American playwright Irwin Shaw’s 1936 anti-war play Bury the Dead was a prescient foreshadowing of World War II. It pointed out the absurdity of war through the lens of six soldiers who have been killed in battle but rise from the ground to resist the grave that has been dug for them.
While the premise might sound bleak, Jim Heun, director of The Upstart Crow’s modernized version of Shaw’s play, promises the production is both moving and satirical.
“I have at times referred to it as a zombie apocalypse meets Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, because the dead come back to express how beautiful life is,” says Heun. “The corpses are defending what they love about the earth and explaining to the generals, who very much want the soldiers to give up and die, why they have a right to life.”
When Shaw first premiered the play, the losses from the first war were still fresh in the minds of Americans, and there was hesitancy to get involved in the conflicts in Europe. Although the United States ultimately chose to intervene in 1941, Shaw’s play serves as a reminder to viewers of the human cost of war.
Now, The Upstart Crow is set to premiere their updated version of Shaw’s original script on Nov. 25 at the Dairy Art Center’s Carson Theater. Since 1980, The Crow, an ensemble community theater company, has been performing classic, accessible theater in the Boulder area.
“We started the organization because we loved classical theater,” says Kathy Reed, one of The Crow’s original members and an actor in Bury the Dead. “It takes a lot of time and effort to put on a play, so when you do a classical play, it’s nice to know you have something that you can perform for two or three weeks and never get tired of because there is so much depth in the script.”
While Reed hasn’t been in every production, she’s been in over 70 plays with the organization over the past 40 years. The Crow’s committed cast provides both onstage talent and backstage assistance. While a few members hold degrees in theater, the majority of the actors are Boulder residents who want to create art in a community setting.
Heun, a theater instructor for middle and high schools, first appeared in The Crow’s production of Romeo and Juliet about 15 years ago and has since directed and performed in a number of the company’s shows. His first exposure to Bury the Dead was in 1969, when he played Private Henry Levy in his high school performance of the play.
“After doing Bury the Dead in high school, a couple of months later I was sent off to the Navy,” said Heun. “The play was incredibly meaningful back then to me. I loved this script and have wanted to direct it ever since.”
The producers at The Crow heard about Heun’s desire to stage the play and agreed to produce it. Heun aimed to maintain the playwright’s original intention to depict a cross-section of Americans affected by war while also modernizing the play for contemporary audiences.
“We’ve embraced the idea of 2022 soldiers in the play,” says Heun. “The modern Army has women as privates, captains and generals. … In our production, one of the generals is a woman, the captain is a woman, the reporter is a woman and there is a lesbian couple.”
The first stage direction in the script reads that the play is set during “the second year of the war that is to begin tomorrow night.” Heun saw this as an opportunity to speak to current concerns by setting the play in the present.
But changing the dates in the script introduced several historical inconsistencies. Though they changed the dates to 2022, the script still refers to the Saturday Evening Post, uses a dial phone and references the War Department, which dated the piece.
“We sort of just embraced the anachronisms because the play is clearly future-looking,” says Heun. “Shaw’s clearly saying war is always a problem. So we felt that having it slightly out of time would accurately portray Shaw’s depiction of war.”
Actor Mark Bradford, who has performed with The Crow for 10 years and portrays one of the soldiers in Bury the Dead, advises audiences to go in with as little background knowledge as possible.
“This is a show that kind of defies your expectations,” says Bradford. “You might expect something very specific if you just hear that it’s an anti-war play, but it’s not like polemics or anything like that. There are some very touching scenes, but there are also moments when there’s a bunch of dark humor underlying it. You don’t expect to be chuckling, but sometimes you are while still being impacted by the play’s underlying emotions.”
ON STAGE: Bury the Dead. Various times, Nov. 25 – Dec. 4, Dairy Arts Center, Carsen Theater, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder.