Saturday, August 27, 2016


By the time Stephen Phillips (1868-1915) penned his “epic war drama” Armageddon in 1915, he was considered an exceptional British poet and dramatist. Armageddon would be his last work. He became ill during the Fall of 1915 and died on December 9, 1915. Phillips was forty-eight years old.

Phillips published his first collection of poems in 1896 under the title of Christ in Hades.  He rapidly became a famous poet and his poems were received by the public with interest and enthusiasm.  Phillips’s first drama, Paolo and Francesca, written in 1900 and performed in 1902 was also successful.  Paolo and Francesca starred the renowned actor George Alexander (1858-1918) at the St. James Theatre.  It ran for 130 performances. Phillips wrote ten more well received plays followed his first theatrical success. The London theatre critics and audiences anticipated the opening of Armageddon on June 1, 1915 at the New Theatre.

Phillips experimented with his writing style for Armageddon. He abandoned the chronological approach to telling a story. Instead he presented different vignettes that did not directly relate to each other.  Each scene provided a different message about the war. It takes thought to collect the messages in order to determine the over-arching message. The play is divided into a Prologue, four scenes not connected to each other by locale or recurring characters and concludes with an Epilogue.  The dialogue is written in both poetic verse in some segments of the play and prose in the rest. Several of the scenes in this play are either ripped from the newspaper headlines of the day or set in the future when victory is near. 

Armageddon does contain many of the typical features of most of the British war plays at this time. Particular acts of German barbarity are part of the pattern: prisoners being killed by German firing squads, accounts of women being ravished by the enemy, authorities of the towns being mocked as well as put to death and symbols of the government and/or church being wantonly destroyed. Two other features included incorporating a spy into the plot as well as a heart rendering scene of a Mother’s loss of her brave son.

The Prologue, written in verse, is set in Hell where Satan sits upon his throne. Beelzebub, Moloch (Lord of War) and Belial (Lord of Lies) help Satan to begin hatching his plan of a horrific world war.  Eventually the Shade of Attila is dispatched to Earth to use his fury with “Engines that can belch Armies away, and lay high cities flat.” 

Scene One is a room in a French chateau overlooking the city of Reims. It is a cruel scene that illustrates the attitude of the advancing German army and its Generals. The first segment of the scene relates to a French man who is suspected by the Germans of being a spy. The second part of the scene deals with the commanding German General’s final proclamation to the Abbé of Reims Cathedral: “The war we bring is not of blood alone, No, but to desecrate all that is dear.”  The Germans destroyed the Cathedral of Reims, a French national monument, during the September 1914 attack on the city.

Scene Two is set in an English orchard at sunset. Lady Carteret, a widow, whose home is this estate and the young woman, who is the fiancée of the widow’s only son, are seated under an apple tree.  A messenger brings word of the death of Lady’s Carteret’s son.  He died at the front—“a splendid death.” While both mourn the death, Lady Carteret summarizes the loss:
 “Your sorrow is the future, mine the past;
   You can but fret, while I for ever pine.”

Scene Three is the Office of the German Press Bureau in Berlin. The men of the German press fabricate lies to illustrate how successfully the Germans are advancing and destroying its enemies. During a press session, the Editor of the Press Bureau inadvertently approves publishing a story that contains a kernel of truth. He is immediately removed from his position.

Scene Four is in the chief room in the house of the Burgomaster of Cologne. Elsa, the Burgomaster’s daughter, and Clothilde, a Belgian, await the arrival of the French, Belgian and English armies. They are aware of how young women are treated by advancing armies, but Elsa plans to speak with the commanding officer. She entreats General Murdoch to save her city from ruin and to protect Cologne Cathedral which is Germany’s largest cathedral and one of its national monuments. Despite the desire for revenge by the Allied armies, the English, French and Belgian generals agree to spare the cathedral after the French General named Larrier dreams that the spirit of Saint Joan visits him and entreats to “Forego Revenge!”  “Let not my land in victory lose her soul!”

The Epilogue, written in verse, returns to the scene in Hell. Attila reports that a strange influence has interrupted his power to lay waste to everything.  Satan is devastated and bemoans his loss of evil doing. 

Armageddon premiered to a capacity audience in London with John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944) taking three major roles—Satan, Abbé and British General Murdoch. It should have been an incredible success, but it was not. An article in the New York Times dated June 20, 1915 has the rationale that I prefer to believe about this play’s failure in London: “Reviewers said good things about the play, but were agreed in the feelings that the big events of the day were too close, too real, too terrible, and too familiar for Mr. Phillips to get them into either poetic or dramatic focus.”  The London production of Armageddon closed after fourteen performances.

The printed script for Armageddon was published in time to be sold during the London performances of the play. Jack Lane Company published the play both in London and New York City.

John Martin-Harvey took the entire London production on tour to the cities and towns in Great Britain commencing in early September of 1915 and lasting well into spring of 1916.  The play was greeted positively throughout the country. Several newspaper reviews that I read mentioned that the “play was extremely well received.” 

Armageddon presented several unvarnished replicas of 1914-15 war events that provided a sense of the trauma and angst that was occurring. While Phillips’s style is somewhat experimental, it is very theatrical. This could be an interesting piece to stage for contemporary audiences to commemorate the centenary years of the war.

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