseman and worked with war horses in the First World War, so the connection makes this story feel a little closer.

The novel for children, also titled War Horse, saw light in 1982 but not stage light till 2007, which reflected its glory back onto a novel that had seen no more that 1500 copies sold per year but that now has more than 500,000 copies in print in the US alone. The book sounds deserving:
The book . . . is written from the point of view of Joey the horse. It was inspired, in part, by a series of conversations Mr. Morpurgo had had years ago in his village, Iddesleigh, in Devon, with an elderly man who had served in a cavalry unit in World War I. "He told me with tears in his eyes that the only person he could talk to there -- and he called this horse a person -- was his horse," Mr. Morpurgo said.

From the Imperial War Museum, Mr. Morpurgo learned that between one million and two million British horses had been sent to the front lines in the first World War, and that only 65,000 or so had come back. He resolved to write about them but struggled to find the right voice.

Then one evening he was at the farm he and his wife run in Devon, where poor children come to work with animals . . . . He was passing through the stable yard when he saw one of the children, a troubled boy who had a bad stutter and had not uttered a word in school in two years, standing head to head with a horse.

"He started talking," Mr. Morpurgo recalled. "And he was talking to the horse, and his voice was flowing. It was simply unlocked. And as I listened to this his boy telling the horse everything he'd done on the farm that day, I suddenly had the idea that of course the horse didn't understand every word, but that she knew it was important for her to stand there and be there for this child." That became Joey's role in "War Horse" -- observer and witness as much as protagonist.
I can understand the profound appeal. To have someone listen, truly and patiently listen, with deep understanding even of those things that defy ordinary understanding, to listen in a way that renders even the mundane extraordinary, in a mysterious way that dissolves reserve and opens trust . . . that is rare. And intense . . . and some of that emotional intensity comes through in the play:
[I]n 2007 . . . a dramatic version of "War Horse" opened at the National Theater. Starring, as the horses, life-size puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, the play was a huge, emotional triumph, leaving audiences wrung out and weeping. It transferred to the West End, where it is still selling out.
Is the success really untimely? Mr. Morpurgo thinks so:
"All this should have happened 30 years ago," he said recently. "It's all come at completely the wrong time. But better late than never -- although I don't think my wife thinks so, sometimes."
Well, things could be worse. One could always have turned out to succeed in as untimely a manner as Vivian Maier.

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At 5:06 AM, Blogger dhr said...

marveled at what I read of how equine puppets could take on such vivid life

It conveys a deep effect even by simply reading your review and looking at that small picture! It cannot but be powerful.

In the Italian literature there's sort of an equivalent in the poem "La cavallina storna" (The little dapple-gray she-horse) by Giovanni Pascoli, written in 1903. The story is tragic and fascinating here too.

When Pascoli was still a kid, his father was killed in an ambush: they never found out who the killers were, let alone have them tried. The family had some suspect, but probably the killers had been paid and "covered up" by some powerful personage... maybe the one who succeeded Pascoli Senior in the service of the rich Torlonia family.
Well, in the poem, Pascoli's sister MariĆ¹ (a nickname of Mary) talks to the very horse who was pulling the coach in the countryside when her father was killed. She says, "You saw... I will now pronounce a name... may God teach you a way to let me know if he is the culprit." She says a name, and the horse powerfully neighs.

The poets adds, in a note, that the episode is true. He could not joke on such a subject.

At 5:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

An unfortunate connotation in English is that "neigh" sounds like "nay."

But that aside, your story complements Morpurgo's perfectly.

Jeffery Hodges

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