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Tuesday, January 18, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

New adaptation of "Red Badge of Courage" offers a timely look at war

Seattle Times theater critic


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Lathrop Walker plays young Henry Fleming in "The Red Badge of Courage."

"The youth looked at the men nearest him, and saw, for the most part, expressions of deep interest, as if they were investigating something that had fascinated them. One or two stepped with overvaliant airs as if they were already plunged into war. Others walked as upon thin ice. The greater part of the untested men appeared quiet and absorbed. They were going to look at war, the red animal — war, the blood-swollen god."

— From "The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane

Whenever our nation's youth are sent to fight and die on the battlefield, many of us find an extra resonance in the literature of war.

This most obviously applies to the stream of plays, novels and films emerging from the current U.S. war in Iraq — including "Another Day in Baghdad," a new play by Seattle dramatist and Iraq war veteran David Tucker II, slated to debut at North Seattle Community College's Stage One Theatre in February.

But the fascination with combat-zone stories can also encompass tales of wars waged long ago and not-so-far away. Example: a new play based on Stephen Crane's classic Civil War novel, "The Red Badge of Courage," which debuts Friday at Seattle Children's Theatre.

Coming up

"The Red Badge of Courage" opens Friday and runs Fridays-Sundays through March 5, Seattle Children's Theatre, Seattle Center; $14-$28 (206-441-3322 or

No matter that author Joe Sutton (whose play "Magic City" was seen at SCT recently), and SCT artistic director Linda Hartzell embarked on this adaptation long before March 2003, when President Bush ordered American forces to invade Iraq.

Sutton still can't get over the accidental timing. In a recent chat wedged between rehearsals he noted, "I had no idea we'd be in a war now. Between the day Linda and I agreed on doing the show, and when I turned in the first draft, there was this pivotal event that recontextualized the whole idea of American war."

Playwright Joe Sutton adapted the classic book.

Certainly, modern combat has been vastly altered by geopolitical realities and high-tech weaponry. And there's a stark contrast between the 19th-century Civil War that pitted Americans against fellow Americans on their own soil, and an engagement with a foreign enemy half a globe away. But Sutton believes the themes in "Red Badge of Courage" are universal and eternal.

"The duel in this book is between a young boy's impulse to romanticize war when he and his friends aren't being killed and the enemy doesn't have a face, versus his feelings once he finds himself in real combat," the playwright declared.

"And the story isn't really about the Civil War, but war itself. Through one person's consciousness we see a struggle with issues of bravery and fear, the question of when and how one becomes a hero. These are timeless subjects."

Hartzell, who is staging the premiere, concurs. "I think the whole idea of fear, and patriotism, and bravado, and courage — when it's real and truthful, and when it's not — are important things to look at right now."

Unidealized account

Though profound stories of valor and defeat in war go back at least to Homer's "Iliad," Crane's book strongly affected the nature of modern combat fiction.

First printed in condensed form in 1895, "Red Badge" focuses on the shifting perceptions and internal conflicts within Henry Fleming, a naive young Union soldier from rural New York. And Henry's adventures in battle rang so true that many readers of the 19th-century best-seller thought Crane must be a Civil War vet.

They were mistaken. He was born in 1871, six years after Union forces triumphed over the Confederacy. His incisive, vivid depiction of Henry's experiences at the bloody Battle of Chancellorsville in Northern Virginia in 1863 (where there were more than 30,000 casualties) sprang from Crane's imagination, as well as historical accounts and photographs of the battle.

Crane's greatest literary coup, however, was his ability to chart Fleming's fantasies, hopes and terrors, and the boy's psychological maturation from a green, gung-ho boy into a man who sees comrades die, gets wounded himself, and grows capable of genuine bravery, insight and grief.

This naturalistic, unidealized account of war engrossed readers, and other writers too. Joseph Conrad, a shrewd chronicler of violence in his own fiction, named "Red Badge of Courage" as "one of the most enduring memories of my literary life."

Later, critics would credit Crane's seminal grunt's-eye view of war as an influence on such major 20th-century combat novels as Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front," Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," and Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

Adapting a classic

Sutton first read "Red Badge of Courage" in his own youth. He was a Civil War buff who found Crane's novel sobering. "It tempered the romantic infatuation I had with the abstract idea of a war in which hundreds of thousands of people died, in terrible circumstances," he recalled.

Despite his admiration for the book, Sutton took significant liberties with it in his own script — particularly the interior narrative, which is famously difficult to translate to film or stage. "How to dramatize Henry's thoughts? That was my biggest challenge," he noted.

Sutton's solution: to create a character called Old Man to comment on the saga of young Henry (played at SCT by gifted Seattle actor Lathrop Walker).

Hartzell decided to emphasize Crane's universal themes with "a very cinematic approach to the staging, and an abstract, neutral set. I mean, how can we recreate the Civil War on our stage? By doing what theater does best — making you use your imagination."

Sutton, the father of two young sons, "almost burst into tears, I was so moved," when he heard SCT's youthful cast read aloud his script for the first time. And he hopes many young viewers (the show is recommended for kids ages 11 and up) will see the play with parents, as a "catalyst for conversations around the dinner table."

He'd especially like to see veterans, active-duty soldiers and military families attend. "I think it's great it's being done right at this moment," Sutton said.

"We are often so removed from the actuality of war, we don't really comprehend what it is. I just hope that the play will help people be more aware of the sacrifices of those who do the fighting, of how much we ask of them when we send them into battle."

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