Friday, October 23, 2015


When Shaw Desmond (1877-1960) wrote My Country, a play in four acts, he was a noted journalist in Great Britain, an internationally acclaimed novelist as well as a world traveler and lecturer. The play was published in 1921; however, I have not found the year when it was written.

The first act of My Country takes place on an August morning in London just before the outbreak of the Great War.  The second act is twelve months later (1915); the third act is a few days after the previous act and the fourth act is about a year after (1916). Why did Desmond write My Country as a play instead of a novel? The play format allowed Desmond to quickly expose the various political positions held by diverse classes in Great Britain within a relatively short time span. Also he was able to demonstrate with theatrical flair how inflexible political principles could impact the war situation. He made the situation heartfelt and personal when he developed a romantic triangle.  This personal entanglement further depicts the impact of political feelings on the lives of thoughtful individuals and of the emotional consequences.

My Country is a book drama. It is a play of ideas with a lot of intellectual debates fueled by politically extreme points of view. The factions represent those that were active in Great Britain prior to the war.  The first act is set in the London headquarters of the Workers’ Party where an international meeting of opponents to the impending war is being held. The opinions of the many anti-war factions are argued and defended. This is a volatile scene since opinions include several different types of pacifism—ultra-pacifism insisting on non-violence at all costs; constitutional pacifism requiring the democratic process as well as the voice of Parliament; intellectual pacifism with lots of soul searching; conservative patriotism; internationalism; violent anarchism and traditional trade-unionism.  These various factions have no means by which they may reach a unified position. The debate continues and is escalated in the second act even though the war is well underway. The various parties must determine how far they will pursue their beliefs. Would they allow the enemy to invade and claim their country without a fight! The various stances are argued, but by the end of the act, there is no united opinion.  The third act is set in Trafalgar Square during a Pacifist rally.  The crowd is hostile and eventually tries to lynch the speakers.  The fourth act is a change of pace and it is set in a front-line hospital. The three major characters, the romantic triangle, are the focus of the scene and their conflicting points of views are somewhat resolved.

I found the play engaging while I read it, but I do not believe I would appreciate it on stage since it is dominated by so much political ideology. The topic is interesting and the plot provides many insights into British politics during the early war years, but acts one and two are long political debates.

 I particularly enjoyed learning about Shaw Desmond’s life and work.  He was born in Ireland, but went to live in London at the age of eleven.  He claimed in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 19, 1919) that he was “a raw lad from a Cork county farm.” 

At the age of twenty-six, he decided to become a writer and public speaker.  He quickly became an active public orator on London street corners. He also wrote political articles for the London Magazine.  One of his feature articles in 1913 discussed the effect of Trades Unionism in the United Kingdom.  By January of 1914, he was acclaimed by the London Eagle as “one of the most brilliant and fearless of the younger school of British journalists.”  This accolade was written while Desmond was conducting a London investigation concerning the moral danger young ladies face when they enter business life as typists and secretaries. In early 1914, he also made a big splash in both Great Britain and the United States when he claimed to have evidence of reincarnation.

 His 1919 novel titled Democracy dealt with Socialism and it became a popular book in England and a sensation in the United States. He traveled to the United States and was popular on the speakers’ circuit.  This novel was the first of three that kept him busy traveling. He returned to the United States in 1921 to speak about his latest book titled Passion, which discussed London life and the struggle between the material and the ideal.  His third novel titled Gods was also published in 1921 and it continued to draw admiration in the United States. This book focuses on industrial exploitation.  In addition to discussing his latest novel, he also presented lectures on a variety of topics including “Ireland, Its Problems and Future,”  “America and Europe” and “The Future of Democracy.”  I did not find any references to My Country, even though it was published in the same year. Shaw Desmond knew how to be controversial in a manner that captured wide attention, such as when he proclaimed in 1922 that “the ‘war paint’ of the American woman is her biggest menace.”  He also continued his interest in Spiritualism and Reincarnation and in 1934, he was founder of the International Institute for Psychical Research.

Shaw Desmond also strongly believed, as early as 1924, that there would be another major war.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran a story on January 26, 1924 with the headline “Poison War Coming, Keep U.S. Out of It, Says Shaw Desmond”.  He claimed that Europe was concentrating on manufacturing airplanes and poison gas for use in another World War. He predicted that war would occur in the next ten to fifteen years.  At this time, he had traveled 40,000 miles in American as well as all over Europe. He was an astute observer of the political environment and an exceedingly interesting individual.

If you know the title of any other plays by Shaw Desmond, please post them under comments.  Also any productions of his plays will be welcome—include name of theatre and city, dates of run and any other information that would be of interest.

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