Monday, May 18, 2015

GENERAL POST by J. E. Harold Terry

The title of this play is also the name of a children’s party game that was popular in 1917, the year the play was written.  The game is referred to, by name, throughout the course of the play so it helps to have a sense of the rules.  It blends Blindman’s Bluff with Musical Chairs.  Chairs are placed either in a circle or in two straight lines opposite each other. One player is designated as Postmaster General.   Each remaining player is given the name of a town that will be his identity for the game. All the “town” players are seated except there is one player left without a chair.  That player is blindfolded. The Postmaster General calls the names of two towns to which the mail is to be delivered by the blindfolded player.  When the names are called, the two named towns rise and try to change chairs before one of them is caught by the blindfolded player.  Sometimes the Postmaster General calls “General Post” and all towns must scramble to find new chairs. Of course, there is always one town player caught without a chair and the game continues. The reference to the game, as it is used in the play, stands as a symbol of the social shakeup created by the war.

J. E. Harold Terry (1885-1939) was a successful playwright in London prior to March, 1917, when his war comedy titled General Post opened at London’s Haymarket Theatre.  It was immediately successful and ran for 532 performances. Any play that ran over 500 performances in this period is part of a historic record.  General Post was described in newspaper advertisements across Great Britain as “a delightful story of snobbery repentant.”   The play did not offend the aristocrats since the lessons for snobbery were cleverly inserted and proved to be amusingly delivered.  In the November 23, 1917 issue of the Cambridge Independent Press an article states: “The piece is described as a rippling thing of laughter, mountain high above mere farce.”  The comedy continued to be popular across England until late into the 1920s. 

Each act of this three act play is set in a different year: Act One is set in 1911 prior to the war; Act Two is 1915 during the course of the war and Act Three takes place in 19?? after the war had been won by the Allied forces. Since the play was written prior to the end of the war, Terry had to leave the exact year open.

The plot illustrates how the war was altering the social structure of the classes, as well as the conscience of the upper class.  The setting is a small country town.  The local tailor falls in love with the daughter of a conservative Baronet, who is one of his clients.  The young daughter is sent abroad by her parents for several years so she will not embarrass her family by her indiscretion. In Act II when the war is well underway, the family is surprised to learn that the tailor is the ranking officer of their son’s unit.  The son has changed his attitude towards the tailor as does the Baronet, since military rank gives the tailor an elevated level of respect. By the end of the war, the tailor had risen in the military ranks to Brigadier General and won the Victoria Cross.  He enjoys a hero’s welcome to his home town and is greeted by the Baronet, who is prepared to accept him in society and as his son-in-law. The question becomes whether the daughter will agree to marry the man who was previously shunned by her family. She is the character who frequently compares the family’s beliefs to the game of General Post.

General Post was also presented in New York City at the Gaiety Theater, where it opened on December 24, 1917.  It played for seventy-two performances. The review in the New York Times on December 25, 1917, called it “A clever and well sustained satire.”  The review also states: “The situations are intensely English, but they are very cleverly rendered, with admirable theatric effect, and should be easily understood by any audience.”  After the play left New York, it toured many cities in the United States where it continued to delight audiences with its wit and satire.  In 1920, General Post was made into a silent film.

No comments:

Post a Comment