Life and work of Scots war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley to be remembered in new play

Alexander Knox as Charles Hamilton Sorley in It Is Easy To Be Dead PIC: Scott Rylander
Alexander Knox as Charles Hamilton Sorley in It Is Easy To Be Dead PIC: Scott Rylander
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When Captain Charles Hamilton Sorley was shot dead by a sniper during the Battle of Loos in October 2015, he was just 20 years old. The war itself had begun only 14 months earlier; Sorley’s fellow soldier Wilfred Owen, who would become recognised as the greatest of all Britain’s First World War poets, had yet to enlist in the British army.

Yet although Sorley, who was born in Aberdeen in 1895, had been on the Western Front for only three months, he left behind a body of work that led his contemporary Robert Graves to name him, alongside Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, as one of the three most important British poets to have died in the war. His last and most famous poem, found in his kitbag after his death, begins with the lines:

“When you see millions of the mouthless dead

Across your dreams in pale battalions go

Say not soft things as other men have said….

Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know

It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?

Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.

Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.”

Despite the power of his work, though – and the success of the posthumous collection of his poems which his parents had published in 1916 – Sorley remained a relatively unknown figure until the centenary commemorations began to cast a new light on the First World War, and on those who had recorded it. In 2016 Neil McPherson, artistic director of the Finborough Theatre in London, premiered his own acclaimed play about the life of Sorley, which takes its title, It Is Easy To Be Dead, from that final poem; and now, after acclaimed sell-out runs at the Finborough and at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall, Scottish audiences have their first chance to see it, in a run which began in Aberdeen this week, and continues from tomorrow at Oran Mor in Glasgow.

“I remember when Neil McPherson first showed me this script,” says the show’s producer, Kelso-born composer and writer Bréon Rydell, “and I just thought, ‘This poet is going to change my life’. I think, in the years before that, my own work had been becoming more political; and now here was this Scottish-born poet who really seemed to speak directly to our time, as a prime example of an artist in the front line, the lone voice that sees clearly, and articulates what’s really going on.”

From the outset in 2016, Rydell has been convinced that It Is Easy To be Dead should be seen in Scotland; and to present the play in Aberdeen and Glasgow, he has joined forces with Edinburgh-based cultural movers and shakers Neu Reekie, who have won international fame for their electrifying cultural events bringing together film, music and the spoken word, in venues across Scotland and beyond.

“Michael Pedersen of Neu Reekie is an old associate of mine,” says Rydell, “and it’s important for us, with this play, that we’re reaching out beyond a traditional theatre audience – so we’re delighted to be working with Neu Reekie, and to be appearing at Oran Mor, which is more often seen as a music venue. We just want that 20-year-old voice from 103 years ago to be heard by as many people as possible, and particularly by younger people.”

Nor is the Scottish tour of It Is Easy To Be Dead the only sign that Sorley is beginning to achieve more recognition at last. Last month, the Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan launched his new oratorio All The Hills and Vales Along, a setting of five of Sorley’s poems commissioned by the 14-18 Now arts festival. A plaque commemorating Sorley’s birth was unveiled last week at his family’s Aberdeen home, Powis House, now a community centre; and his face will be one of those drawn in sand on beaches across the UK as part of this weekend’s Pages Of The Sea event, with Sorley specially remembered at Roseisle Beach in Moray. And although Sorley lived most of his short life outside Scotland – his father, William Ritchie Sorley, was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Aberdeen University, and moved on to Cambridge when Sorley was a young child – both Rydell and Pedersen feel that his recognition as one of Scotland’s great poets is long overdue.

“There’s something very distinctive about his tone compared with, say, Rupert Brooke, who was writing at the same time,” says Pedersen, “His poem ‘To Germany’ is really a remarkable piece of writing; Sorley was studying in Germany when the war broke out, and he continued to love the country, and its people, at time when that was almost unthinkable. So there’s a profound humanitarianism there, a deep sense of human kinship, and of seeing the bigger picture.”

Rydell agrees. “If we’re thinking about reasons why he was largely forgotten after the war, I think it lies in the fact that he just wasn’t toeing the government line. He was very advanced, very progressive, very precocious; and he came from this background with a very strong sense of right and wrong. When we performed an extract of It Is Easy To Be Dead in Edinburgh last month, we finished with this reading from ‘To Germany’; and I think it offers a terrific insight into the young man he was, speaking directly to us today.”

“When it is peace, then we may view again

With new-won eyes each other’s truer form

And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm

We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,

When it is peace. But until peace, the storm,

The darkness and the thunder, and the rain.”

It Is Easy To Be Dead, Oran Mor, Glasgow, 11-14 November.