Tuesday, April 19, 2016


John van Druten’s (1901-1957) three act play titled The Return of the Soldier (1928) is an adaption of Rebecca West’s (1892-1983) 1918 novel of the same name.  West’s book was considered a “unique war story” since “it deals with a heretofore unknown pathological condition—shell shock.”  While these particular quotes are from the San Francisco Chronicle, April 14, 1918, I have read similar statements in other American and British newspapers. This was West’s first novel and it was widely read in Great Britain, where it first published, and across North America.

On August 10, 1926 a short newspaper notice appeared in the London papers announcing “Constance Collier (1878-1955, a celebrated actress) and Rebecca West are collaborating on a dramatization of Miss West’s story “The Return of the Soldier,” which is one of England’s best known war tales.”  The next day the same short announcement appeared in newspapers across the United States. 

By the end of 1926  or early 1927, John van Druten, whose first successful play titled Young Woodley had been produced in London during the 1925 season, convinced Rebecca West to let him write the dramatic version of The Return of the Soldier. He completed his version sometime in 1927.

Act One of The Return of the Soldier is set in the drawing-room of a manor house located in Harrow Weald, a wooded area northwest of London that was not highly developed in the spring of 1916. The time of day is afternoon.  Captain Chris Baldry had been happily married for ten years. Due to wounds he received in France, he suffered from amnesia that erased his memories of the past fifteen years of his life. This situation was considered to be a form of shell-shock, an unknown condition prior to World War One.  When Chris returns home to Baldry Court during Act One, he only seems to find comfort when he is with Margaret, a woman he had been in love with fifteen years earlier. He has no recollection of his wife, Kitty, or anything that occurred during that time span. He remembers his two cousins, Jenny and Frank, but only as they were earlier in life.

Act Two is in the drawing-room the next afternoon. Margaret, “a faded, dowdy woman of about thirty-six” who is married to “a pathetic little middle-aged clerk,” comes to Baldry Court to spend time with Chris. They discuss the past as if it was yesterday and Chris wishes to spend time only with Margaret.

Act Three is the same location one week later.  It is afternoon. Chris has seen a number of doctors and no one has any idea about a cure.  The family’s last hope is Doctor Gilbert Anderson, who pays a house call. He is articulate about the problem, but not sure he can actually cure it. He speaks with everyone involved in the situation including Margaret. It is during this conversation that Margaret realizes she knows how to assist Chris regain his memory.  She selects two items that belonged to his son, who died when he was five years old. The remedy is conducted off-stage and it is reported that Chris’s memory is restored. Margaret returns to her life with her husband and it is assumed that life at Baldry Court will return to normal.

While the novel was a sensational success, the play seemed to have less appeal. I started to wonder about the basic differences between the novel and the drama.  Obviously the novel was timely in 1918, but the differences had to be more significant than the fact the play premiered ten years after the novel burst upon the scene. I decided to read the novel before writing this post. 

The novel contains a considerable amount of dialogue that the playwright incorporated into the play. The characters said most of the same sentences on stage that they had uttered in the book. The major departure from the novel is that West created Jenny as the narrator of the story.  The play does not have Jenny as narrator.  Therefore, the play’s audiences lose many of Jenny’s insightful thoughts about the entire situation.

The other major difference that some critics believed weakened the play is the ending. The Times of London reviewed the play on June 13, 1928. The reviewer thought “the weak spot in the play was that Chris never returned to the stage once he was cured.” While the plot revolves around Chris, its main focus is the impact his illness has on his family members and Margaret. It is this aspect of the story that van Druten tried to strengthen, but the play script left me wondering about how Chris reacted to having regained his memories of the past fifteen years.

The play opened on June 12, 1928 at the Playhouse Theatre, a venue that seated approximately 680 in the West End London theatre district.  The reviews were basically positive and Mary Clare (1892-1970) was praised for her portrayal as Margaret. 

The play received its U.S.A. copyright in 1927 and it was published in 1928 by Victor Gollancz Ltd. of London. British dramatic societies produced the play once it closed in London. The Northampton Mercury ran a short story in 1933 that announced van Druten decided to grant no further performing rights to amateurs for The Return of the Soldier.  There was no reason provided and the play disappeared. 

A radio production was created and I found a notice that it was to be broadcast in North England on December 12, 1952.  This radio version may have been produced at an earlier time however, I have not found any additional information. The 1982 film titled The Return of the Soldier was developed from the novel. It gives no credit to van Druten.

Van Druten’s work as a playwright developed into very successful career following The Return of the Soldier. He was best known for his comedies and several of them are adaptations of novels—I am a Camera (1951) and I Remember Mama (1944). He was a prolific playwright and screenwriter particularly in the 1940’s and fifties. He directed many successful Broadway productions in addition to his contributions as a playwright.

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