In 1916 the physician-superintendent of Edinburgh Asylum claimed that the First World War “did not appear to have increased the amount of insanity”. His colleague at Glasgow Asylum went further: the “abundance of occupation…[and] absorbing interest in the national crisis…had thus increased and not diminished the mental stability and general health of the nation”.
A new stage adaptation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy about the treatment of “war neurosis”, or post-traumatic stress disorder, among officers at Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart Military Hospital gives the lie to this.
Nicholas Wright’s drama uses scenes involving pairs of characters to develop three relationships: between war poets Siegfried Sassoon, institutionalised to undermine his public disapproval of the war, and Wilfred Owen; Sassoon and army psychiatrist WHR Rivers, tasked with returning shell-shocked officers to the trenches; and Rivers and Billy Prior, a fictional working class officer.
While the play depicts the buttoned-up behaviour of the officer class and the pressure to display “strong moral fibre”, Rivers’ use of new psychoanalytic approaches which encourage patients to let out their emotions enables the dramatisation of psychological trauma. Shell-shock is represented through bursts of blackout, gunfire and strobing lights.
And the presence of Prior introduces a class contrast. Prior has been rendered mute and the point is explicitly made that this reaction, uncommon among officers, is rife among working class soldiers because of the risks they run if they speak out. While officers maintain military codes of conduct in the hospital, play golf, stick to male company, Prior rejects full uniform and goes out with a local munitions girl.
Through Sassoon, Regeneration dramatises the strain of bearing responsibility for sending men to their slaughter. When Rivers visits another hospital to witness electroshock “therapy” we get a look at the brutal treatment meted out to the men they command. My own grandfather was incarcerated in Edinburgh Asylum as a “pauper lunatic” — the term used on the official forms printed by the very firm he worked for as a machineman printer before he signed up.
Though not necessarily anti-war, Regeneration is an antidote to jingoism. Psychological damage to combatants clearly has contemporary relevance. Warm humanity is evoked both through the relationships and Sassoon’s and Owen’s poetry.
This is good mainstream theatre and that’s not to be sniffed at. But like many other recent popular history plays its conventional, realistic form and linear structure mean it is not challenging.
An understanding of history is vital for socialists, and the present can see itself in the past, but as playwright Sarah Kane said, “all good art is subversive, in either form or content. And the best art is subversive in form and content.”