The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

The pity of war

There are many echoes of Leonard Cohen’s song from the moment Bridh is seen with cropped hair swimming wearing a lace-trimmed chemise.

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah1

So sings Leonard Cohen and in her play Sharman Macdonald takes up the theme of how friendships are formed and break apart because of the violence of war and how some believe in the unbroken Hallelujah and others reject their God.

Broken Hallelujah is set in Petersburg during the American civil war. In the lull between fighting two scenes are acted out. There is the sordid dugout beyond the outer defences of a besieged town where Yankee soldiers cook some top quality bacon they have acquired. Away from the dugout the action moves from a yard in the town to the river, bringing together two girls who are also looking for bacon, a down-the-line prostitute, the Confederate sniper Rowatt and Hosgood.

I started writing my play because I thought it behoves us to know something about modern America and they say modern America was forged in the civil war. I don’t think there is a parallel to that war anywhere else. The play cannot be presented as if it were not in that specific time and place but I hope it transcends the specific. It has to work on its own terms so if an audience thinks it’s only about the American civil war that’s fine by me. If they care to think about Iraq, for example, then that’s also fine. However, any production has to be faithful to the word on the page.

In the dugout Hosgood is nonchalant about snipers. ‘Gone, see. No southern trash planter slave-owning son of a whoring bitch sniper. Gone.’ Sadly, he speaks too soon. Before the first scene is over he has acted out of a mixture of bravado and boredom and put his head over the parapet to be shot by a sniper.

When we return to the trench the dynamics have changed. Hosgood has gone and Stewart is cooking the bacon watched by Hancock. The talk meanders along touching on the changes in society, the loss of faith, the progress of the war, the emancipation of women, death and, above all, food.

There are clear parallels between the two soldiers and the two girls. Stewart has rejected God. Goodness doesn’t mean anything to him. When a man’s dead he’s dead. This Hancock counts as blasphemy. Lauren, for her part, isn’t the least scared of the Almighty. She does not see the Almighty making her brother better and she refuses to pray. Maureen, on the other hand, believes the rebel cause is sacred to God.

I decided to choose a time in the siege when nothing is happening. It’s boredom that leads soldiers into danger. It can lead to annihilation. It leads to two deaths in this play. The girls are thirteen and fourteen and the soldiers are not much older. That was the awful thing. They were so young. Some of the drummer boys were only twelve when they died.

There are many echoes of Leonard Cohen’s song from the moment Bridh is seen with cropped hair, swimming, wearing a lace-trimmed chemise.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof

This is probably the first time the characters have come face to face with the enemy. There is confusion about whether prisoners should be taken or a temporary truce declared. The situation is complicated by two things: Hosgood is dying and Rowatt is the sniper who has shot him. Rowatt is rational and single-minded. He knows the war is not about the right to own slaves. There is no viability in slavery. He is fighting out of a sense of injustice. ‘You dictate to us…You don’t just fight. You burn and you steal…I don’t see by what right you do that.’ He is a contradiction in that he is prepared to help Hosgood as he is dying and yet he has no qualms at all about shooting another Yankee soldier.

I love Rowatt. He’s a strong man, the wisest in the play and the one who commits the greatest sin. I use that word in a non-religious context. He’s a sniper. It’s the only thing he can do and he knows it’s a sin. He is a good man and I am fascinated by how a good man can do an awful act, how he can be diverted from the path along the way. Rowatt is one of those - very intelligent and able to express himself beautifully but a killer.

Rowatt is a killer but he will not kill a woman even though Bridh is a Yankee and a prostitute. It is doubtful if Maureen and Lauren know what Bridh is doing there. They are inexperienced although Maureen has ventured down the path with Jem Matthenson. She is no longer lily white. She had let Jem kiss her and touch her but she has no regrets and no guilt. ‘It was a sweet moment Lauren Maeve and I’m not going to indulge in the kind of gossip that will sour its memory,’ Perhaps it is this fleeting pleasure that makes her fear the war will end when there are only women left.

Hancock sees women-kind as wantons. A woman has an appetite that has to be sated. Maybe. But the wanton in the play, Bridh, is very secure in her sexuality and self-belief. She knows that slaves, soldiers and whores are not their own people. But on this day she is bathed and washed clean, a new woman, as good as anyone and she whispers a proposition to the dying Hosgood. Maureen can see that Bridh may be cutting Hosgood with a knife but she is also touching him with her very heart.

In a cathedral of green, without the blessing of a preacher and with a ring made of grass, Bridh pledges herself to Hosgood. She kisses him and sits there with his head cushioned on her lap. ‘Sweet dreams,’ she murmurs. She hears a shot. That is the pity of war.

1Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah on Various Positions 1985