Sunday, September 13, 2015

TUNNEL TRENCH



Hubert Griffith (1896-1953) wrote Tunnel Trench in 1923 and it was published in the same year. In 1922 he had written a one-act play titled Two Points of View, but Tunnel Trench was his first three act play.  He was widely known in London as a drama critic and he wrote his reviews for the Observer. Since he critically reviewed the works of other dramatists, writing a play was a risky business. But Griffith must have felt that he had an advantage writing this particular play, since he had personal experience during World War One in the various military services he featured in his play.

Griffith enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers in 1914 at the age of eighteen.  He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1918 and qualified as an observer.  This position required training and skill in order to accurately observe from the air ground artillery fire.  Observers were not trained to fly the aircraft.  The characters in Tunnel Trench are in the Royal Flying Corps, stationed in France during the beginning of the allied offensive of September 1918 against the Hindenburg Line. The actual battle front was forty miles long, but the play focuses on the battle area named Tunnel Trench.  

 Three scenes are set in the mess hall of the flying corps where the play shows the daily life of the airmen as they embark on their first missions relating to this offensive. The play also exposes the fact that aviators had no past traditions, therefore, their treatment on base, as well as their battle conditions, were distinctly different from those in the ground forces. 

But Griffith does not forget his earlier military training. A portion of the play represented by two scenes relate to the war fought in the trenches of France. Being exposed to ground warfare as well as the new method of fighting war in the skies, clearly allows the audiences to see the many differences between the two. It also clearly delineated this newer method used to fight this particular war.  

There is one more point of engagement with which this war situation is viewed.  Two scenes are placed in army headquarters. Griffith manages to demonstrate to audiences the opportunity to view a major attack from three different points of view—air force personnel, ground soldiers and the ranking battle planners. This makes Tunnel Trench different from any of the plays I have written about previously.

There is another aspect of this drama that sets it apart from many other World War One plays. The style of the play is realistic with two exceptions. Act I, Scene 2 is noted by the playwright as “A fantastic scene.”  Part of the scene in the trench is realistic until the other side of the dug-out becomes illuminated and there are German trench soldiers in that area. This is a style shift away from realism for most of the scene.  But the scene clearly demonstrates the similarities between the trench living conditions for both armies. It also takes another step to show the similarities of the private lives of the soldiers from both sides of the war.

Prior to the conclusion of Act III, Scene 1, another scene is set in a shell hole. It is realistic until the last third when the goddess Brynnhilde, “a Valkyrie of Norse legend becomes visible in a subdued glow of light.”   These two scenes, not only unsettle the realistic manner of the established style, but they take one beyond the moment to understand more about the situation and give it added depth. 

While many plays relating to World War One had unrealistic moments that were often labelled as expressionistic, the non realistic scenes in Tunnel Trench are different.  They actually remind me of Magic Realism. This contemporary style was obviously not known during the period in which the play was written, however, Griffith’s intent seemed aligned to some of Magic Realism’s artistic results.   

Griffith adds one more dimension to this play that was not regarded as an appropriate topic for the theatre during the 1920s. The relationship between Lieutenant St. Aubyn, the observer, and his pilot Lieutenant Smith is homoerotic, but it is never openly displayed or discussed. The war conditions were regarded to create the rationale for this experience.

This play was first produced on March 8, 1925 and scheduled for one performance at London’s Prince’s Theatre. It was an amateur production staged by the Repertory Players, a dramatic society.  It was reported the next day in the Yorkshire Post that this play drew the largest audience in the history of the society.  The next production for Tunnel Trench was undertaken by a professional company of actors with Emlyn Williams in the cast.  It was the play selected to open the new Duchess Theatre, a small proscenium arched London West End theatre with 479 seats. The date of the opening was November 25, 1929 and it played there until December 7, 1929.

I found a review in the Times (London) from August 21, 1963 concerning a television production of Tunnel Trench undertaken by Granada Television and aired the prior evening for it series related to the dramatic history of the First World War. The reviewer believed that the play “has not worn particularly well.”  But it appears that there were changes made to the script to make it more suitable for television.  

Tunnel Trench is unique in the manner it presented many World War One challenges to its readers and audiences.  This play presented in three acts and seven scenes provided some new insights into the manner in which World War One was fought.  Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) English novelist, believed Tunnel Trench was an “honest anti-war play”.

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