Stoppard's "Heroes' at the Lantern (1st review)

Take that, Godot! Or: Band of brothers, refusing to go gently

Whyte, DeLaurier, Kern: Will the dog move?
Whyte, DeLaurier, Kern: Will the dog move?

In the mid-20th Century, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot argued that life is absurd but suicide is no solution; there is only waiting. Some 60 years later, Le Vent des Peupliers ("The Wind in the Poplars") by Gérald Sibleyras offers a new twist on Godot: Even in a world without purpose, heroics are possible.

In Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Sibleyras, the heroes of Heroes are three World War I veterans living in a military retirement home in 1959. The country is France, but it's really a play that transcends national boundaries. The border it explores is that between life and death.

The characters' heroics initially seem to be their battle experiences. Gustave (Dan Kern) served courageously in combat, while Henri (Peter DeLaurier) and Philippe (Mal Whyte) suffered major physical wounds.

That was the extent of the excitement in their lives. Now they while their days away on a patio— reminiscing; squabbling; denigrating their fellow residents, the staff, and women in general; and arguing over such issues as whether a concrete dog on the terrace is actually moving or not. (They're crazy for debating the point, but are not redeemed when the dog does move.)

Harsh setting

Sibleyras/Stoppard succeed in conveying the monotony of it all through comedy, genuine feeling and pathos. The actors— a cranky, kind, appalled, tolerant, foolish, yet never malicious band of brothers— are central in pulling these strands together.

The patio, perceptively designed by Nick Embree, is a harsh setting, with a slate floor and a marble bench that resembles a sarcophagus, softened only by a trellis with rosebushes entwined. At center stage are two shorn marble pedestals, where statues of heroes would be placed if genuine heroes existed. Merely pressing on, or passing the time, is not heroic, the play suggests.

In a magnificent touch, weeds creep from the base of these plinths, signaling nature in its humblest form, where the slightest amount of dirt and water are sufficient to sustain life.

Echoes of Rosencrantz

The three vets are not so lucky. Off in the distance, beyond the cemetery, stand the poplars of the French title. Breezes that never reach the patio keep the trees in "a sort of perpetual motion," says Gustave, who watches them constantly: "Stately," he observes with pleasure, "but supple, bending before the wind."

"Unlike us," notes Philippe.

Heroes doesn't plumb the philosophical depths of Godot, or even of Stoppard's own, Godot-indebted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, whose characters can't interpret the randomness of the universe yet become its victims nevertheless. Even suicide is no option; as Godot's Estragon puts it, "Don't let's do anything. It's safer."

Heroes veers in a more life-affirming direction, but not at first. When a resident commits suicide the day after the institution throws him an 85th birthday party, it represents the triumph of despair.

Escape plan

But the three vets refuse to surrender to the twilight of life that the retirement home represents. Instead, they dare to arrange an adventure: an excursion to the poplars. It's cast as an act of escape from the little tyrannies of their regimented lives and the larger tyranny of old age.

The destination is beyond the cemetery, which they will bypass in favor of the poplars, thus avoiding the cold, lonely sort of death that, for instance, the 85-year-old experienced. The poplars, like the cemetery, represent death; but when camaraderie is the means of arriving there, it's not to be feared, nor is it a cold, lonely end. It's an end that puts them in "perpetual motion" with nature.

The vets prepare for their journey the only way they know how: by turning it into a military campaign, complete with a map for reconnaissance, provisions for sustenance and blankets for the chilly nights. They decide they'll need a rope to tie themselves safely together in the rougher passages. This gambit recalls— and rejects— Godot's leash-as-noose and so serves as a goodbye to Beckett's world-vision. They will be banded brothers.

In lieu of a rope, they can only find a garden hose. With all their baggage and aged ineptitude, it looks doubtful that they'll ever take off. But these guys are veterans, after all. (Stoppard preferred Veterans as a title, incidentally, but another play claimed it). They'll find a way.♦

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.