Let's put it this way: In the course of the diverting evening called "Billy Bishop Goes to War," which opened last night at the Morosco, a young Canadian actor named Eric Peterson grows from a young Richard Barthelmess to an elderly C. Aubrey Smith as, alone on stage except for fellow Canadian John Gray at the piano, he seems to take us through every World War I flying movie from "Hell's Angels" to the remake of "The Dawn Patrol." He doesn't quite get around to singing "Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time," but there is a Lovely Helene and there are repeated references to his beloved Margaret back home. And the whole damned thing happens to be true!
Billy Bishop - not Frank Merriwell, not Dick Rover, not Tom Swift - was the real McCoy, the most decorated ace of World War I, a fellow who shot down 72 Hun flyers, 25 of them in a hurried 10 days in 1918, as compared with our own Eddie Rickenbacker's 26. And he wasn't a particularly good pilot, either; just fast on the trigger, a man with a dead aim and, of course, incredible luck.
Celebrated in his own day, and returned to service as an air vice-marshal in the RCAF during World War II, the "colonial" was largely forgotten until Gray and Peterson dug him up a few years back and put him on stage in this disarmingly jingoistic entertainment that has wound its way from Vancouver to Broadway.
Using little in the way of scenery or props, the uniformed pair (gray wool stockings instead of puttees, though) trace the unlikely career of the bungling trainee at Canada's Royal Military College who, wasting his time as a cavalry officer in England, crawls out of the mud and, with some help from a titled Englishwoman, exchanges his horse for a rickety biplane in a suicidal burst of enthusiasm for the clean air on high.
The interesting thing about the narrative that Gray, who also directed the piece, has constructed is the boyish joy Bishop gradually develops in his kills, toward which he applies the term "beautiful," so that his attitude is not markedly different (though the circumstances certainly were) from that of Mussolini's son who, bombing the Ethiopians, compared the bursts far below to the unfolding petals of a flower. Once war took to the air, it became increasingly, though never pervasively, impersonal.
Peterson, a wiry, sandy-haired actor with a big grin, gives a marvelously animated and accomplished performance as, in addition to playing the fun-loving Bishop, he takes on 16 other parts, including those of his patroness, the imperious Lady St. Helier; King George V, and a French chanteuse. Though Gray, at the piano on which rests a bowl of roses, is necessarily far less noticeable, his narration and songs are vital to the occasion. Especially the songs: though not particularly original or striking, except for a climactic "Empire Soiree" when the honored Bishop is awash in champagne and gaiety, they fit snugly into the period, false rhymes and all. Even a dramatic poem, delivered by Bishop, that Robert W. Service might have felt needed touching up, becomes a highlight of the evening.
Gray has a mike before him, and Peterson occasionally uses one, too, but the show is largely unmiked, even to a good many of the sound effects produced by Bishop as, say, the completely unskilled (except at lying) pilot takes his first solo flight for which Peterson uses a toy model plane with considerable versatility. In this case, the "sound design" (by Robert Kerzman) is exemplary. The only setting, aside from the piano, a few chairs and other minor props, is the front of a hangar, stage rear, the doors opened just once in the second half to give us a head-on view of Billy's plane.
About Margaret: she lives on in Bermuda, Billy having passed away in Palm Beach in 1956. A married daughter lives in Canada. About "Billy Bishop Goes to War": I'm afraid it's fun. Tippling with Kipling, sort of.
There is not a great deal of romance in a nuclear missile. Even the Vietnam War was not one extraordinarly productive of native heroes. Indeed, probably, World War Two was the beginning of heroic anonymity - that common grave of gratitude and remembrance.
In World War One there was a slight difference. There were gladiators in the sky - fighting it out with airplanes, fighting it out in things like cardboard-boxes, or even coffins, in the air, held together with glue, faith and governmental overdrafts. Remember the Wrights' of Kitty Hawk had not flown their experiment until 1903. Its longest flight was 59 seconds. Within twelve or so years later people were just flying as a matter of course, they were even flying as a matter of principles, and blowing one another out of the air in the process.
The fighter pilots of World War One were perhaps the last unique, one-on-one trace of military heroes. And this is precisely what John Gray's extraordinary play Billy Bishop Goes to War, which opened at the Morosco Theater last night, is all about. Billy Bishop was a validated hero, a Canadian who served in Britain's Royal Flying Corps, and became the most decorated pilot in World War One.
In strictly literal terms this is a two-man musical, but to call it such is totally to miss its range, scope and sweetly shabby grandeur. In the first place the two men are most unusual, almost blindingly intense, artists. And their show is the total landscape of a place, a period and a person.
John Gray is the bearded, unobtrusive one who plays the piano, and he also wrote, composed and directed the play, in collaboration with Eric Peterson. Now Peterson is the flashy one, for he plays Billy Bishop. And the two of them are it. They run a tight ship or, if you prefer it, fly a tight aircraft. Certainly they know what they are doing. They are marvelous.
In effect it is the investigation into the life of a man - a comic, unexpected and thoroughly reluctant hero. Billy Bishop is no gung-ho warrior - well certainly not at first. He narrowly escapes being flunked from Canada's Royal Military College, and finally ends up as a cavalry officer in France in 1915. Preferring the blue sky to Flanders mud, he eventually, with great difficulty transferred to Britain's R.F.C.
He was always, it seems, a mediocre pilot. But he had a killer instinct. In that strange gladiatorial combat of dawn patrols and luncheon bereavements, of hunters and hunted, death in the afternoon, and idiotic champagne heroism, Bishop was clearly smaller than fiction but larger than life.
In little more than a year he shot down 72 enemy aircraft. With his sandy mustache, diffident manners and wry humor, he was a one-man blitzkreig. An unintentional but deadly killer, who accepted war as a game. Yet the sensibility of this wild colonial boy remained unruffled. He obviously felt fear with the visceral instinct of an animal, which gave even his craziest heroics a fascination of satire, even of self-mockery.
He knew about survival. Once he returned from a foray with 210 bullet holes in his plane and not a single scratch on his body. Ironically, he died comparatively young, at the age of 62 in Palm Beach. But he died with his flying boots off.
The show has something of the quality of Joan Littlewood's Oh What A Lovely War in its awareness and tone. The music, a mixture of ballad and razzmatazz, is perfectly geared to the subject, as are the lyrics.
There are two wonderful moments you should look out for - one theatrical, the other emotional. The first is when Bishop is going off on a mission impossible, and the hangar doors, that have been so far the immobile background to the show, suddenly open, revealing a replica of a Nieuport bi plane. The other - more significant and the dramatic nub of the piece - comes right at the end.
Billy has become embittered. He now hates Germans, his Huns. He is on a combat mission. He shoots down a German plane. The plane simply disintegrates, and suddenly he is aware of two bodies - people - falling out of chaos and dropping to a death on earth. Billy's abstraction of war is rudely questioned by two young human bodies hurtling to untimely deaths.
At times the play's Canadian defensiveness - Canada is the only country in the world that has an inferiority simplex - grates a little. Yet I did happen to glance at the Encyclopedia Brittanica. There is an entry for William Ball, Britain's top ace, with 43 kills. There is an entry for Eddie Rickenbacker, with 26 kills. But no entry for Billy, with his 72 kills. Maybe Canadians do have to try harder.
Though a perky, grinning, apparently reckless young fellow named Billy Bishop rather quickly became Canada's most celebrated aviator of World War I and indeed, one of the world's most celebrated, with at least 72 enemy planes tumbling away from him to destruction - he would seem to have arrived at this destiny in a most peculiar fashion.
As the new two-man, one-plane evening at the Morosco informs us during its cheeky, amusing and genuinely persuasive beginnings, the unlikely hero of "Billy Bishop Goes to War" got where he did by failing to cheat his way through the Royal Military College ("Well," he acknowledges boyishly, "I handed in the crib notes with the exam papers") by never, never, never becoming a particularly good flyer (the Morosco's program remarks a bit primly that "he was often very careless about His Majesty's aircraft"), and by just happening to be mired deeply in mud on one messy, but historic, day.
The mud is important, as things go during the partly spoken, partly sung saga that John Gray has written and composed for Canadian star Eric Peterson (Mr. Gray also accompanies Mr. Peterson on the piano, boomingly). Mr. Peterson, alias Bishop in this instance, has got himself into the cavalry of 1915 and is, at the moment, having a terrible time with a steed that keeps sinking into bogs. To help free his mount, the rider - who is doing precious little riding - must descend into one such bog with him. It is from there that he sees his first single-motor plane.
It is rising, miraculously, over the crest of a hill. There is nothing to impede it, not a thing to hold it down. No sand, no mud, no filthy, earthly resistance. Staring upward, Mr. Peterson sees what amounts to a revelation. He is looking at something "warm and dry - and free!"
You believe on the instant in his revelation and its logical consequences. As Mr. Gray has written the passage (simply) and as Mr. Peterson acts it out (sans house, sans mire, but with the moral certitude of Joan of Arc), it becomes one of the most tactile arguments for the existence of aircraft I've ever felt tugging me skyward. If we must be lured into believing in Mr. Peterson's sudden determination to turn pilot (or even observer, the chap in the second seat who takes pictures and things like that), this is the way to do it. Sold.
The evening, which originated north of the border and has been brought to Broadway by Mike Nichols and Lewis Allen, has some less exalted moments to record once our aviator is learning, however haphazardly, to be an ace. On his first solo flight, for instance, an ace really oughtn't to make three false stabs at a landing and then flop down into a horrendous pancake, practically at his superior officer's feet. Wrong splash. Wrong spot.
What is right about this funny and semisuspenseful sequence is how actor and director have managed it. It's done with a toy airplane, dipping and banking and approaching solid earth at unthinkable angles. Mr. Peterson manipulates it, providing the narrative as well as the sound of the aircraft's motor, Mr. Gray adds risk and comic overtones on the keyboard, the whole wild flight is brought off with a minimum of mechanical equipment.
Contrast this with a second-act passage in which the rear doors of the stage, pleated to resemble a hangar's, are thrown open to show us what must be a full-scale reproduction of a 1917 fighter, while before it a portion of the floor rises to carry Mr. Peterson upward, cloud-smoke swirling at his heels. Guess which passage is the more effective of the two?
Back to what our ace is gradually learning. He's gone off to battle happily enough, impersonating 15 or 16 other people - in brightly varied vignettes - along the way. In fact, he's first joined his composer-companion in one of the songs they so briskly interpolate: "We were out to find the Hun/ It looked like a lot of fun/ Somehow it didn't seem like war at all, at all, at all." And he still finds it fun to watch a foe's plane explode in midair, spiral downward. But he knows now that explosions are mere lucky shots; you can't hit a gas tank that often. The only way to win every time is to "go for the man." There's something blood-curdlingly complacent in his "I always go for the man."
In fact, it's along about this point that we begin to wonder about our hero, to grow neutral about him. It's clear that he is not an unfeeling man: watching two opponents whose chutes have never opened hit the ground in a free fall, he is sickened, briefly. Yet when he resists being relieved of fighting, he gives his reason plainly: "I like it." At evening's end, he is recruiting, in very conventional rhetoric, for World War II.
Does he have any rationale for himself, for heroism, for killing, for war itself - something to tie his varied responses together? About as close as we get is in a snatch of song: "Remember, war is not a place for deep emotions/ And maybe you'll come out alive." In short, the ace who lives longest is the man who's taught himself not to feel. Kill cool, as it were. Not that the evening ever says that. But by the time we have attended to the first experiments with bombers that tend to behave like "crippled ducks" and the one-man raids on enemy airdromes that lead our hero into philosophizing, we discover we've grown a bit cool - a bit detached - about Billy Bishop himself.
He's not firmly defined, though he does a dozen interesting things before he comes home from war. Some of the interesting things have been done just too often before: a one-man raid that catches the enemy squadron on the ground, for instance. Of course, there's always the honest sense of flight to help us past the repetition. When Billy Bishop realizes that, so long as he is in the ground forces, he is "a casualty in training, and the only way out is up," you understand him and you're with him. It would be a saving grace to understand the Billy Bishop who came down as well.