Saturday, November 14, 2015


Percival Wilde (1887-1953) had five one-act war plays published by Little, Brown and Company in 1918 under the title The Unseen Host and Other War Plays.  He had written them in 1916-17.  His career as an author began in 1912, when he published his first short story. There were numerous requests for the dramatic rights to this story, so he decided to try his hand at reworking the story into a play format.  

In 1914 Wilde worked with Arthur Conan-Doyle (1859-1930) on turning one of Doyle’s stories into a play titled Dawn.  This was an incredible opportunity for the young American playwright. Dawn and One-Act Plays of Life Today was published in 1915 by Henry Holt and Company. Wilde’s career as a playwright of one-act plays was launched.  These plays and the many that followed became popular with Little Theatres all over the world.  Thomas H. Dickinson in his 1925 book titled Playwrights of the New American Theatre noted: “Percival Wilde’s short plays have had hundreds of productions.”  Several American newspaper articles that I read, which were written during the early 1930s, stated “that the royalties from Wilde’s plays continue to roll in from the ends of the earth at the rate of some 2,000 performances a year.”  By the 1940s Wilde was recognized as having written more one-act plays that were produced in American Little Theatres than any other playwright.

Wilde served in the United States Navy during World War One, and he may have written his war plays during that time.  This post will discuss three of the five plays presented in The Unseen Host and Other War Plays. I had read these plays ten years ago and was surprised once I started rereading them how much of the plot came back to me.  I am impressed with the unique situations that focus primarily on two individuals, but may involve a third person. There is a simplicity to each situation.  The style is realistic even though the subject matter sometimes becomes spiritual. These plays are vignettes that are rich in clever dialogue and tense action. Each one turns on an unusual occurrence that presents an enlightening moment for the audience. These plays view the war from five different perspectives.

Mothers of Men depicts a scene between two British mothers whose sons share the same unusual surname of Chepstowe.  Both sons are fighting at the front in France during 1917. The society Mrs. Chepstowe (The Caller) who visits a lower class Mrs. Chepstowe is sure that the death notice sent to her is not about her son. At the end of the play, one just gasps at the conclusion. The characters are clearly drawn from different social ranks and the situation relating to the loss of their sons. The reader/viewer is immediately pulled into the action of the moment before the play reaches its dramatic conclusion.  A newspaper article dated March 12, 1942 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts mentions a performance of this play the previous evening. So the play continued to have a life on stage for several decades following World War One.

In The Ravine is set in a snowy ravine in the Italian Alps. Two soldiers, an Austrian and an Italian have fallen together into the ravine below where a battle had been taking place. They have been fighting each other before the fall and now they are trapped at the foot of the cliff.  The two men have nothing in common, except the war. They exchange thoughts and personal information before resorting back to their soldier mentality. They decide how to escape their current dilemma of being trapped on the ledge in order to resume their physical battle with each other.

Valkyrie! This play has a Prologue as does the play titled Pawns. The prologue is spoken by a male voice who sets the scene for the play as well as discusses what has transpired over time at this same location. 
        Here a month ago, men wearing flat-topped caps prayed that that 
        same Maker would destroy other men wearing spiked helmets, and 
        here, a week later, the men of the spiked helmets prayed for the 
        destruction of them of the flat-topped caps.

This terrain is no-man’s land between the German trenches and the British trenches.  The characters are a German Officer who is wounded, a British Officer also wounded and “A Voice from The Ground” belonging to a dying German soldier who keeps calling on the Valkyries to carry him to heaven. Wilde has taken a different point of view in this play.

He states in his Preface to these plays: “If in ‘Valkyries’ the author has looked through German eyes it is because in other plays he has looked through Allied eyes. Our enemies are our enemies none the less if we strive to understand them precisely as they understand themselves.” Wilde explores the Germanic belief in Valhalla of Norse mythology—a fighting heaven where the Valkyries carries the dead soldier’s spirit. The German soldiers are instilled with the belief in this poetic vision since it provided will and strength to them on the field of battle. It also provided the soldiers with a vision for their just rewards since the Valkyrie will bear a dying soldier to his heavenly place. It is a philosophic play, but one that illustrated a practical approach to how the Germans motivated their young soldiers.

I found Wilde’s five one-act plays continue to command my attention and to provide me with special insights into unique situations that war creates.  The plays definitely illustrate how war wastes as well as interrupts lives without a meaningful purpose.

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