We stood on the Essex shore a mess of shingle
Some of us new and eager for a fight and others
Not so sure but all of us both knowing and not knowing
What lay ahead of us.
Dunsinane opens with the simple, single narration of the youngest soldier in the English army. It is, after all, the young — conscripts and volunteers alike — who form the vast majority of armies throughout history. It is also the young who ultimately experience war without the benefit of truly knowing life.Dunsinane, which has been well received on three continents, is a story of strife, redemption, defeat, and uncertain victory that belongs to all of us.
The Boy Soldier tells us all we need to know of war. He intrinsically knows, as all soldiers do, exactly what is about to happen. Yet the boy, and every other soldier from time immemorial, could not possibly know what shape their experience would take. How war would change them, and change under them. Horses replaced by machinery. Open trenches rendered useless by artillery. Static defenses circumvented by maneuver warfare. The world’s sole superpower maimed one man at a time by homemade bombs. This is war: universal and unique. This is Dunsinane.
The swift fall of Dunsinane Castle, the bridging mechanism between the end of the Shakespearean play Macbeth and David Greig’s sequel, offers a moment of hope in the aftermath of first combat. The English army, sent to Scotland under the English Lord Siward to install a new Scottish king in the north, has achieved their initial task. For the Boy Soldier, the unknown is now known. He has survived and having taken life his own suddenly seems more valuable.
In Search of Power
The geography has been conquered — the castle taken — but the war is anything but over. Controlling Dunsinane Castle is one thing, grasping the true source of power in Scotland is quite another. Siward and his men struggle with a thing they cannot see, nor understand. Hidden in the hills, veiled in a foreign language and submerged in the depths of an alien culture, the idea of Scottish power eludes Siward.
It was during these revelations, as Siward searches to find the core of Scottish power, that I noticed a divergence between the audience’s responses and my own. There were those who laughed when Siward’s deputy Macduff attempted to explain the relationships and loyalties of the Scottish clans. I was not one of them.
For me, this failure, or perhaps inability to understand an intangible and alien idea, is at the very core of a war which I have personally been involved in. There were other moments, lighthearted ones with soldiers joking, flashes of frustration, or profane outbursts that brought chuckles from across the theater and silence from other quarters. It is an odd thing to find yourself welling up with emotion while others laugh. I have memories of shared moments of joy and laughter with men who are no longer living. I saw these memories reflected in the actors on stage and it was uncomfortable at times for me to hear the audience laugh at these lighter moments. It was as if I feared the lighthearted soldiers would be rendered hors de combat in the next scene and that their moment of joy would be tainted in my memory
On Shifting Moral Ground
Siward and his men apply a rigorous standard of accountability and justice in the opening acts. The castle is inventoried, wealth divided, Scotland’s treasury remains full enough to keep the country running. The English believe that their even-handedness will bring stability with a new king. Siward sees that the queen’s clothes and heirlooms are returned to her in an effort to show that the English are reasonable conquerors. Reason, instead of a means to stability, becomes a casualty.
Unable to secure victory by means of arms, Siward seeks to break the will of the Scottish.
Physically in control of the geography, Siward’s frustration with the Scottish idea of power slowly erodes his army’s moral code. Men are murdered. Prisoners are tortured. Confessions extracted. The harder he pushes, the more determined the opposition becomes. Unable to secure victory by reason with the political elites or means of arms with the population at large, Siward seeks to break the will of the Scottish. He fails.
While this aspect of the play has obvious parallels to our most recent conflicts, the moral dangers of war are not a new phenomenon. As Siward searches for Lulach, the heir apparent to the throne, his perceptions of what is acceptable begin to change. “Is there another way?” Siward asks early in the play, frustrated by the unpalatable choices he faces. Eventually desperation comes to drive his decisions and he capitulates to the very choices he found unsavory before, stating, “I had no choice.” Compelled to win, Siward checks his moral restraint at the burning barn door. His descent is rapid and seemingly irreversible.
Acts of violence carried out by both sides after the cessation of open combat seem personal and treacherous. I found myself at times wishing that Siward had fought harder in the opening act, that his victory had been complete and undeniable. But there was no atomic moment at Dunsinane. Instead a battle of wills ensues which Siward cannot win — I found myself wanting the English Lord to step offstage to listen to himself for a moment and see what his actions have wrought.
The Transformative Nature of War
As the play goes on, the Boy Soldier becomes fatigued. He begins to fade, his enthusiasm overcome by frustration that mirrors Siward’s. The land he knew nothing of becomes even more confounding. Even the geography his army once controlled becomes adversarial. The lakes, the ice, the weather, and the mountains — all things the Boy Soldier stood in awe of turn against the English.
The setting down of physical burdens of war is one thing, escaping the moral injuries incurred in the process can be quite another.
Siward and the Boy Soldier set out to find the rebel queen on a mission of redemption. Siward wanders Scotland with the body of Lulach, the queen’s murdered son, hefted on his shoulder in a bloody burlap sack. It is a striking metaphor for the baggage of war. Siward is rendered a mad beggar burdened by the psychological and physical weight of combat. The Boy Soldier serves as his sole protector, the only symbol of the army that Siward brought ashore in the opening act.
Relationships have long turned cold by the time winter seizes the stage. Siward and the rebel queen Gruach shared an intimate and respectful moment earlier in the play. But those days and the hope they offered are long gone. Snow has begun to fall steadily on both the stage and the actors, blanketing them in grief. Frozen tears accumulate on the hills of Scotland and the shoulders of combatants and civilians alike.
By the last act of the play, Siward and the Boy Soldier have switched places. The private has become the general and the general, a private. Siward is overwhelmed by the unknown — he is knowing and not knowing — and the Boy Soldier seems to have accepted his fate, he seems to have found peace and purpose in his own failures. The war destroys the life of the general who lived before the war and defines the life of The Boy Soldier who came of age in it. Their change is palpable and offers us all a glimpse of the transformative experience of war. The setting down of physical burdens of war is one thing, escaping the moral injuries incurred in the process can be quite another.
The war destroys the life of the general who lived before the war and defines the life of The Boy Soldier who came of age in it.
I have often wondered why the war movies of the last decade have not spoken to me. Video has become ubiquitous during my wartime experience. We see everything on a flat screen. Life, death, and struggle appear before us in real time. But on a screen, tears and bloodstains are rendered two dimensional representations of life and when the sound of battle becomes too much we can turn the volume down. Theater changes that. Dunsinane captures the universal and unique experience of war in three dimensions and the rising voices of the actors deliver the emotion and volume when it is needed, not when we want to hear it. Perhaps this is the medium I’ve been waiting for.
Tyrell Mayfield is a U.S. Air Force Political Affairs Strategist. He serves as an Editor for The Strategy Bridge, is a founding member of the Military Writers Guild, and is writing a book about Kabul. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Courtesy of National Theatre of Scotland