Sunday, September 27, 2020

CAPTAIN BAIRNSFATHER’S THE BETTER ‘OLE

 

Bruce Bairnsfather (1887-1929) was huddled in a trench on the Western Front when he began to pass the quiet time by drawing cartoons. His cartoons made his fellow soldiers laugh.  They identified with his various characters and their situations. By the end of March 1915, the British magazine “The Bystander” published one of his cartoons. It was so well received that the magazine’s editor asked Bairnsfather to send a cartoon for each of its issues. During his time in the trenches, Bairnsfather would draw two cartoons a week for publication. It took him about two days to complete one.  Bruce Bairnsfather’s cartoons helped the British people put a comic face on tragic circumstances that were part of their everyday lives. He became the most famous cartoonist of World War One.  

      


In 1917 Bairnsfather and Arthur Eliot (1874-1936) adapted several of his widely known cartoons into a play format for the stage.  The play was titled “The Better ‘Ole.”*  This was the name by which Bairnsfather’s most famous cartoon of World War One was also known.

 

 
 This comedy was based on Bairnsfather’s war experiences which he had turned into popular cartoon images. Since the major character in his cartoons was named Old Bill, he became the central character in the play. The play was broken into segments instead of acts and scenes. Each segment was developed from selected cartoons—two segments featured situations related to explosions, seven were fragments that were termed “Splinters” and the were developed from one or more popular cartoons and the last segment was a gas attack. The settings for the segments were somewhere in France and England before November 10, 1918.

An example of one of the splinters is Splinter Three: The setting is a “Billet” located behind front lines in France where the British soldiers rested after returning from the trenches. There are French girls in this scene and the action commences when Old Bill finds a German spy’s plans.  Old Bill attempts to foil the spy’s plans by blowing up the bridge before the Germans do; however, he nearly executes himself.  He gets into serious trouble, but at the last moment a beautiful French female named Victoria saves him. Bill is awarded the Legion of Honor for foiling the German plot. He returns to his wife in England and visits his favorite pub named The Better ‘Ole. The Better ‘Ole was the actual name of Bairnsfather’s favorite pub in London.

A musical score was created for the play. The music was composed by Herman Darewski (1883-1947) and the lyrics were by Percival Knight (1873-1923) and James Heard. When the script was completed, Bairnsfather went to Italy to create war cartoons for Italian publications.

Arthur Eliot remained in London and searched for a theatre manager who would produce this unique theatre piece. Charles B. Cochran (1872-1951) agreed to produce “The Better ‘Ole” at the Oxford Music Hall. The original London cast starred Arthur Bourchier (1863-1927) as Old Bill and French actress Edmée Dormeuil (1896-1983) as the female lead.

Charles Cochran was a showman who knew how to engage his audiences. For this production he wanted audiences to experience a bit of the battlefield environment, so he created the atmosphere of the Western Front. The box office looked like a dug-out and there were sandbags all around the theatre’s foyer. Inside the theatre’s lobby, the band for the production played popular contemporary war songs such as “Tipperary.” There were also slides projected on the walls featuring many popular trench/battlefield cartoons by Bairnsfather.

“The Better ‘Ole” opened in London on August 4, 1917 and continued to play twice daily for more than a year. The storyline contained “three hundred of the best jokes enacted during the war” and it included three of Bairnsfather’s major cartoon characters--Old Bill, lively Alf, lady’s man Bill. These three characters represented the optimistic attitude of the regular British soldier known as “Tommy.” Bairnsfather also portrayed Tommy while he was in conflict, but without any false heroics.

“The Better ‘Ole” racked up a total of 811 performances making it one of the most popular British war plays. Once the production closed in London, there were three to five touring companies performing it in the cities across England where it was advertised as “Greatest attraction and biggest draw of the day.”

Shakespearean actor Charles Coburn (1877-1961) and his wife Mrs. Charles (Ivah Wills) Coburn (1882-1937) produced “The Better ‘Ole” in New York City. It opened at the small Greenwich Village Theatre on October 19, 1918. This production moved to three other theatres always seeking larger seating capacity. It closed on October 4, 1919 after playing 353 performances. Charles Coburn starred as Old Bill for the American audiences.

The October 21, 1918 “New York Times” review of the play stated that “if one may judge by the quality of the performance and the gales of laughter which swept through the little audience, it is destined to move uptown and recreate on Broadway the success it has already scored in London.” The unnamed reviewer also believed the play had “the utmost freshness and delight” as well as a “rollicking spirit.” He believed everyone fortunate to see it would be swept off their “feet by the sheer force of sincerity.” 

Coburn also arranged for several touring theatre companies to take this play to major American and Canadian cities. Eventually there were twelve touring companies performing “The Better ‘Ole” not only in the United States, Canada and England, but also in Australia, India and Africa.

Two film versions of “The Better ‘Ole” were made. The first one was a silent film made in 1918 by a British Company and Charles Rock (1866-1919) starred as Old Bill. Warner Brothers made the second film of “The Better ‘Ole” and it was released in the United States during the Fall of 1926. It starred Syd Chaplin (1885-1965) as Old Bill. Syd was Charlie Chaplin’s older brother. It was the second film to employ Vitaphone sound so it has a synchronized musical score and sound effects. This film is available currently on DVD. The “New York Times” reviewer believed the screen version was weaker in characterization and atmosphere than the stage production, but it is still “The Better Ole.”

 

* ‘ole is the Cockney pronunciation for the word “hole.” This accent drops

 the initial “h” sound from a word. A listener can quickly identify that the speaker

 is an English person from the greater London area.

 


Saturday, August 29, 2020

J. M. BARRIE’S SEVEN WOMEN

 

On September 4, 1913 J.M. Barrie’s three act play titled The Adored One opened in London at the Duke of York’s Theatre with Mrs. Patrick Campbell (1865-1940) playing the leading role. Act One received excellent reviews calling this act “delicious,” “exquisite” or “delightful.”  Unfortunately, the remaining two acts did not delight either audiences or reviewers.

Barrie quickly revised the script and The Adored One continued playing in London before opening on Broadway at the Empire Theatre in January 1914 under the title The Legend of Leonora. The popular American actress, Maude Adams (1872-1953) starred in this production and it played for 136 performances. After the production closed in New York, Maude Adams toured The Legend of Leonora to many cities throughout the United States.  Her tour played until the middle of 1916.

On April 7,1917, a revised first act of The Adored One appeared on stage at the New Theatre in London as a one-act play titled Seven Women. This play shared the bill of one-acts with Barrie’s The Old Woman Shows Her Medals and A.A. Milne’s Wurzel-Flummery.  Irene Vanbrugh (1872-1949) played the role of Leonora. This program was popular with audiences and it played for eight weeks.

Seven Women is set in a drawing-room in Chelsea that is decorated in the Adams style. This is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Tovey who have invited Captain Rattray to dinner so he can meet Leonora. The play is set in 1913. Captain Rattray, a hero who earned his reputation chasing   unauthorized submarines near British waters, arrives at eight o’clock which is a half hour early. Mr. Tovey, who twenty years earlier went to school with the Captain, tells him about the other dinner guests by describing seven different personality traits. Rattray believes there will be seven different women for him to meet. Another guest named Leonora arrives early and is left alone with Rattray while Tovey leaves the scene to dress for dinner.  As the scene progresses, Rattray tries to decide which one of the seven traits represents Leonora.  Eventually he realizes that she is seven women in one—no sense of humor, too much sense of humor, politician who wants males to treat her as an equal, old-fashioned clinging kind as well as obedient, motherly type, murderess and coquette.  He is beguiled by Leonora and delighted to learn she is a widow.

You may be wondering why I selected to write this post about Seven Women since the comic plot sounds like the beginning of a love story. When Barrie reworked this piece as a one-act play, he included details that clearly illustrated aspects of London life in 1913. These specific moments illustrate how the British government and its citizenry were gearing themselves for the possibility of a war. The male lead, Captain Rattray of the Royal Navy, is a celebrity due to his naval achievements against foreign submarines. Prior to the start of World War One, the British were extremely concerned about German submarines blocking access to their ports as well as endangering ships in and near their waters.

When Leonora tells Rattray about her fifteen-year old son, she states that he is away at school and “He is in the O.T.C.” This would have been a junior division unit of the Officers’ Training Corp at the secondary school level.  Universities had O.T.C. senior division training. Obviously, Leonora is proud that her son is involved in this activity and it indicates that Britain was introducing adolescent males to military discipline.

Barrie is very specific about the setting for this play since it clearly establishes the period before World War One. He specifies that the décor of the drawing-room is “in the Adams style.” While this style originated in the eighteenth century and was replaced after 1795 by the Regency style, the Adams style with its light and elegant furniture style and specific color choices for walls as well as furniture went through a revival in the late nineteenth century. It became an extremely popular style with the expanding middle class prior to World War One. The Adams style lost its popularity in Britain by the end of World War One.

Leonora is a woman who is not dependent on having a male in her life. She is capable, intelligent, persuasive, and charming. She is a prime example of how women could prove themselves to be productive individuals during difficult times. This play is also a delightful, nostalgic reminder for audiences about their lives just prior to the war.

After Seven Women closed at the New Theatre, it opened in July,1917 at London’s Coliseum Theatre which was the city’s largest theatre with 2,359 seats. There were several other short plays that shared the same bill. Seven Women was a success and several actresses play Leonora during the run which was still playing during the fall season of 1918. Lillah McCarthy (1875-1960) played Leonora prior to Diana Wilson (1897-1937) who took over the role in August,1918. These actresses had a heavy schedule since the Coliseum offered three matinee performances a week in addition to the evening performances.

In Great Britain, Seven Women has a long stage history and it was popular through the late 1950’s. It gained additional fans when it was produced several times by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio. There was a March 7,1941 radio presentation. BBC aired a new radio production on June 5, 1948. Leonora was played by Scottish born actress Madeline Christie (1904-1996). A third production mounted for BBC radio aired on September 21, 2005. It featured Benedict Cumberbatch (1976-    ) as Mr. Tovey.

This delightful one-act play is still charming and amusing. I read the 1928 Acting Edition of Seven Women published by Hodder and Stoughton, London. I was unable to access copies of The Adored One, which I understand Barrie never allowed it to be published, and The Legend of Leonora. I am curious about the revisions as well as how The Legend of Leonora differed from The Adored One.