Thursday, May 21, 2015

THE MAN WHO STAYED AT HOME (British title) THE WHITE FEATHER (North American title)

As Great Britain was entering World War One, Lechmere Worrall (1875-1957) and J. E. Harold Terry (1885-1939) wrote The Man Who Stayed at Home. The play opened at the Royalty Theatre in London on December 10, 1914.  The Man Who Stayed at Home is the title of the British production, while The White Feather is its title in the United States and Canada.  This script is one of the earliest espionage thrillers of World War One.   It is a melodrama spiced with romance, thrills and comedy.  It was exceedingly popular with British audiences.  It transferred from the Royalty Theatre in March of 1916 to the Apollo Theatre and continued to be performed until 1918.  Since it played for 584 performances, it is listed as one of the “Longest Running Plays in London’s West End” for the period commencing January 1, 1875 through December 31, 1919.   To receive this designation the first production of a play staged in London had to achieve a minimum of 500 consecutive performances.

The Man Who Stayed at Home provided British audiences with a comedic take on two major war themes.  The primary issue relates to the English fear of harboring German spies who would assist enemy forces to invade their island country. The Man Who Stayed at Home provides the assurance that the British Intelligent Service personnel are cleverer than the enemy’s spies.  The second theme discussed in the play relates to both of its selected titles.  A white feather presented to a capable male who was not in the armed services was a traditional symbol of cowardice and unfulfilled civic duty.  This custom was practiced in Great Britain and countries associated with the British Empire since the eighteenth century. When the British entered World War One in August 1914, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather.  He was joined by prominent British women with political voices who encouraged other females, especially young ones, to participate by handing a white feather to any male not wearing a military uniform in order to illuminate their scorn for him and his perceived cowardliness. The White Feather Campaign was fairly successful by 1915, but its harsh indictment created a strong sense of shame even for men who were engaged in activities necessary to sustain the war efforts while remaining on the home-front.  Once conscription was enacted in Great Britain, the White Feather Campaign was viewed as less necessary.  Worrall and Terry, whose comedy opened during the active period of the White Feather Campaign, undoubtedly did not want the title of their comedy to cause serious entanglement with the political and moral issues surrounding the practice.

The White Feather opened in New York at the Comedy Theatre on February 4, 1915.  It ran for 140 performances. Some of the initial newspaper reviews on both sides of the Atlantic were less glowing than the later ones, but audiences filled theatres for every performance.   The New York Times critical review dated February 6, 1915 claimed: “The new play at the Comedy is a written-while-you-wait melodrama, and one is inclined to suspect that whoever was waiting was disagreeably impatient.”  This caustic criticism did not deter audiences on either side of the Atlantic from seeing the play and later reviews were positively glowing. The Washington Post’s review on July 24, 1917 stated: “The plot is as intricate as the working of the Wilhelmstrasse, as quick of action as an airplane, as thrilling as a Zeppelin raid and sneaky as a U-boat.”

In 1915 the play was novelized in England by Beamish Tinker (pseudonym for F. Tennyson Jesse) and Worrall under the title of The White Feather.  A common practice in the early years of the twentieth century was to commit popular plays to novel format so that more individuals could experience it.  Another practice to expose more individuals to a popular theatrical piece, as well as sell more newspapers, was to serialize the play’s storyline. The Sunday Post in Lanarkshire, Scotland began a serialized version of the plot on November 7, 1915 and billed it as“The story of the present time!”  The Chicago Daily Tribune announced that “The White Feather had never before been published serially” and readers could commence the series starting June 17, 1917.  On June 22, 1917 The Winnipeg Evening Tribune reported it would run The White Feather in installments and have photographs to accompany the story.

Despite the American public’s exposure to the play’s characters and storyline through the print media, the play reopened on Broadway April 3, 1918 at the 48th Street Theatre.  This time it utilized the British title and ran 109 performances.  The play’s continuing popularity as a stage-piece provided touring companies with the opportunity to criss-cross the United States and Canada for the duration of the war and well into 1920. 

Two film versions of The Man Who Stayed at Home were also produced.  The 1915 film was made in England by Hepworth Productions.  This ninety minute black and white, silent film was written by Worrall.  A 1919 silent film, black and white, ninety minute version of the play under the same title was directed and produced by Herbert Blache for Screen Classics, Inc. in the United States.

No comments:

Post a Comment