Tuesday, December 5, 2017


When E. Temple Thurston’s (1870-1933) play The Cost opened at the Vaudeville Theatre on October 13, 1914, it was his third play that year to be staged at a major London theatre. The advertising slogan labelled it “A Play of the Moment” but apparently The Cost was not what audiences wanted to experience as theatrical entertainment. Although categorized as a comedy, the situations in the script may have been too close to audiences’ everyday lives.

Act One of this four act play is set in the country home of an upper middle-class English family named Woodhouse. It is the day Britain is on the brink of World War One awaiting Germany’s reply to her ultimatum (August 4, 1914). The dining room is set for breakfast and most of the family has gathered around the table awaiting one tardy son. The meal will not be served by the servants until morning prayers are read by Mr. Samuel Woodhouse, the head of the household and father to six adult children--three males and three females. The family’s breakfast table discussion reveals the chauvinism, selfishness, prejudices and other negative as well as naive characteristics of these individuals. The only character who appears to understand the reality of war is the eldest son, John, who is married and becoming known as an authority in Moral Philosophy--ethics.

All the members of the audience had recently lived through this day and some of the conversations in the play undoubtedly resonated with them since they quite likely had similar thoughts and discussions. 
Act Two is the same setting one month later—early September.  It is ten o’clock in the morning. Some of the realities of a nation at war are beginning to effect the Woodhouse family members. Their income is decreasing rapidly and the servants need to be dismissed. The family is required to billet soldiers in their home. Percy, the youngest son, does not want to enlist as a soldier, but he is serving as a military recruiter. The family is closely recording the battle locations on a map that is hanging over the mantelpiece.
The audiences have also just lived through the first month of war. They are very aware of this war as a dominating factor in their everyday lives.  Many have grappled with whether they should enlist in the armed services, just as John does. The review in the Sunday Times on October 18th states: “it (the play) is so painfully near reality that it adds to our anguish.”
Act Three is set in the kitchen of the Woodhouse home.  It is five days later and the time is two o’clock in the afternoon. The major crisis at the moment is that John’s wife, Judith, is in a bedroom upstairs giving birth to their first child. Mr. Woodhouse is trying to do a few kitchen chores, but he is totally inept. It is reported that the German army is sixteen miles from Paris. Lionel, the family’s middle son, is home from an institution where he had been housed prior to the war. The British government constantly needed more men to join the armed services since this was the period prior to the conscription acts. John is seriously considering becoming a soldier, if all is well with his wife and baby. The war situation and the characters reactions to it continue to reflect the initial period of this conflict.
The audiences are actually aligned with the characters in starting to understand the sacrifices that need to be made on the home-front as well as how to assist in the war effort. This act with its moment of joy due to the arrival of a healthy baby, also represents the need for the present generation to strive to provide a future for the next generation.
Act Four is set in the sitting room of John Woodhouse’s modest London flat. It is April, 1915 at 4:30 PM. The assembled family members are awaiting John’s return from the front where he was wounded but recovering. Percy, who John coerced, joined the military and is also on sick leave in London. When John arrives the family is excited to see him and he appears uninjured, however, he has paid a major price for his service. His head wound has impaired his ability to concentrate and he will not be capable of writing future contributions in the field of Moral Philosophy.
The final speech in the play is delivered by John. He cites several points about the role war plays in civilization. Two of the more significant ideas: 1. “War is strife, and strife is the striving of men’s souls, and without that striving we should all wither into nothingness.” 2. “As long as there is fearlessness in the souls of a man, there will always be war - always.”
I believe Thurston is addressing the new statement that was circulating in Great Britain after the start of World War One: “The war that will end war.” This statement was initially made by H.G. Wells (1866-1946) in August, 1914.   Wells quickly wrote essays regarding the war that were individually published in London newspapers prior to being collected into a book in early October, 1914. The book was published in London by Frank & Cecil Palmer under the title The War That Will End War.  This popular publication was reprinted two more times during the same month.  While Wells was clear in what he meant by this phrase, Thurston was possibly reacting to the broadest interpretation of its meaning.
Act Four is the only act of the play that is set in the future. It does not dwell on gory details of the battlefield or the home front problems, but it does have the sense of loss without the loss of life. This is the only segment of the play that audience members had not actually experienced, but it begins to prepare them for the major life changes that war can inflict.
The Cost closed after twenty performances on October 30, 1914 despite starring Owen Nares (1888-1943) as John Woodhouse.  I have not found any evidence that the play was ever revived at a later date. The script was published in London by Chapman & Hall, Ltd., 1914. This edition of the play is dedicated to Miriam Clements. There was an English actress by this name, but I have not found any additional information about her or why this play may have been dedicated to her.
While The Cost was not a major stage success in its time, I found it most enlightening as a study of the British citizenry’s thoughts, problems, actions and reactions during the initial months of the war. It is a thought-provoking work and seemingly honest in its assessments. 
E. Temple Thurston was a renowned novelist and playwright during his lifetime.  He wrote approximately forty novels and more than fourteen plays. His biggest success on stage written in 1921 was titled The Wandering Jew. It was inspired by the French novel of the same name written in 1844 by Eugene Sue.
Photo of  E. Temple Thurston from Quazoo.com

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