A Word In Edgewise: War Horse, War Horses, and a Thought About Pride


While considering our close connections to all the other creatures on planet Earth, I realized that War Horse, the Tony Award-winning play opening this week at the Orpheum, offers a splendid dramatic example of this interconnectedness.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s book, War Horse recounts the mutual love of young Albert and the family’s horse, Joey. Come 1914, and Joey (along with a million other horses) is bought by the British cavalry and shipped to France into battle. Albert, too young to fight, sets out to find Joey.

Those who’ve seen both Stephen Spielberg’s film and the play–in London or New York–have reported that Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones’s Handspring Puppet Company’s creations are more compelling than the live horses. (Joey visited the Twin Cities some months ago at the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s upcoming season preview; the moment he pranced forth life-sized and bowing in the spotlight, the audience erupted in cheers of wonder and amazement.)

Like the play’s other horses, Joey is fashioned from cane, a natural material that is light, pliable and terrifically strong. This openwork, ribbed body becomes a living entity in the eye of the beholder, internalizing his human “handlers.” Kohler and Jones studied Eadweard Muybridge’s 1870’s equine locomotion photographs and spent hours observing live animals to get physically, mentally, and emotionally inside a horse. The mechanism controlling Joey’s ears alone is able to express a wide range of his emotions.

Empathy is the key: To make the puppets required not only incredible technical skills, but also the creators’ belief that living animals have emotions in the first place; not anthropomorphizing, but simply acknowledging that animals–horses being only one among countless others–are cognizant.

Kohler and Jones, business and life partners for over 40 years, have an intuitive understanding of human/animal bonds and through their craft created a stunning sentient creature through whose eyes the audience views the horrors of French and German battlefields.

Remembering this connection between living things, let us approach Pride not just proud of our sexual preference or gender, but proud of how we live our lives embracing these aspects; proud to stand up for ourselves, for our loved ones and for others who need love, compassion, and protection whether human or animal.

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