Monday, December 9, 2019


George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) wrote two one-act comedies during World War One which continue to be humorous: The Inca of Perusalem (1915) and Augustus Does His Bit; A True-to-Life Farce (1916). Each play provides a comedic portrait of an unusual person involved with World War One.

The Inca of Perusalem portrays Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) of Germany, who ruled during World War One. Shaw states in his introduction to the first printed copy of the play (1919):

      I must remind the reader that this playlet was written when its principal character,
      far from being a fallen foe and virtually a prisoner in our victorious hands, was
      still the Caesar whose legions we were resisting with our hearts in our mouths.

Shaw wanted audiences immediately to identify his character named the Inca of Perusalem with Kaiser Wilhelm II.  The most obvious physical facial characteristic was the Kaiser’s mustache.  This not only informed the audience, but also identified the character of the Inca to Ermyntrude, the drama’s “fashionable and handsome” leading lady.

                                                                 KAISER WILHELM 

The play begins with a Prologue staged in-front of the stage curtain. The Archdeacon is upset with his adult daughter, Ermyntrude, who is a widow of a rich American.  Unfortunately, she is an extravagant woman left with only one hundred and fifty pounds a year. Her father tells her that she “had better become lady’s maid to a princess until you can find another millionaire to marry you.”

The Inca of Perusalem is set in the living room of a suite in a mid-range London hotel.  A helpless, spinster Princess is currently a guest in this hotel; however, the suite is below her usual standard of accommodations. Ermyntrude presents herself to the Princess and immediately commences to be an invaluable aid to her royal highness. As a result, Ermyntrude is quickly hired to serve as the Princess’s majordomo.  The Princess requests Ermyntrude to meet with an officer who has arrived to interview her on behalf of the Inca of Perusalem. The Inca desires to have the Princess marry one of his sons.

The major segment of this play deals with the Inca’s officer named Captain Duval, who is the Inca in disguise, and his flirtatious session with Ermyntrude, who is pretending to be the Princess. The boastful Inca tries to win Ermyntrude with gifts and pretentiousness. She wittily and arrogantly avoids all his advances and gifts. However, both pretenders eventually claim to have recognized each other from the onset and regard their visit as enjoyable.

The Inca of Perusalem was premiered by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on October 9, 1916. The production was directed by John Drinkwater (1882-1937) with Gertrude Kingston (1862-1937) starring as Ermyntrude and Felix Aylmer (1889-1979) as the Inca.

A production opened in Dublin on March 12, 1917.  It was a hit and the reviewer in the Freeman’s Journal called it “a very transparent secret.”  He mentioned that it was “Horrid fun.  All I ask is for more of it.”

The first London production opened on December 16, 1917 at the Criterion Theatre. It was produced by the Pioneer Players, a London theatre society, starring Randle Ayrton (1869-1940) with Gertrude Kingston recreating the role of Ermyntrude.

The Inca of Perusalem was originally presented on Broadway at the Maxine Elliott Theatre opening on November 14, 1916. It played for forty-two performances closing on December 30, 1916. This production was presented by The Gertrude Kingston Company from London.  Kingston toured this play and two others to American cities during many of the remaining years of World War One.

The Inca of Perusalem remained popular in the United States long after the war ended. The play was seen nationally during a live National Broadcasting Company’s television production on July 3, 1955. Sir Cedric Hardwicke (1893-1964) starred as the Inca and his wife Mary Scott (1921-2009) as Ermyntrude.

In 1916, Shaw wrote Augustus Does His Bit: A True To-Life Farce. This one-act play pokes fun at British men of the governing class, who are serious about helping to win the war, but are too inept to be of actual assistance. Lord Augustus Highcastle, who heads a tiny military office in the small English town of Little Pifflington, learns that a female German spy is coming to steal an important document he possesses.  The Lady, as she is called in the script, arrives at Augustus’s office and flatters him. She easily outwits Augustus and secures the real document; however, the entire caper is a sham rigged by Augustus’s brother known as “Blueloo” who desires to expose Augustus’s incompetence.

In January of 1917, the Stage Society of London had secured the rights to perform “Augustus.” This group took this one-act play to Flanders for the soldiers to enjoy. Shaw also had been invited to be there by the Commander-in-Chief. Shaw states that this play “opened the heart of every official to me.” He claimed that he was told by them “We are up against Augustus all day.” Shaw said that the government departments knew their problem was “how to win the war with Augustus on their backs, well-meaning, brave, patriotic, but obstructively fussy, self-important, imbecile, and disastrous.”

The Stage Society performed the play in London at the Court Theatre on January 21,1917. Augustus was played by F.B.J. Sharp (1873-1964) and The Lady was Lalla Vandervelde.  The Stage in its January 25, 1917 edition had a review of this production that ended with this comment: The play “was by no means received with enthusiasm at the Court.” However, this play frequently appeared on stages across Great Britain throughout the rest of the twentieth century.
                                                                 LALLA VANDERVELDE

Augustus Does His Bit was premiered in the United States by the Drama League Players in Washington, D.C. at Poli’s Theatre on December 10, 1917. Although this was not a production performed by Broadway stars, it was mentioned in newspapers across the country. The article was titled “How Officers Helped Augustus to “Do His Bit.”’ There were English officers seated in the theatre’s left-hand box. When they saw that the actor playing Augustus standing in the wings was not dressed in an English regulation uniform, one officer quickly gave the actor his regulation coat and another provided his khaki collar.

On March 12, 1919 a professional production opened in New York City at the Comedy Theatre. It played for five performances starring Hubert Druce (1870-1931) as Augustus and Merle Madden (1887-1984) as The Lady.  This play was billed in the newspaper advertisement as “G. Bernard Shaw’s Latest Trifle.”

The play was popular throughout the United States and NBC-TV aired its television version nationally on October 31, 1966.  This television production continued to be shown periodically over the next three years.

Both plays sparkle with wit and insights. They remain good fun and would be a delight to see today.

Kaiser's photo by T.H. Voigt on 31 December 1901
Portrait of Lalla Vandervelde by Roger Fry, Painted in 1917

No comments:

Post a Comment