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Looking at the trauma of war through the mind of a wounded soldier

‘Johnny Got His Gun’, a compelling performance based on Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war novel, shows the consequences of war through the haunted mind of a soldier

A still from 'Johnny Got His Gun' ©Ilkka Saastamoinen

By Jennifer Kishan

LAST PUBLISHED 20.02.2024  |  01:00 PM IST

In a cold hospital room, Joe Bonham, a 19-year-old soldier, wakes up to his horrific physical reality—his mangled body, trapped without limbs or the use of his eyes, ears, and mouth, placed on a stretcher. With an electric guitar, which acts as a headrest, he taps his head on the guitar strings in what we later find out to be morse code. What does he want to say?

Johnny Got His Gun is a riveting performance by Helsinki-based theatre artists—Johannes Holopainen, Essi Rossi and Pauli Riikonen—who are currently on an India tour. The theatrical work has been adapted from American novelist Dalton Trumbo’s acclaimed 1939 anti-war novel by the same name, which posed compelling questions on the necessity of war and the paradox of ‘fighting for peace’: What is peace that is gained by violence? What values are we upholding if we have to kill to defend them­? Can wars be fought for others?

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The book is a powerful portrayal of the consequences of war through the lens of a severely wounded soldier. It was banned during World War II due to its highly provocative content, and surged into prominence during the anti-war movement around Vietnam. “I came across Trumbo’s book on my parents’ bookshelf when I was 16 and was absolutely struck by it. Since then, I have always wanted to bring this to stage," says Rossi, who has directed the play.

But bringing this highly cerebral work to stage was challenging. One of the core challenges while making Johnny Got His Gun was to develop a script for a character, who has no way to communicate. Rossi had to wait another sixteen years before she could find the tools to do that. In 2013, she met Riikonen and Holopainen while studying theatre at the Academy of Fine Arts in the University of Helsinki, when she finally brought her idea to fruition. The trio collaborated to produce this piece in 2015. “We just celebrated 9 years of Johnny Got His Gun right before we started our India tour," she says.

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The book follows the protagonist for several years till he figures out a way to reach the world outside through morse code. “We, however, decided to focus on that moment when he first makes contact with the world," adds Rossi.

This bridged the gap between the audience and Joe. In his mind Joe is free—he has limbs, he can speak, he can tell his own story of the war. “By giving him a voice and the use of his limbs we were able to explore his dreams and memories that are imprisoned in his head," she elaborates.

Holopainen, the solo performer of Johnny Got His Gun, acts as a window between the audience and Joe’s haunted mind— he delivers a smattering of poignant monologues and enacts Joe’s flashbacks from his childhood and youth, and hallucinations from the battlefield. 

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“Joe has much to say—he is disillusioned by the war and he questions everything he has been taught about it" says Holopainen about the show. “In his head he wrestles with a hundred reasons that have been fed to him to take up arms—liberty, democracy, the right to defend oneself against ‘the other’."

Holopainen’s rich monologues are supported by powerful soundscapes. The sixty-minute show is punctuated with sounds from actual wars, iconic speeches by world leaders, and a constant refrain for Joe to take up arms. 

Sound designer Riikonen has included a spate of references from war history and popular culture to make the audience connect with the character. “We have taken Joe out of his hospital bed in 1939 and brought him into the 21st century. The idea is to not just to support Joe’s inner dialogue but also draw the audience’s attention to what is going on around them," he says. 

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It’s sort of a collage of sounds that evoke images from the war—sounds from the trenches, lines from Hollywood, and war propaganda. There are well-known public speeches as well—from former US President George Bush’s declaration on war against terror, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s speech on the Faulkner Islands, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s on Ukraine. “The strength of these soundscapes is that everyone has some association with them," he says.

In the last nine years, the Helsinki trio have been regularly updating the work with changing world politics. “We want Joe to be a testimony of not just one war but of all the wars that are happening or will happen in the future," says Rossi. “When we first made the piece, it was on the idea of pacifism as the war was a distant memory". But today Finland stands at the juncture of war owing to its shared borders with Russia. 

“In Finland, our parents are the last generation to face the consequences of war," says Rossi. “Suddenly in the last few years the war in Ukraine has entered our living-room conversations again—the question of going to war to defend ourselves is back on the table." 

The performance was a part of Edinburgh Fringe 2022 where it received huge audiences, given the new context of war in Europe. 

In a world that is increasingly belligerent and polarised on the issues of war, the show has become even more pertinent today. “Maybe a few years ago it was easier to change the channel. But today these conversations have entered our homes and screens and you cannot mute them out," says Rossi, adding that their latest shows include reference to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Johnny Got His Gun’s India tour has been initiated and produced by Pickle Factory Dance Foundation, with the participation of the Embassy of Finland in India. The Institut Francais in New Delhi is hosting the show on 20 February 

Jennifer Kishan is an independent culture writer.