Sunday, May 22, 2016


J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967) wrote a play that incorporated some of his World War One experiences as an officer in the British army while being held as a Prisoner of War by Germany. The German and British governments reached an agreement in 1916 allowing a limited number of wounded and disabled British officers and soldiers to be transferred from German prison camps to isolated locations in neutral Switzerland.  These men remained prisoners of war during their time in Switzerland and they were subject to being returned to the country that captured them. J. R. Ackerley was wounded May, 1917 and was captured by the Germans. He was sent in December, 1917 to Murren, Switzerland for part of his time as a prisoner of war where he was housed in one of the town’s nine ski resort hotels.

Ackerley started writing The Prisoners of War while he was in Murren.  He completed a first draft of the play while still a POW. There are a number of similarities in the details of the play that related to actual persons and incidents that Ackerley encountered during his nineteen months in the Alpine hotel prison. 

The Prisoners of War, a play in three acts, takes place in Captain Conrad’s sitting-room in a Hotel in Murren during the summer of 1918. The room description as well as the view out the windows at the back of the room are very detailed.  Ackerley is also specific about the details of time, dates and character descriptions. 

Act One takes place on July 20, 1918. Second-Lieutenant Allan Grayle, a nineteen years old observer in the R.A.F, brings two friends into Captain Conrad’s sitting room. Conrad is not present at the time. Until recently Grayle was Conrad’s suite-mate, but Conrad permits him to continue having access to the sitting-room. Peter Parker in his 1989 biography titled A Life of J. R. Ackerley, mentions that Conrad is “clearly based upon Ackerley himself.”  The first act promotes an understanding of the boredom, homesickness and sexual desires that frequently attracted the younger men to each other.  It illustrates the tensions felt by five British POWs while it begins to focus on the relationship between Conrad and Grayle,  The callow Grayle is heterosexual, but clearly knows how to used Conrad’s affection to get the small perks he desires. 
Act Two takes place on July 22nd at half-past three in the afternoon. This act illustrates the mental changes that each man in the group is undergoing. They are removed from the world and their individual visions for a future are fading.

Act Three begins at nine P.M. on the night of July 30th, a dance in the hotel was arranged as a recreational activity for the men. This feeble event comes at the end of a difficult day. Lieutenant Adelby, the oldest prisoner in the group, learned he was not allowed to return to England to see his dying wife. He commits suicide after learning of her death. Conrad’s weakening mental health collapses.  The future is unclear and the remaining three men find their stability crumbling.  While this plot recount makes the play appear to be gloomy since the facts are dark, there are many illuminating factors in the work that hold the attention and provide the viewer with much to consider.

The Three Hundred Club, an independent theatre group who produced new plays on Sundays in theatres run by other companies, presented the premier of The Prisoners of War at London’s Court Theatre in early July, 1925. The play was praised in the London Times on July 8, 1925. It was considered a “distinguished play” and the positive response inspired Nigel Playfair (1874-1934) to move the Three Hundred Club’s production to the Playhouse Theatre at Charing Cross. Playfair withdrew the play on September 19, 1925 after twenty-four performances. The reviews called the play “an unforgettable masterpiece.” –Graphic; “Certainly the most remarkable play that has been produced this year”—Morning Post and “Mr. J.R. Ackerley’s vivid study cheered at the Playhouse”—Daily Sketch.  The favorable reviews failed to generate good attendance.

Following the London closing of The Prisoners of War, there were other productions staged throughout England. This play was not seen again in London until January 1939, when a new production was staged at the Tavistock Little Theatre by Raymond Raikes (1910-1998). This theatre was one of the most significant of London’s minor theatre organizations. A play ran for four performances and it was either an accepted classic or a new play. 
Prisoners of War was produced in New York a decade after its London premier. It opened at the Ritz Theatre on January 28, 1935. It was produced and staged by Frank Merlin (1893-1968).  The production ran for eight performances. Brooks Atkinson (1894-1984) reviewed the production in the New York Times on January 29, 1935. He believed “the essential defect of Prisoners of War is the product chiefly of time. Such themes need deeper clarification today.”

The play was not appreciated in New York and Arthur Pollock, the theatre critic for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle mentions in his review that “the relations between the soldiers was, to say the very least, strange.” I assume that Frank Merlin removed all the homosexual references to avoid problems with being closed by the Hayes Code that was adopted in the early 1930s.  This type of alteration would weaken the play considerable.

The Prisoners of War was revived in London several times during the second half of the twentieth century.  There was a 1955 production at the small Irving Theatre opening on September 29, 1955. Another revival was staged in February, 1993 at the New End Theatre.

The play was first published March 26, 1925 by Chatto & Windus, London. A second edition was released in June, 1927. I have read that the book version was popular and several more editions were released.  In 1988, The Prisoners of War was included in Gay Plays: Volume Three edited by Michael Wilcox.  This volume was published in 1988 by Methuen.

J.R. Ackerley had a very successful career following the staging and publication of this play.  He served for twenty-four years as literary editor of the BBC’s weekly magazine the Listener. In 1956 he wrote a novel followed in the 1960s by several popular nonfiction books.

Reference for photo:
    Peter Parker, Ackerley: A Life of J.R. Ackerley (London: Constable, 1989) between pages 114

     and 115.  

1 comment:

  1. I was lucky enough to see the New End production and loved it. This is a gem of a play that should be a classic.