The First World War is More Relevant Than You Think

Special Features   The First World War is More Relevant Than You Think According to Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph and his new play Archduke.
Rajiv Joseph
Rajiv Joseph Mark Kitaoka

On the morning of June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo (then and now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina), Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb and south Slav nationalist. The murders precipitated the start of the first World War.

The assassination and the events in Princip’s life that led to it are the subjects of Rajiv Joseph’s new play Archduke, which premieres in April at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. “I was thinking a lot about the state of the world today,” says Joseph, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010 for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, “and I was thinking about 100 years ago. We are right now in the midst of the 100-year anniversary of World War I, and it was the events of the First World War that transformed the century and made it thoroughly entrenched in the 20th.”

If that’s the case, Joseph reasoned, then a century might be a lot like a person—uncertain about who or what it is until it finally comes of age. “And if that’s so,” he says, “we’re about to discover what we are, what the 21st century is. I wondered if writing a play about that particular 1914 moment, the moment that sparked it, would be a way of understanding our own world right now.”

Joseph chose to focus on Princip and his two co-conspirators, members of a group called the Black Hand. “It takes the perspective of these three young men and their journey toward the assassination,” says Joseph, whose Off-Broadway play Guards at the Taj won the Obie Award for Best New American Play and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play in 2016. “The play ends with the assassination. It’s all about the plot and buildup.”

Helming the production is Giovanna Sardelli, the director of new works at California’s TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, with whom Joseph has worked for more than a decade. Last fall, they journeyed to Belgrade and Sarajevo, the locales of the play. “I’ve found that with plays set in other countries, travel there is essential, just to get a sense of the lay of the land,” Joseph says.

Among the ways the play is relevant to our time, he adds, is the idea of terrorist recruitment, “which was an oddly similar experience.”

All three conspirators were diagnosed with tuberculosis, “which at the time was more or less a death sentence,” Joseph says. “That was also a contemporary idea—preying on young boys who had nothing to live for and convincing them that to be martyrs would be the only way to make their lives mean anything.”

The play looks “at the perspective of young men who are confused, uneducated, angry, desperate for meaning in their lives. How all these things contribute to motivating them to engage in a violent act.

“I always thought about the First World War as a long time ago,” Joseph says. “In fact, it really wasn’t.”

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