Saturday, July 21, 2018

TWO SHORT WAR PLAYS by GALSWORTHY


When World War One commenced John Galsworthy (1867-1933) was forty-seven years old and a highly successful author of novels and plays. His poor eyesight precluded him from serving in the British armed services. Galsworthy actively supported the war effort in various activities such as working in France for the Red Cross, helping refugees in Belgium and working for the British War Propaganda Bureau where he wrote about supporting wounded soldiers. He also used his writing skills to develop stories and plays related to returning disabled soldiers.

                                                           JOHN GALSWORTHY 1919

 Galsworthy’s short plays depict the reality of war on individuals. These dramas pack both an emotional and intellectual punch since the characters are precisely drawn for a single emotional episode. In his essay titled “Some Platitudes Concerning Drama” published in 1912, Galsworthy sets forth the basic idea “Every grouping of life and character has its inherent moral; and the business of the dramatist is so to pose the group as to bring that moral poignantly to the light of day.”

Defeat, written in 1917, was designated by Galsworthy as “A Tiny Drama.” It is a two-character play--the young English Officer and The Girl, who identifies herself as Russian and later admits to being German. The Officer had just been released from the hospital earlier that day. He meets The Girl after he attended a concert.  The scene is a nearly empty room with only a few items of furniture and a little maidenhair fern*. The room is where the Girl lives.

The Girl is lonely and destitute. She obtains a bit of money as a prostitute.  After the concert the Officer had stopped to talk to her since she seemed sad. In her room, she speaks about her inner most feelings and she revealed that she does not like men. He speaks about men being at their best in the trenches. She tells him she is afraid all the time and eventually reveals that she is German. She sneers at the people on both sides of the war and upsets him by being so negative. He starts to leave her, but before he does he tells her: “No, we don’t only love ourselves; there is more. I can’t explain, but there’s something great; there’s kindness—and—and—" Suddenly there are shouts outside the window from a newspaper boy: “Great victory—great victory!”  Since The Officer’s thoughts are interrupted by the news of victory, he leaves.  The play ends as men passing The Girl’s window sing “Rule Britannia!” and she begins to sing “Die Wacht am Rhein.”

Defeat was premiered in London by the Curtain Group on March 20, 1920 at the Lyric Theatre also known as the Lyric Hammersmith. It was produced again two year later in London by Everyman Theatre during the Easter holiday season.  Era reported on April 19,1922 that The Officer was played by Herbert Marshall (1890-1966). Marshall, who would become a highly successful actor on stage, screen, radio and television on both sides of the Atlantic, served in the British Army during World War One and he was injured during a battle on the Western Front. As a result, his left leg was amputated. Since he desired to return to acting as his profession, he had to learn to walk perfectly with a prosthetic leg. The Officer would have been a role with which he could empathize. The play continued to be produced by local theatre groups throughout England during the 1920s and into the early 1930s. 

Americans were exposed to Galsworthy’s Defeat in 1917 when it was one of seven short stories published in Scribner’s Magazine’s annual fiction issue number twenty-eight. Defeat was not published in England prior to its 1920 presentation on stage. English publishers may have shied away from this work since it portrayed a German person sympathetically during the war years. 
Once the play made its debut in London, the community theatres across the United States started producing it. Defeat was produced numerous times throughout the 1920s and 1930s.   

I read several reviews related to Defeat being presented in the Tampa Bay area of Florida during the late 1920s into the early 1930’s. Ruth Thane was always named as presenting it as a one-woman monologue. Ms. Thane was trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. She presented her version of Defeat while she was living in Florida. After her husband died in1934, Ms. Thane resumed her professional acting career on television, on Broadway and in films under the name Ruth McDevitt (1895-1976).

The Sun, designated by Galsworthy as A Scene, was written in 1921-22. There are three characters: The Girl, The Man and The Soldier.  This is how they are designated in the script, but the characters refer to each other by their birth names—Daisy, Jim and Jack. Jim, a soldier, was wounded and returned to England to recuperate. He met Daisy and they fell in love. Jack was Daisy’s boyfriend when he went to war four years earlier. Since victory has been proclaimed, Jack just returned to England. Daisy is to meet Jack by a river. Jim has come with Daisy for this event.

This short play demonstrates two different ways that some of the fighting men had been affected by the war experience.  Jim refuses to leave and allow Daisy to meet with Jack alone. Jim speaks about how the war has affected him: “But I’m not accountable—not always, I tell you straight—not since I’ve been through that.”  He also shows Daisy that he has a knife with him. She is afraid that Jim will become violent.

Jack arrives and sees Daisy. He has promised himself a happy life if he lived to return home. He is extremely astute.  Jim quickly emerges from some bushes where he has taken cover and Jack immediately sees the knife in Jim’s pocket.  Jack discerns that Jim was wounded in combat and understands how the war has affected him. Jack does not try to reclaim Daisy, but he leaves as happy as he was when he arrived. This short play quickly demonstrates that many returning soldiers were wounded mentally as well as physically. The former affliction they may have for the rest of their lives. This remarkable play deserves to be to be read or seen on stage.

The Sun was premiered in 1922 at the Liverpool Playhouse where it was the first serious war play to be presented by this theatre. The Playhouse was primarily interested in presenting new short plays and it staged nearly one hundred of them. I found that only a few productions of this play were presented by local theatre groups outside of London after its premier.

The Sun was published in the United States in 1921 by Charles Scribners and Sons with five other short plays by Galsworthy including Defeat.  The book is titled Six Short Plays by John Galsworthy. The Sun was presented in 1922 by several American Little Theater groups particularly in California. It continued to be staged sporadically in different cities throughout the rest of the 1920s and into the middle 1930s.

In 1950 a production of The Sun was produced by NBC for American television viewing under the program titled “Chevrolet Theatre.” This production shown nationally starred British actors who also performed on Broadway: John Buckmaster (1915-1983) and Torin Thatcher (1905-1981).  The Girl was played by American actress Cara Williams (1925-    ).

Both Defeat and The Sun are thought-provoking plays that give meaningful insights into everyday situations World War One soldiers faced when they returned home.

NOTES:
1                  Photo: John Galsworthy and Disabled Soldiers of the Great War.
           Reznick, Jeffrey S. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.
    
2                    Maidenhair fern is known for its Lazarus effect of returning to life from the dead.

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