Saturday, July 9, 2016


I have posted several other plays related to the German invasion of Belgium, but this is the first one written by someone born in Belgium.  Jean Leeman (18??-19??) was a professor of French and a noted author. Leeman’s most well-known book was French in a Nutshell.  Published in 1918, this phrase book was designed especially for use by the American Red Cross as well as the Army and Navy.

Leeman lived in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake and throughout World War One.  Following the war, Leeman moved to New York City where he served as director of L’Ecole Francaise for nine years, but returned in 1929 to the San Francisco Bay area. 

Martyr: A Tragedy of Belgium and Le Dernier Empereur were the two war plays that Leeman wrote. “Martyr” is the play that was produced and published in 1915 by the Belgian Women’s War Relief Committee of San Francisco.  Through this committee’s sponsorship, the play had a large group of prominent patrons. The play was dedicated by Leeman to two men: Raphael Weille (1837-1920) a pioneer San Francisco merchant, who in 1855 emigrated from France. Albert Van der Naillen, Sr. (1830-1928) a Belgium born occultist and author of more than a dozen books on the topic. He lived in San Francisco when this play was produced. 

The Preface was written by Henri La Fontaine (1854-1943) who was the recipient of the 1913 Nobel Peace Prize and a prominent member of the Belgian Senate from 1895 to 1936. Senator La Fontaine comments on this drama’s subject—the consequences of the lust of the drunken German soldiery upon the Belgian women and girls. La Fontaine calls it “the most abominable (horror), for it has condemned these innocent victims to the most horrible moral sufferings.” He praises the manner in which Leeman handled this delicate issue. Senator La Fontaine concluded his comments by stating that he believed Leeman’s drama “will remain one of the most incisive pages of the indictment that finally will tear mankind from the eternal nightmare of murder and violence.”

“Martyr” is a tragedy in five acts. Act One, Scene One is set in a village near Louvain. It is three weeks since the beginning of the August, 1914 German invasion. Jean Bruneels, a young farmer, and his sister Louise, who is nineteen years old, work the farm together. Their elderly grandmother, who is paralyzed, lives with them. Jean and Louise are educated young people. At the beginning of the scene Jean is in military dress and carries his gun. The family is in front of their cottage. The road is to the right and the woods are to the left of the cottage. Jean is on a few hours leave to see his family.

Bernard and Jacques Valkiers arrive.  Bernard is engaged to Louise. The brothers report that their farm has been destroyed and their family killed.  Jean knows he must quickly find a way to move his grandmother and Louise to Holland. The scene concludes as the three soldiers leave--Jean to find transportation for his family’s journey and the brothers to return to their military unit.

Act One, Scene Two is set in the same location. Captain Heinrich von Rauch and Josef Schmidt, von Rauch’s orderly arrive at the cottage. Von Rauch demands food and wine. After consuming too much wine, he writes on the cottage door: “It is forbidden to burn this house. They are good people.” Then he signs his name. When Louise comes outside, von Rauch grabs her by the wrists. She escapes and runs into the woods, but he catches her and drags her into the cottage.  Schmidt stands guard at the door.  Jean returns and stabs Schmidt, who escapes into the woods. Captain von Rauch escapes after striking Jean in the chest with his sword; however, Jean had stabbed the Captain’s face.

Act Two takes place in the same location one year later. The scene is set inside the first floor of the cottage. Louise has given birth to a son. Louise had also found Schmidt near death in the woods and nursed him as well as Jean back to good health. Louise is filled with “the shame of a ruined creature.”  Bernard still wants to marry Louise, but she refuses based on very sound arguments and she vows never to marry. Jean and Schmidt believe it will help Louise to decide to marry Bernard if her son is gone. Schmidt takes him to his brother in Germany, but leaves her a letter that he will bring back the boy when she agrees to marry. Louise faints at the end of the act.

Act Three is set in the village marketplace several months later. The entrance to the Church faces into the square and a beer house with tables outside is opposite the church. Louise is on her way to church and meets Bernard, who is at the beer house. The child has not been returned to Louise who is going to pray. Jacque was also going to church.  He was blinded during a battle. Louise is taunted by several young village women.  The priest appears at the doors of the church and saves Louise from being persecuted.

Act Four takes place four years later. It is set in the same marketplace. The war is concluded and von Rauch, now a General, is sitting at the beer house with two other German officers. They have been sent to Belgium by the German government to witness the annual maneuvers of the Belgian army. Blind Jacques is taking a walk with Johnny, Louise’s son, who is five years old. Jacques becomes engaged in a conversation with the German officers and tells about Johnny being the son of von Rauch. Von Rauch abruptly leaves and the two German officers correctly assume he will offer Louise’s family hush money. 

Act Five takes place in a Belgian court. Von Rauch claims there is no tangible evidence in this case. Jean has the old cottage door brought into the court-room with von Rauch’s inscription written on it. Then the Judge calls Schmidt as a witness. Schmidt appears in the cottage doorway wearing his 1914 military uniform. General von Rauch draws a pistol from his pocket and shoots himself. The Judge proclaims justice has been served and Louise may marry. While the situation appears to be happily resolved, it is not for Louise. She is left stating: “No, no; the child is still there. It is impossible! It is impossible!”

This play was mainly known as a book drama. The publication of Martyr: A Tragedy of Belgium was noted in several literary journals. I do not know of any production other than the premier sponsored by the Belgian Women’s War Relief Committee of San Francisco.

NOTE:  Senator La Fontaine wrote a Preface for another play. I discussed this
              play in a post titled The Hate Breeders by Ednah Aikens and posted
              it on September 24, 2015.

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