Every day our screens bring us face to face with the horrors of war and death. Whether it is senseless terrorism, acts of war and threats of global catastrophe, we face the violence, shudder, then turn back to the quotidian task and the mundane duties of the day.

A new play by well known Catholic writer Joseph Pearce helps us make sense of the horror of war and violence through the poems of Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon.

Playing now at the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre in New York, Pearce’s play Death Comes to the War Poets weaves the poetry of Sassoon and Owen together with that of T.S.Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Rupert Brooke, G.M.Hopkins, and Pearce’s text.

Siegfried Sassoon was the product of an aristocratic English family and served heroically in the first World War.  

The initial jingoistic poetry that the war produced soon turned bitter as the true horrors and absurdity of trench warfare were faced.

Sassoon became an outspoken critic of the war and mentored Wilfred Owen who was also writing bitterly critical verse from the depth of the trenches. The two corresponded and met once before Owen’s return to the battlefield where he was killed just a few days before the end of the war.

The poetic play is Pearce’s debut as a playwright. With biographies of Tolkien, Solzheitsyn, Chesterton and many others under his belt, this verse drama is a natural next step for Pearce.

Pearce says his drama asks whether one can find hope in the midst of the horrors of war and what light one might find in the face of death. Pearce’s play, however, also grapples with other themes that trouble modern man.

Historians see the first World War as the first truly modern war. The slaughter was immense and the carnage shocking. For the first time the killing machines were used with brutal, cold efficiency, and as they were, they ushered in the machine age.

The dehumanizing effects of technology and the fierce utilitarianism of our technological generation is also attacked in the play.

Siegried Sassoon survived the war and was eventually received into the Catholic Church. He therefore also witnessed the horrors of the second world war and the frightening advance of the atomic age. In his Litany of the Lost, published in 1945 Sassoon wrote,

In breaking of belief in human good;

In slavedom of mankind to the machine;

In havoc of hideous tyranny withstood,

And terror of atomic doom foreseen;

Deliver us from ourselves.

Chained to the wheel of progress uncontrolled;

World masters with a foolish frightened face;

Loud speakers, leaderless and sceptic-souled;

Aeroplane angels, crashed from glory and grace;

Deliver us from ourselves.

In blood and bone contentiousness of nations,

And commerce’s competitive re-start,

Armed with our marvellous monkey innovations,

And unregenerate still in head and heart;

Deliver us from ourselves.

In our fast moving multi media age some lament the loss of Catholic cultural influence. There are, however, an increasing number of new voices. Catholic poets, novelists, film directors, playwrights and authors of science fiction and fantasy are finding ways to publish, produce and promote their works through the new media.

This new off Broadway play is a good example of a small scale production which brings together a strong Catholic writer with a professional production team. Blackfriars Repertory Theatre is an apostolate of the Dominican Friars of the Province of Saint Joseph.

It was founded in 1998 by Father Peter John Cameron, O.P. as a revival of Blackfriars Theatre (1940-1972) – the first professional religious theatre ever tried in New York City and the oldest continuous Off-Broadway theatre in American stage history.

Like the original theater, Blackfriars Rep produces “plays of artistic merit that reflect the spiritual nature of man and his eternal destiny.” In its nineteen years of existence, Blackfriars Repertory Theatre has staged over twenty-five productions in New York City, regionally, and on tour in its commitment to “theatre dedicated to the human drama.”

Death Comes to the War Poets closes on June 24. Tickets are available here.