Saturday, April 2, 2016


The Sublime Sacrifice is a tragedy in three acts with a prologue. It was written by American playwright and poet Charles V. H. Roberts.  The script was published in 1917 by The Torch Press with offices in both New York and London, England.  The topic of this play is the real-life martyrdom of the British nurse Edith Cavell (1865-1915). She was executed by a German firing squad in Brussels, Belgium on the morning of October 12, 1915. The charge against her was treason with the claim that she harbored and assisted countless British, Belgian and French soldiers to escape from Belgium.

The script for The Sublime Sacrifice states “The martyrdom of the English nurse, Edith Cavell, stands forth pre-eminently as a tragedy which cannot be overlooked. This drama, founded largely on facts, is an attempt to preserve the local color.”  Since Roberts did not use Cavell as his Edith’s last name, he hardly utilizes the actual circumstances and facts of this tragic event plus he introduces a romantic liaison that was not part of the situation.  The two real situations he incorporated into the play are: 1. Nurse Cavall, who lived and worked in Brussels, was visiting her mother in England when World War One was declared. 2. She was executed in Brussels by a German firing squad. 

The prologue has a cast of immortals and it is set in Pandemonium.  This theatrical scene with Satan heading the denizens of Hell including Moloch, the Fiend of War, and the spirits of four war mongering rulers such as Attila and Bismarck is extremely dramatic. It was undoubtedly created to warm-up the reader with a patriotic flush. 

Act One is set in the London apartment of Edith Vernon’s mother.  Her father had been killed in action during the 1914 battle of the Marne.  It is June of 1915 and the time is late evening.  Edith, her sister and mother are waiting for Sir John Steele, a Captain in the R.A.F., who is betrothed to Edith. He is to visit them prior to leaving London for Europe.  Edith is twenty-two years old and eager to assist her country during this war by being a nurse.  She reveals to John that she has joined an American nursing unit stationed near Brussels. After John leaves, the act concludes as a zeppelin raid commences.

Act Two is a battlefield in Belgium within German lines.  It is late afternoon sometime during the autumn of 1915.    Sir John has been captured by the Germans and he is brought to the tent to be interrogated by General Von Hofen. After the two men move to a private tent, Edith enters the tent since she has been called to tend to a wounded man. She learns the Germans know that she is aiding allied prisoners to escape. Edith and John are to be sent to Brussels. She is to be charged with espionage and John charged with murder since he killed an officer who was forcing his attentions on Edith.

Act Three, Scene 1 is set in the official quarters of the Military Governor of Brussels.  It is still Autumn, 1915.  The American and Spanish ministers plead clemency for Edith and John. They fail to achieve their major mission, but Edith is allowed to have a visit in her cell with John before they are executed. Act Three, Scene 2. It is the farewell scene between the couple.  Scene 3 is a Tableau. “Early dawn in Brussels Prison Yard.  Edith is seen standing calm and erect and blindfolded before the Prussians firing squad.”

This play is a book drama and I found no evidence of a staged production. It appears to have had a degree of success in book form since Roberts’s later publications of plays and poems refer to him as the author of The Sublime Sacrifice.  His last publications were in 1922.

As I searched for information about this playwright, I found his background a mystery.  I could not find either a date of birth or death.  He is not even listed on Wikipedia.  I could not find information even though his poems were widely published in various Midwestern newspapers as well as in book collections. Some diligent searching finally revealed that Charles V. H. Roberts was a stock and bond broker in East St. Louis, Missouri.

Roberts was arrested on January 18, 1928 regarding a charge of using the mail to defraud clients.  On June 12, 1928 Roberts was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to four years in the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth.  In 1930 while serving this sentence, Roberts pleaded guilty to three new charges related to violations of national banking laws and was sentenced to four years imprisonment on each charge.  His new sentences were to run concurrently with the term he was currently serving. It was possible that he left prison in 1934, but I have not found any information about him after 1930.

Once I had uncovered the particular information for this post, I decided to write up my findings despite the fact that the play did not present a true account of Edith Cavell life. I was also intrigued that the playwright was not honest in his own day to day life. Further, I believe the real life tragedy relating to Edith Cavell is a significant part of World War One history and this was one way to raise some sense of her contribution. 

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