Thursday, May 28, 2015


Post 6 titled “PARSING WORLD WAR ONE PLAYS CONTINUED” has a paragraph relating to Wings Over Europe written by Robert Nichols (1893-1944) and Maurice Browne (1881-1955). A few days after I finished writing the post, I began reading a novel that related to work on early atomic physics projects. That novel recommended a nonfiction account of the trail leading to the splitting of the atom. I was interested in the history of the discovery and wondered how The Fly in the Cathedral by Brian Cathcart might relate to Wings Over Europe even though it is the first dramatic work with a plot related to the atom. Towards the end of “The Fly” Cathcart referred to the play and I was inspired to reread it.

I appreciate this play significantly more since I have a bit of knowledge about the actual scientific progress related to splitting the atom. Also, I am intrigued by the timing of the play’s performances in England. Actually these two bits of information tie together. The play was premiered during the 1928-29 season in New York by The Theatre Guild. At this time, the play was considered to be science fiction. The public had little or no indication of the possible destructive power of atomic energy, since scientists had not discovered how to capture the energy in the atom. Wings Over Europe was considered to be an artistic success by the American press, but the reviews did not necessarily help the play succeed financially since it was a very expensive production with a large cast. The play’s cast consisted of eighteen males and the reviewers described the play as appealing primarily to the intellect. The play ran for ninety performances—a successful run in terms of length, and it was chosen as one of the ten best plays of the season. The Theatre Guild also scheduled the play to tour to ten different American cities east of the Mississippi River as part of its 1929-30 theatre series.

Wings Over Europe opened in London’s Globe theatre on April 27, 1932. Theatre advertisements tried to raise interest by informing the public the play was set in a true replica of the Cabinet Room at No. 10 Downing Street, London. While this ploy may have raised some interest in the play, real life events at Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge may have given the play more significance than its setting. British newspapers on May 1st ran headlines similar to the one in the Reynold’s Illustrated News announcing: “Science’s Greatest Discovery, The Atom Split at 100,000 Volts”. Suddenly Wings Over Europe became a prophetic work rather than science fiction. Cathcart mentions that the play and the scientific breakthrough became intertwined in the newspapers: the two scientists were credited with writing the play and the reverse also appeared in print. How this moment in science impacted the Globe Theatre’s attendance I do not know, but the fact that the play’s story coincided with a real life scientific discovery fascinates me. There were several questions that I had hoped to resolve for this post, but I could not access the necessary resources.

The two playwrights were each unusual in several ways. Robert Nichols, a Cambridge graduate, was an officer in the war and fought briefly in the trenches of France. He became a well-known, admired British World War One poet. His first poem, from the series titled Battle, is reputed to have been the most favorite. Its title is Noon. He had three volumes of war poems published by the conclusion of 1917.

Maurice Browne was born in Great Britain and educated at Cambridge, but he immigrated to the United States. In 1912, he became a producer when he founded the Chicago Little Theatre. This theatre and the Toy Theatre in Boston started in the same year are credited with inspiring the United States’ Little Theatre Movement. These theatre groups were small experimental centers of drama that were not competing with the large commercial theatres because they were doing plays by newer playwrights, such as Ibsen and Chekhov, whose plays were not being produced on Broadway. Browne stayed with the Chicago Little Theatre until 1917. For the next ten years, he produced plays in many other American cities that were just starting their Little Theatre companies. Browne returned to England in 1927 and in 1928 served as the producer of R.C. Sherriff’s blockbuster play Journey’s End. This was at the same time he was writing “Wings” and getting the Theatre Guild to produce it. In 1930, he purchased two major West End London theatres—the Globe and Queen’s. “Wings” was staged at the Globe theatre. There is another distinguishing credit that should be mentioned. In 1930 he produced Othello in London with Paul Robeson in the title role; Browne played Iago.

Nichols and Browne, who were not primarily playwrights or scientists, developed a play that looked at how a future war could be dominated by a new weapon that would change all the rules of warfare. Poison Gas had not been known as an instrument of destruction prior to World War One, but it became the most feared after it was used in 1915. Wings Over Europe provided an example of what the next weapon of mass destruction could be and its potential danger to all humankind. The play further demonstrates how those with governmental power would undoubtedly not be ready to cope with such a revolutionary discovery. They subtitled the play "A Dramatic Extravaganza”. Extravaganza was a style of theatre used to illustrate how an irrational situation may be carried to logical extremes. This play was far reaching in its concern about being prepared for a reality that had yet to be experienced.

If you have access to either London newspaper reviews about the play or the length of its run in London, please send the information to this blog.

Reference for Wings Over Europe photo: 
    Nadel, Norman. a pictorial history of the THEATRE GUILD. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1969. 80.

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