Bringing the work of WW1 poet Charles Hamilton Sorley home to Scotland

Alexander Knox as Charlie. (Photo: Scott Rylander)
Alexander Knox as Charlie. (Photo: Scott Rylander)

In this centenary year of the end of World War 1, writer and producer, Bréon Rydell, has been determined that the life and work of WW1 Scottish poet, Charles Hamilton Sorley will not be forgotten.

It Is Easy To Be Dead, Neil McPherson’s beautifully written and significant play opens at The Tivoli, Aberdeen on Tuesday, November 6.

The title of the play is taken from Sorley’s last poem, written shortly before his death and found in his military kit. 

In this poem, he expresses his feelings about the stark reality of death and the futility of weeping for the fallen soldiers. 

As he explains: “these ghosts are but shadows of the men they once were; our tears and words mean nothing to them. Give them not praise.  For deaf, how should they know. Is it 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.”

Sorley’s voice is much needed today, he was a humanitarian, who spoke truth to power and as playwright Neil McPherson said: “At first glance, Charles Sorley might seem to fit the stereotype of the gallant young public schoolboy officer pointlessly killed in action. But the full story is a little different. Sorley was very aware of his privilege; he nearly left school early to become a social worker; he was an outsider; he lived and studied in Germany directly before the war; and, crucially and intuitively, understood the horror and pity of war long before anyone else.

“This was a teenager who was writing “I should like so much to kill whoever was primarily responsible for the war’ when most of his contemporaries, most famously Rupert Brooke, were still in the rapturous early stages of sacrificial patriotism.”

Poets like John Masefield, called Sorley ‘potentially the greatest poet lost to us in that war’, and Robert Graves thought him ‘one of the three poets of importance killed in the war whose death was a major loss.’

Rydell feels the time is long overdue for the literary talent of this WW1 poet to be more widely recognised.

Sorley was born in Aberdeen in 1895 and studying in Germany when the First World War broke out and was briefly imprisoned as an enemy alien. 

He was one of the first to enlist in 1914. Killed in action a year later at the Battle of Loos, aged 20, Sorley’s poems and letters are among the most ambivalent, profound and moving war literature ever written. 

His life and writings remain one of the great-undiscovered stories of WW1.

It Is Easy To Be Dead is a historical drama that is both inspiring and heart-breaking.

It tells the story of the poet’s life through his letters and poetry with music and songs from some of the greatest composers of the period. 

It is a powerful and evocative play set against the backdrop of Germany just before the outbreak of World War 1 and recounts the experiences of young Charles Sorley, who fell in love with Germany and its culture during a gap year.

The original stellar cast will recreate the play and includes Alexander Knox in the title role Charlie, Jenny Lee (Janet), Tom Marshall (William), Hugh Benson (singer) and Elizabeth Rossiter (Pianist and Musical Director) and the director is Max Key.

Rydell’s passion comes across clearly and in his own words.

He said: “Everyone agreed that I must produce this play in Scotland. There was never any doubt in my own mind that I wanted to bring Sorley home to Aberdeen – his birthplace.

“In an increasingly fragmented world, it is a play that inspires rather than divides.  Mounting the play in his native land will ensure that Sorley, one of Scotland’s unsung heroes, is at last being recognised by his country.”

It Is Easy To Be Dead is The Tivoli Theatre from November 6-7 at 7.30pm. Visit the Tivoli Theatre website for details and tickets.