Tuesday, April 6, 2021

LENNOX ROBINSON’S THE BIG HOUSE “Four scenes in its life”


This play keeps marinating in my mind. The more I think about The Big House, the more I comprehend the after-effects World War One had on Ireland and the Irish people.  Thus, it has taken me longer than normal to seat myself in front of the computer to write this post. The Big House was written in 1926 by Lennox Robinson (1886-1958). Robinson was an established Irish playwright, who also served twice as Manager of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (1910-14 and 1919-23). 

                                                                 LENNOX ROBINSON

The title The Big House refers to the grand country homes that had been built and owned for several centuries by Englishmen who often lived on the income their Irish estates afforded them. These families educated their sons in England, practiced Protestantism and married their children to English citizens. There was little attempt by these landowners to treat the Irish men and women, who paid rent to live on their property and to work the land for their landlord’s profit as anything other than servants. Robinson’s story is about a big house in County Cork named Ballydonal House and the playwright immediately informs the reader that the play represents: “Four scenes in its life.”

Scene I. The large drawing-room at Ballydonal House. It is a November morning in 1918, about 10:30 A.M. It is the day the Armistice is to be proclaimed at 11AM. Captain Despard (English) is visiting the Alcock family and he is in love with Kate Alcock. Her brother Ulick is Despard’s best friend. Kate admires Ulick because he cares about the house and property as she does. She plans to work with him when he returns from the war to restore the house and make the land more profitable.  As peace is declared, the Alcock family learn that Ulick was killed in battle three days ago.

Scene II. Dining-room at Ballydonal House. A June evening, 1921. The scene is set in the Dining Room and dinner has concluded. Mr. & Mrs. Alcock are sitting at the table dressed in formal attire.  She is talking about talking a trip.  He will not go anywhere since he is waiting till he is put out of his home or his house is burned down. The Alcocks have very little financial resources since his ancestors sold most of the valuables in the house over the past centuries. Alcock has no income since the Irish tenants stopped paying their rent. Kate arrives pale and upset. Kate speaks of being an outsider in Ireland. She wants to be accepted, since she has known these Irish people all her life.  She believes the problem is based on the thinking that is always “Them” and “Us.” Captain Despard arrives to talk with Kate. Currently he is assigned by the British government to the Auxiliaries, a counter-insurgency unit, until the “Black and Tans” arrive in this area. He never desired to return to civilian life after his service in WWI. ouse. Nov\.   

Scene III. A February night, 1923.  Same room as previous scene but room is somewhat changed. The mail has arrived and there are two letters from Kate who is living and working in London. Unexpectedly, Kate arrives home and she plans to stay. She was “too blatantly Irish” for the Londoners. Kate’s parents reveal that they are broke. They have received no rents for three years. Three Irish men in trench coats enter and tell the family that they have five minutes to leave the house before Ballydonal House is blown up and burned. The family leaves and the Leader tells his men to place the mines where Annie (the maid) showed them.

Scene IV. A corner of the garden early the next morning before sunrise. The cold light grows brighter as the scene progresses. The corner of a summerhouse can also be seen.  Reverend Brown and Atkins, the butler, enter carrying a sofa. The family is in the coach-house. Everything in the Library was lost to the fire, but some other items were saved.  Mr. Alcock is relieved the fire has taken care of his problems and stress. Mrs. Alcock has it all planned that the family will go to Bournemouth, England where she will be happy. Kate will go with her parents to get them settled and then she plans to return to Ballydonal. Kate believes: “Ireland is not more theirs than ours.”  The car arrives and as the family begin to leave, Atkins calls Miss Kate back.  He claims to have seen Master Ulick in the summerhouse.

This play is a major display of the characters’ attitudes (Them and Us) that helps provide some understanding of the issues relating to Ireland’s struggle for independence. Robinson also portrayed many of the circumstances faced by the Ascendancy families who had lived in Ireland for centuries.

However, equally significant is some knowledge regarding the circumstances and relationship between England and Ireland following World War One. This political background is necessary to appreciate The Big House more fully. I selected several of the historic points that are helpful.

1.      Home Rule/Irish self-government was promised in 1912 by the British Liberal Government, but it was never implemented. The British promise was never an acceptable idea by an Irish political group who became known as the Ulster Volunteer Force. By 1914 when WWI started, Ireland seemed bound for civil war, but the European crisis curtailed that movement.


2.      After WWI ended in 1918, the Irish Republican Party won the general election and declared Irish independence in January,1919. This declaration was never granted by England.


3.      The Irish War of Independence (1919-1922) was fought between the Irish Republican Army and British forces. The Black and Tans were auxiliary British forces which joined the fray in 1920 and these units were brutal. Many of the Black and Tan recruits were former soldiers from British units that fought in WWI.


4.      Another consideration that is alluded to in the play is the major loss of life for the generation of men serving in both the British and Irish units. These young men were the next generation who would have represented both countries and perhaps provided different opinions as well as outcomes to the political situation.


The Big House was first performed on September 6, 1926 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin under the direction of the playwright.  It opened in London at The Playhouse on February 21, 1934 staring Alison Leggatt (1904-1990) as Kate.  The Big House had been staged prior to its London premier in other English cities such as Liverpool (1928), South Yorkshire (1929) and Manchester where it opened on February 18,1929. The play was published in 1928 by Macmillan, London.

The Abbey Theatre Irish Players presented The Big House in the United States during its 1932-33 tour of the United States. The play had its New York City debut on January 2, 1933 at the Martin Beck Theatre. This tour presented The Big House in at least seven other American cities.

The Big House was also presented on the British Broadcasting Radio during the Spring of 1939 by the Abbey Theatre Irish Players. The April 10,1939 announcement in The Guardian indicated that the program would be aired in London, North, Wales and Scotland on that evening.

The most recent production of The Big House opened on August 1, 2007 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. This production was presented for five weeks. 


The photo of Lexxon Robinson was the promotional image for his first American lecture tour, October 1928-January 1929.


Saturday, February 6, 2021



Velona Pilcher’s (1894-1952) service as a Red Cross Searcher in France during 1918-19 inspired her to write a play in 1928-29 that shared some of her experiences and other incidents she had witnessed. Pilcher was born in England. Her father was British and her mother was American. Both of her parents had died by the time she was seven years old. She was raised in the United States by an aunt.

After Pilcher graduated from Stanford University, she volunteered for war related work as a member of the Stanford Women’s Relief Unit. This organization required its women serving in Europe to be at least twenty-five years old, Pilcher was too young for the assignment she desired. Eventually she was accepted for European service by the British Red Cross. Pilcher’s Red Cross work took place in France close to the Front at Bazeille-sur-Meuse where her primary assignment was to identify missing soldiers. Her title was “Searcher.”

The Searcher is one of the most unusual scripts I have ever read. Normally I prefer to read a play in one sitting.  I found that I had to stop reading after each one of the first three scenes, I needed time to absorb the scene. There are eight scenes in the play and each one is written so that a reader or an audience member experiences it through the eyes of Searcher. 

Pilcher’s instructions in the printed version of the play state:

There is no interval in this performance and there is no silence

during the seven short rests between scenes, but across the moments of

darkness a theatrical kind of music—composed of the natural noises of war

unnaturally echoed, accented and anticipated—carries on the action,

bridging the broken places with significant sound.

The reprinted version of the script includes a photograph for each one of the nine wood-engravings by Londoner Blair Hughes-Stanton (1902-1981).  The first image is “The Curtain” and a different wood-engraving introduces each scene. The wood-engravings contribute greatly to the reader’s ability to envision the location and mood of each scene.  The first edition of the The Seacher contains photographs of the wood-engravings and it was published in 1929 by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. Garden City, N.Y. The book was initially released in New York City and London bookstores on the same day. There have been at least four editions published between 1929 and 2015.

Scene One commences as Reveille is played. The setting is in the empty ward of an Evacuation Hospital. The Red Cross Searcher enters as the day begins. She is met by a young Sergeant who informs Searcher, a woman in her early fifties, of her duties which relate to searching for missing soldiers among the patients as well as distributing Red Cross supplies.  She is also expected to read and write all personal correspondence for incapacitated patients. The patients begin to be brought into the ward and Searcher begins her duties for the day. As the scene is ending, Searcher is reprimanded because she questioned a regulation concerning not being allowed to give comfort to a wounded enemy soldier.                                                                   

                                                                            Scene One

It is through Searcher’s eyes that one envisions and comprehends World War One. Searcher is increasingly exposed to the difficulties and realities of a make-shift hospital located near the Front. While the play is based on past events, there is a moment in Scene Three that really resonates today. The entire staff is assembled quickly and commanded to wear “influenza-masks” as a precaution against the “present epidemic pestilence or plague” whenever they are in the hospital’s wards.

Searcher’s duties take her to several locations throughout the play. Scene Three is a repeat location of Scene One, but this time it is afternoon. During Scenes Two, Four and Six, she has a small table to use as desk. This station is in the Cinema Hut. Scene Five is muddy path outside between Huts. Scene Seven is the interior of an ambulance train with two tiers of bunks lining the walls and Scene Eight is a graveyard that also utilizes the strong perspective lines of a tunnel that is suggested in the other locations.  The scenic and lighting design further illustrate that The Searcher is not a realistic drama.


                                                                            Scene Two 


                                                                        Scene Three

                                                                      Scene Seven                                            
                                                                         Scene Eight 

This script has many elements that place it in the category of Expressionism, but the story Pilcher tells drives the style rather than the reverse.  All the scenes in The Searcher have vivid descriptions of the sound effects. Pilcher emphatically details all the staging elements. I found while reading the play that several times the sound descriptions caused me to have a sensation of being hammered by overwhelming noise. The play requires the constant sounds of war throughout, just as Pilcher stipulated for the short intervals between scenes.

While words of songs are in the script there is no mention of the music. There was an original score written for the 1930 London production. It was created by Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986), who later in his career became a renowned composer. The Northampton Mercury in its March 28, 1930 edition mentions that “young Edmund Duncan-Rubbra” was commissioned to write the music. It stated that the production “will to be on very Modernist lines as the whole of it will be rhythmic like a ballet. The orchestra is a curious one, a piccolo, violin, double base, piano, side drum, tympanum, Chinese cymbal and tambourine.” It is my understanding that this is the only work of Rubba’s that has never been published or recorded.

The Searcher opened on May 23,1930 at London’s newly established Grafton Theatre located in Tottenham Court Road. Judith Wogan (circa:1888-1966) had an old cinema remolded for this experimental theatre that was managed entirely by women. The Grafton was a small theatre with 250 seats. A modest sized revolving stage was installed to create rapid scene changes.  This would have been a great asset for staging The Searcher.

The June 19,1930 issue of The Stage reported that the schedule at the Grafton Theatre for The Searcher would change to one evening performance and one matinee each week. I have no information regarding how long this play remained in the repertory.

Prior to the London premier of The Searcher, Yale University’s School of Drama staged a production in March,1930. It was directed By George P. Baker (1866-1935), the faculty member who served as one of the founders the Yale School of Drama.  The set was designed by Donald Oenslager (1902-1975) a young Yale faculty member, who became one of the most recognized names in American scene design during the twentieth century.

In July of 1930, a story circulated in newspapers throughout the United States and Canada titled “Female ‘Journey’s End’ Bows.” It mentioned that The Searcher was following the ideas of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, but from a female point of view.

I read about two productions of this play performed since 2000. A workshop production of The Searcher was presented in 2003 by London’s Two’s Company. It was part of this theatre’s Forgotten Voices series that featured plays related to World War One. This theatre designated its production of The Searcher as part of Greenwich Theatre’s Musical Futures.

In 2008, Two’s Company again staged The Searcher at London’s Greenwich Theatre. It was directed by Graham Cowley (????-   ). Two’s Company had joined with Nitro in 2008, a group developed in 1979 that created opportunities for black artists in Great Britain. I have neither found any additional information that would add to an understanding of this production, the length of its run, its major participants nor reviews of the presentation.

The Searcher is a gripping play that draws the reader into its emotional energy as well as its storyline.


Further reading: Purkis, Charlotte. “The Mediation of Constructions of Pacifism in Journey’s End and The Searcher, two Contrasting Dramatic Memorials from the Late 1920’s.” Journalism Studies 17  February 2016: 1-15.