Canada has twice come visiting on Broadway on recent evenings. "Of the Fields, Lately," although it folded quickly, effectively depicted a Toronto family. Even more notably, "Billy Bishop Goes to War" commemorates the World War I flying ace in a stage piece that brilliantly mingles biography and song.
"Billy Bishop Goes to War" is a soaring accomplishment of theatrical make-believe. A tour de force for Eric Peterson in the title role, the new entertainment at the Morosco Theater owes its success equally to John Gray, the collaborator credited with text, music, and direction. Together, they have told the story of a real-life war hero who, after an ignominious start, came to glory by shooting down 72 German aircraft, 25 of them in a 10-day stretch in 1918. (Eddie Rickenbacker, the American ace, is credited with 26 victories.)
In the present re-enactment, Billy's scapegrace behavior and unillusioned realism emerge in a largely humorous, first-person account of how the young Canadian survived an unenviable trainee performance to become a junior officer in the Canadian Cavalry. Mounted and mired one day in the mud of Flanders, he watches with fascination the unfettered course of an airplane in flight. Getting himself transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as an observer, Bishop ultimately earns his wings. Though an indifferent and somewhat careless pilot, he becomes a relentless killer, explaining that his law of survival is to shoot first and "always aim for the man." Except for one harrowing experience, these duels-to- the-death were not matters for remorse or deep emotion. They were all in the day's business.
"Billy Bishop Goes to War" achieves its own depths and insights by indirection, by its ironies, and by the manner of portraying its antiheroic hero. Billy's reminiscences are for the most part jauntily iconoclastic, and they are so delivered by Mr. Peterson in an extraordinary performance. Nobody is more surprised than the central figure at his rise to heroism. It is as if the ineptness of the military system rewards ineptitude. Billy's most winning characteristics are his humorous honesty and his insouciant lack of awe for authority.
In the course of his solo performance, the slightly built Peterson portrays a large number of incidental characters. They range from vignettes to such pivotal personages as an Alastair Sim-ish British general and an Alec Guinness lady aristocrat. The actor also produces a cacophony of sound effects, from airplane motor exhausts to the explosion of shells. As for his flight simulations with only a model plane, it would be difficult to imagine anything more graphic outside a Link trainer. As pianist and one-man chorus, Mr. Gray joins his partner in song and helps out with the sound effects. They form a numerous company. The impressive production receives strong visual assists from David Gropman's scenery and Jennifer Tipton's lighting.
In the denouement of "Billy Bishop goes to War," the World War I ace is recalled to service as an air vice-marshal in the Royal Canadian Air Force when Canada joins the war against Nazism. His pat little speech to the troops enables Messrs. Gray and Peterson to add a final note of irony to their witty, fundamentally antiwar play. Emotions may not run deep but, like the saber of which Billy sings, there is no mistaking the play's cutting edge. And there is equally no mistaking the theatrical achievement of these two young Canadians.