Frank McGuinness put himself firmly in someone else’s shoes when he wrote Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. The playwright is a proud Catholic Republican, but in this play he immerses himself in the hopes, fears and dreams of the other side: the Protestants.
McGuinness has written a historical play peopled with invented characters. After decades forgotten or reviled, he’s given voices to the young Protestants who volunteered to fight in the 36th (Ulster) Division in World War One. The play begins with Kenneth Pyper, the sole survivor, as an elderly man, haunted by the memories and ghosts of his friends. He speaks to the empty air until he slowly conjures their shapes.
PYPER: I do not understand your insistence on my remembrance. I’m being too mild. I am angry at your demand that I continue to probe. Were you not there in all your dark glory? Have you no conception of the horror? Did it not touch you at all? A passion for horror disgusts me.
The elderly Pyper reaches out for his young self and we are propelled into the past and the day the young men met in their makeshift barracks. Kenneth Pyper is an artist, an upper class boy at war with himself and his ancestors. He appears quite mad and with a certain death wish, and yet he is the only one of the eight to survive the Battle of the Somme.
CRAIG: I’d say you’re a dangerous man in a fight, Kenneth.
PYPER: Would you, David?
CRAIG: I’d say so.
MOORE: How do you fight, Pyper?
Part of what has driven Pyper to enlist is his homosexuality: he cannot be who he is anywhere in the world, so he might as well cease to exist and take out some of the Huns with him. When he falls in love with Craig, a young blacksmith in the regiment, he is given a reason to live and a reason to want out of this mad war. But they’ve enlisted and the army will let none of them go.
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme is a play about war and its terrible waste. We see eight young men fighting for one-upmanship in the first part (which McGuinness has tellingly titled ‘Initiation’), forming close ties on leave after their first stint in battle, and then bonding as a team before their final battle.
The middle section, where they are on leave, shows them fractured by what they’ve seen. Some are falling apart, most are terrified, none want to go back to the battle front. It’s the ties of friendship that keep them going.
MOORE: I’m drenched.
MILLEN: That’s with sweat.
MOORE: Not with muck? Not with flesh? Not with blood?
MILLEN: Just with sweat.
MOORE: I think it’s blood. But it’s not my own. I never saw that much blood, Johnny.
MILLEN: It’s not ours.
MOORE: The whole world is bleeding. Nobody can stop it.
Publisher: Faber and Faber (published in Frank McGuinness: Plays 1)