Around Remembrance Day, I always make a point of listening to the orginal cast recording of Billy Bishop Goes to War. It’s a suitable observance, because I know of no other piece of writing that covers so many different reactions to combat.
If you’re not Canadian, you’ve probably never heard of Billy Bishop Goes to War, but it’s one of the most-performed Canadian plays of the last forty years. Originally written and performed in 1978 by John Gray and Eric Peterson, it’s a one man show (or one plus a piano player) about how William Avery Bishop from the small town of Owen Sound, Ontario went from being a perennial screwup to one of the leading flying aces in World War One. Revised several times since its first performance, the play draws heavily on Bishop’s own autobiography, as well as many of the jokes and traditions of the war. During the course of the play, the actor playing Bishop also plays over a dozen other characters, ranging from a female torch singer and a drunken cavalry officer in a bar to Alderman Lady St. Helier and George V, usually with a minimum of props, making the role unusually demanding.
The main character and setting are especially suitable for an exploration of Canadian nationalism. To several generations of Canadians, World War One was the moment when Canada established its own identity, as its recruits on the ground soon proved among the most effective of the Commonwealth troops, rivaled only by the Australians. Its fighter pilots were equally effective, with more Allied aces coming from Canada than any other country. In some places, the play celebrates this fact, with the peak of Bishop’s success being that “nobody asks me where I’m from / They’re happy for the men I’ve killed.”
However, what makes the play so effective is that, while it sets off to explore the subject of war, it never takes sides. Instead, it sets out to express all the various emotions with which soldiers face combat, beginning with the naivety of the new recruits suggested by the title, and moving quickly through disillusionment to the mixed pride and misgivings about becoming a survivor and a hero, and, finally, a has-been not much different from the clueless superior officers that the main character once despised.
Even the glory is qualified. True, at the height of his success, Bishop may crow, “Number One is a hero / Number One’s the hottest thing in town” as he is feted by London society. But the play undercuts such celebrations with other moments in which Bishop admits that he is “scared shitless.” Similarly, while Bishop sings about aerial combat being like a meeting of chivalric knights, he also mentions chilling moments when the death of an enemy unnerves him.
Nor, as he becomes famous, is he ever far away from the knowledge that the reward of winning a dogfight is only to “get a little older” – to push aside the inevitability of death for a short time before he faces it again. He is always facing the paradoxes that “the only way to learn survival is to survive” and that most of the emotions with which soldiers face war – religion, cowardice, hate – do nothing to help survival and may, in fact, prevent it. Instead, the key is a dehumanizing detachment, a cold determination to take whatever advantage available that Bishop is proud of at the same time as realizes that his fiancée at home would hardly understand it.
As with the individual, so with the big picture. The celebration of the king awarding him three medals on the same day is undercut by “The Empire Soirée,” which hints at the coming collapse of the British Empire. “The birth and death of nations, of civilizations / Can be viewed down the barrel of the gun,” the song suggests, and everyone is helpless to break the pattern: “All you and I can do is put on our dancing shoes / And wait for the next one to begin.”
In the play’s last moments, the story leaps forward twenty years to Bishop as a recruiter in World War Two, faintly surprised that the War to End Wars has been followed by another one. “But I guess we’re none of us in control of all of this,” he mutters into his drink, and the only summary he can muster is, “looking back, all I can say is that it was one hell of a time.”
In the introduction to the published version of the play, Gray suggests that this ambiguity is, in itself, typically Canadian. He talks about the bemusement of American audiences who expected the play to be either definitely pro or anti war, adding that as a Canadian who tends to gets lost in the complexities, such attitudes confound him.
That may be so, and as a Canadian, maybe I share Gray’s attitude. But what American audiences might find puzzling, I find a virtue. I am far more likely to fall into the anti-war camp than the pro one, but what I appreciate is that Billy Bishop cheats neither. Sentiments on both sides are taken into account, and, although no conclusions are reached, the result seems to me the kind of truth that is rarely expressed. It may not be a conclusion that is intellectually satisfying, but it seems accurate in a way that most literature about war fails to manage. The fact that it manages to do so with broad swipes of humor while being perennially popular only makes the play that much more of an accomplishment.
At a time when Remembrance Day is used by some to drum up support for military adventures on the one hand and for demands for peace on the other hand, I can appreciate a piece that does justice to all perspectives on war. If Remembrance Day is supposed to be a time for looking back at what soldiers have done and acknowledging what they still do, I find it only fitting that I try to do so with some accuracy – and Billy Bishop Goes to War helps me to do that.