Wednesday, April 19, 2017


When Harold Brighouse (1882-1958) wrote the one-act comedy titled Once A Hero in 1922, he was a popular British playwright and storyteller.  His 1915 play Hobson’s Choice had established his international reputation. He was a prolific author who eventually wrote fifteen full-length plays and fifty one-acts.

Once A Hero was produced by the London Players on June 26, 1922.  The play was under the direction of two young actors Henry Oscar (1891-1969) and W. Edward Stirling (1891-1948) who also played the character named A Tramp. It was presented at Ambassadors Theatre.

This home front story takes place sometime following the conclusion of World War One. It is placed in a small city named Calderside, somewhere in Great Britain. The setting is the ante-room to the hall of a newly constructed canteen, outside the works of Sir William Rumbold Ltd. This new building for the employees is named for a prior employee, Timothy Martlow, who heroically died in battle.  The dedication is scheduled for the evening of March 10th and Sir William arrives a little early to make sure his male secretary, Edward Fosdike, has made all the correct arrangements.

This new facility has cost Sir William the princely sum of ten thousand pounds (at least 800,000 pounds today). Sir William sees his new building as a monument in goodwill—it is a clubhouse to serve as a center of social activities for employees of both sexes. Rumbold wants this dedication of the building event to be perfect. Fosdike reminds Rumbold that before the war Martlow was a drunk and a “blackguard”. 

As the two men discuss how to speak well of Martlow without drawing sniggers from the attendees, Dolly Wainwright, a “young person, cheaply smart in a check blanket-coat,” arrives to create another problem for Rumbold.  She claims to be the unwed mother of Martlow’s baby. This creates another hitch to Rumbold’s plans for the evening. As Rumbold agrees to settle this problem by providing Dolly with a pension for life, A Tramp enters the room.  “He is a large, powerful man, bearded, long-haired, hat well over his face.” The plot twists and turns as the comedy builds. I do not want to reveal more than “A Tramp” is Timothy Martlow. I found the plot to be cleverly manipulated and enjoyed the colorful characters. The situation is set during the period of time it takes to see or read the play.  Therefore, the story has a strong sense of unity even though one may feel the situation is somewhat absurd.

This play also addresses the various effects the war experience may have on different individuals. It shows examples of recognizing bravery, improving conditions for those who survived, using the results of the war as a means for personal gain and gaining insight into one’s sense of who he/she really is. This play has an optimistic perspective rather than the skeptical attitude that was more widespread among the war-weary population. 

I have been searching for evidence of productions that followed the premiere, but I have been unsuccessful in discovering either professional or amateur ones. The only one I found was listed in a 1924 report written by the General Director for the Jewish People’s Institute of Chicago. The Director noted the organization continued to present mainly one-act plays before large audiences of young adults. Once A Hero was one of the plays produced during its fourteenth season (1923-24).

I read Once A Hero on the HathiTrust Digital Library.  This script was originally published by Gowans & Gray Publishers in London as well as LeRoy Phillips in Boston. Both publications were dated 1922.

The play was also published as a short story.  It first appeared in The Best Short Stories of 1922 published by Small, Maynard and Company, Boston. The short story version was republished more recently in The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, October 25, 2007. The promotion for this volume states: “These stories are able to illustrate the impact of the Great War on British society and culture and the many modes in which short fiction contributes to the war’s literature.”  This statement certainly underscores what Brighouse was doing with his play that became a successful short story .
In 1938 there was a popular film titled Once A Hero starring Fay Wray and Richard Dix that played all over Great Britain. This 1937 Hollywood movie was later renamed It Happened in Hollywood and it does not relate in any manner to Brighouse’s play.

1.      Please send me information about productions of this play that I have not listed.
2.      This blog also contains my post about Brighouse’s play Hobson Choice.

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