Thursday, July 27, 2017


As soon as I learned about this play, I wanted to read it.  After a prolonged search I found the script in British Literature of World War I, Volume 5 (Drama) edited by Andrew Maunder, published in 2011. It is a thought provoking British play that presents issues related to the women who supported the war effort by making ammunition. The Handmaidens of Death was written in 1919 by Herbert Tremaine. Tremaine was the pseudonym of Maude Deuchar (18??-1956).

The Handmaidens of Death is a one-act play in two scenes. Both scenes are set in a lane on the outskirts of a manufacturing town. There is a cottage where the characters congregate to buy refreshments. Also it is Mrs. Herring’s home where she takes in one or more female boarders.  Violet Tierney is a young shop assistant from Ireland who rooms at Mrs. Herring’s cottage. Five of the seven female characters in the play work in the local munitions factory.
Scene 1 takes place about noon on a bright July day in 1918. The conversation between the women focuses on the scarcity of eligible men and about those women who appear to collect more men than their fair share. Other aspects of their wartime situation, beyond the lack of men, quickly becomes apparent. By the end of the scene, Clara has an idea that the five “girls” should each write her name on a piece of paper and put it inside the shells. Another woman suggests adding “With our love to Fritz.” Their lunch-break is over and they leave for the factory.

Scene 2 takes place on a dark night one month later. (Blackout regulations were enforced at that time.) The five munitions women gather near the cottage. The women become aware that there are other people in the lane. There are five soldiers and the women are delighted. Each soldier knows the name of one woman. The women think the men are Italian, but they soon realize they are all named Fritz. It is a haunting scene that shares the impact of war on families from both sides of the conflict.

A contemporary reader or audience member might not understand the danger inherent in the work done by these women. They filled the ammunition shells with TNT and other dangerous materials. They often suffered the side-effects of toxic jaundice and many fatalities resulted. Frequently the faces of these unskilled women workers, who had to be over the age of twenty-one years, turned a bright yellow. They were given the nickname of “canaries”.

Herbert Tremaine was a well-known author of novels, plays and poems when The Handmaidens of Death was published in August, 1919.  The publisher of the play was C.W. Daniels, Ltd. London. This company published most of Tremaine’s works including her 1917 popular war novel The Feet of the Young Men. 
Even though The Handmaidens of Death was available as a book, there is no record of a production of this play once the war ended. Due to the efforts of Dr. Andrew Maunder, this play was recovered from the Lord Chamberlain’s archives in the British Library. As a result of the play’s publication in 2011, it received several productions.

A group of professional actors staged The Handmaidens of Death in June, 2012. This event took place in St Albans.  In November of the same year, another group created a production that was presented at the DeHavilland Sports and Social Club. This venue is located on the DeHavilland campus of the University of Hertfordshire. The cast was composed of professional actors and University of Hertfordshire students.

Under the program title “What the Women Did,” Two’s Company, a professional London theatre company, presented three one-act plays relating to World War One during January and February of 2014. The Handmaidens of Death was one of the plays. The performances were presented at Southwark Playhouse, London. The brief reviews that I read were positive and the three plays were credited with presenting a compelling picture of women facing their own responsibilities and demons in the midst of war.

The most recent production I read about was the announcement for The Flatpack Theatre Company’s production that was staged July 22 through 24, 2016 at The Henderson Hall. This presentation was Part of Abbots Langley’s “Back to the Front Project.” Abbots Langley is a large village in the English County of Hertfordshire. It is near where Herbert Tremaine lived as well being in the area where the munitions factory that she wrote about was located.

I appreciated reading this thought provoking play. The recovery of this play from the British Library archives provides aspects of life during World War One of which I was unaware.  I highly recommend it as a must read since it portrays not only the contribution of female factory workers to the war effort, but also the serious realization they were contributing to “bringing death into the world not life.”

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