Monday, November 21, 2016


John Drinkwater (1882-1937) was an experienced man of the theatre when he wrote his one-act, blank verse drama in 1917 titled X=0: A Night of the Trojan War. He was also recognized as one of the six Dymock Poets who, prior to World War One, made their homes near the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire, England. While Drinkwater’s contributions to poetry are significant, I will focus on X=0 for this post.

The title of the play is a mathematical equation that denotes two equals cancel each other out. It also indicates the reality of the situation is meaningless. The human component added to the mathematical one illustrates the absurdity of the situation.

X=0 is presented in four scenes. Scene One is a Grecian tent on the plain before Troy, near the end of the ten years’ war. Two young Greek soldiers are talking in their tent. Pronax is an aspiring statesman and Salvius is a poet. They share thoughts before Pronax leaves to catch a Trojan.

Scene Two takes place on the Trojan Wall during that same evening. Ilus, a career soldier, is going to raid the Greek camp. Capys, a sculptor, is on guard duty. They have time to share thoughts prior to Ilus’s departure to steal into the Greek’s camp. Once Capys is alone on watch, Pronax sneaks over the wall and kills him.

Scene Three takes place in the Greek tent where Salvuis is reading. He is found by Ilus, who kills him and leaves. Pronax returns to find Savius dead.

Scene Four is back at the Trojan Wall. It dramatizes Ilus’s return.

X=0 was premiered at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on April 14, 1917. It was presented as the second one-act on a triple bill—Everybody’s Husband by Gilbert Cannan (1884-1955) was presented first and Augustus in Search of a Father by Harold Chapin (1886-1915) was the third play. Chapin served in the British Royal Army Medical Corps and was killed in 1915 at the Battle of Loos.

It was not sheer coincidence that Chapin’s play was on the bill following X=0. If any audience members considered X=0 as strictly a story relating only to the Trojan War, the death of Harold Chapin would certainly help them to equate the deaths in the play with his death in the midst of World War One.

Heinz Kosok in his book The Theatre of War (2007) mentions that X=0 was twice revived in other triple-bill combinations at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and it ran for a total of twenty-one performances. He further speculates that this play did not create a patriotic outcry due partly to the high esteem of the author, partly because it was “merely a one-act play” and partly because “it expressed a feeling of disillusionment after the Somme debacle.”  In other words, the play spoke to audiences for a number of reasons while the wastefulness of war was the clear message.

But the play was not without public controversy.  The reviewer for the Birmingham Post wrote in his April, 1917 review: “Mr. Drinkwater’s play is not, as it may often seem to some, a homily against war. But it is an exhortation to those who sit beside their hearths to remember the great renunciation and sacrifice that youth must make in a just cause.” This same individual reviewed the play again on June 13, 1917 for the same newspaper.  He included his above thoughts and then states: “Since then it has received the public and private benediction of pacifists, of militarists, and conscientious objectors.” He continues by comparing Drinkwater’s 1914 poems that have a patriotic fervor with the sentiments in the play. Later in the review he forms the conjecture that Drinkwater was “apparently oblivious of all that England went to war for; all the great ideals or the great crimes which seem fitting theme for the poet’s pen he passes by.” 
These remarks and many others illustrate that the play was not without controversy in the press and in the minds of some members of the public. But the criticism did not stop the play from being popular. Commencing in 1919 and continuing throughout the next twenty plus years, X=0 was a performance piece for local dramatic clubs, colleges, and high schools throughout the United Kingdom. The Cheltenham Technical College presented the play in February, 1936. The review in the Cloucestershire Echo is without the condemnation of earlier reviews that were written as World War One ended. The reviewer states: “the Trojan War is any war, past or future, and it ‘cancels out’ without merciless mathematics the flowers of human culture, beauty, love, youth—on both sides of the senseless conflict.”

The British Broadcasting Company created a production of X=0 for its radio audience. The earliest notice I read about a broadcast was from 1925. I did not learn when this radio production was originally aired. The X=0 radio production was also broadcast to schools sporadically throughout the next ten years. BBC Television produced X=0. It began airing in August of 1939.

An operatic version of the play was created by Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998) a British composer, organist and pacifist. The opera titled The Equation premiered at the All Saints Church in London on January 11, 1968. He adapted Drinkwater’s X=0 with a change of setting as well as creating a new title. The opera portrays the Roman’s siege of Jerusalem. This opera is one of six written by Bush.

I have read newspaper announcements regarding productions of X=0 staged in Canada and the United States. These productions were mounted by nonprofessional theatre groups: colleges, dramatic clubs and high schools. The productions I read about were presented between 1939 and 1949. So X=0 was a play that also spoke to audiences during the Second World War.

Lamp Unto My Feet, an American ecumenical religious television program produced by Columbia Broadcast System, was broadcast nationally on Sunday mornings.  This weekly program created a version of X=0.  It was shown on the Fresno, California television station KFRE-TV on November 8, 1964. That probably was the date the program was aired across the United States.

X=0 was originally published by the author in 1917. The book was published under the title Pawns, Three Poetic Plays. The other two plays were The Storm (1915) and The God of Quiet (1916). All three plays were written by Drinkwater. This book received two more releases--1918 and 1919.

Another edition titled Pawns, Four Poetic Plays was published in 1920. It has an Introduction by Jack R. Crawford, Assistant Professor of English at Yale University. This version was published by Boston Houghton Mifflin and The University Press Cambridge. The fourth play that was added to the previous three is Cophetua (1911).

X=0 was also published in a volume titled Ten Modern Plays. These plays were selected and edited by John Hampden. The book was published by Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd. The first publication was December, 1928 and this edition was followed with ten reprints over the next eleven years. This volume had wide distribution on both sides of the Atlantic.

There appears to be renewed interest in X=0 and the other plays written by John Drinkwater. I have seen newspaper reports relating to several recent productions. Two productions were performed in 2016 at British universities.

NOTE: There are two on-line articles that provide additional information about John Drinkwater and X=0. 
1.      “THE WORD IS SAID” Re-reading the poetry of John Drinkwater by
          Adrian Barlow. The article is based on a talk given to the Friends of the
          Dymock Poets, 5 April 2008.

2.      The other piece is titled Drinkwater’s X=0—friend or foe.
 February 29, 2016 BY SILIBRARIAN. James Kelly is the author of 
 the article.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I came across X=0 while researching an exhibition about the history of performance at Edge Hill University in the UK. The Principal read the play at a meeting of a student society, Pons Asinorum, formed to ensure science students had the benefits of literature and culture. This was in 1920 when the institution was a teacher training college for women. An interesting choice of play for that event!