Saturday, February 6, 2021



Velona Pilcher’s (1894-1952) service as a Red Cross Searcher in France during 1918-19 inspired her to write a play in 1928-29 that shared some of her experiences and other incidents she had witnessed. Pilcher was born in England. Her father was British and her mother was American. Both of her parents had died by the time she was seven years old. She was raised in the United States by an aunt.

After Pilcher graduated from Stanford University, she volunteered for war related work as a member of the Stanford Women’s Relief Unit. This organization required its women serving in Europe to be at least twenty-five years old, Pilcher was too young for the assignment she desired. Eventually she was accepted for European service by the British Red Cross. Pilcher’s Red Cross work took place in France close to the Front at Bazeille-sur-Meuse where her primary assignment was to identify missing soldiers. Her title was “Searcher.”

The Searcher is one of the most unusual scripts I have ever read. Normally I prefer to read a play in one sitting.  I found that I had to stop reading after each one of the first three scenes, I needed time to absorb the scene. There are eight scenes in the play and each one is written so that a reader or an audience member experiences it through the eyes of Searcher. 

Pilcher’s instructions in the printed version of the play state:

There is no interval in this performance and there is no silence

during the seven short rests between scenes, but across the moments of

darkness a theatrical kind of music—composed of the natural noises of war

unnaturally echoed, accented and anticipated—carries on the action,

bridging the broken places with significant sound.

The reprinted version of the script includes a photograph for each one of the nine wood-engravings by Londoner Blair Hughes-Stanton (1902-1981).  The first image is “The Curtain” and a different wood-engraving introduces each scene. The wood-engravings contribute greatly to the reader’s ability to envision the location and mood of each scene.  The first edition of the The Seacher contains photographs of the wood-engravings and it was published in 1929 by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. Garden City, N.Y. The book was initially released in New York City and London bookstores on the same day. There have been at least four editions published between 1929 and 2015.

Scene One commences as Reveille is played. The setting is in the empty ward of an Evacuation Hospital. The Red Cross Searcher enters as the day begins. She is met by a young Sergeant who informs Searcher, a woman in her early fifties, of her duties which relate to searching for missing soldiers among the patients as well as distributing Red Cross supplies.  She is also expected to read and write all personal correspondence for incapacitated patients. The patients begin to be brought into the ward and Searcher begins her duties for the day. As the scene is ending, Searcher is reprimanded because she questioned a regulation concerning not being allowed to give comfort to a wounded enemy soldier.                                                                   

                                                                            Scene One

It is through Searcher’s eyes that one envisions and comprehends World War One. Searcher is increasingly exposed to the difficulties and realities of a make-shift hospital located near the Front. While the play is based on past events, there is a moment in Scene Three that really resonates today. The entire staff is assembled quickly and commanded to wear “influenza-masks” as a precaution against the “present epidemic pestilence or plague” whenever they are in the hospital’s wards.

Searcher’s duties take her to several locations throughout the play. Scene Three is a repeat location of Scene One, but this time it is afternoon. During Scenes Two, Four and Six, she has a small table to use as desk. This station is in the Cinema Hut. Scene Five is muddy path outside between Huts. Scene Seven is the interior of an ambulance train with two tiers of bunks lining the walls and Scene Eight is a graveyard that also utilizes the strong perspective lines of a tunnel that is suggested in the other locations.  The scenic and lighting design further illustrate that The Searcher is not a realistic drama.


                                                                            Scene Two 


                                                                        Scene Three

                                                                      Scene Seven                                            
                                                                         Scene Eight 

This script has many elements that place it in the category of Expressionism, but the story Pilcher tells drives the style rather than the reverse.  All the scenes in The Searcher have vivid descriptions of the sound effects. Pilcher emphatically details all the staging elements. I found while reading the play that several times the sound descriptions caused me to have a sensation of being hammered by overwhelming noise. The play requires the constant sounds of war throughout, just as Pilcher stipulated for the short intervals between scenes.

While words of songs are in the script there is no mention of the music. There was an original score written for the 1930 London production. It was created by Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986), who later in his career became a renowned composer. The Northampton Mercury in its March 28, 1930 edition mentions that “young Edmund Duncan-Rubbra” was commissioned to write the music. It stated that the production “will to be on very Modernist lines as the whole of it will be rhythmic like a ballet. The orchestra is a curious one, a piccolo, violin, double base, piano, side drum, tympanum, Chinese cymbal and tambourine.” It is my understanding that this is the only work of Rubba’s that has never been published or recorded.

The Searcher opened on May 23,1930 at London’s newly established Grafton Theatre located in Tottenham Court Road. Judith Wogan (circa:1888-1966) had an old cinema remolded for this experimental theatre that was managed entirely by women. The Grafton was a small theatre with 250 seats. A modest sized revolving stage was installed to create rapid scene changes.  This would have been a great asset for staging The Searcher.

The June 19,1930 issue of The Stage reported that the schedule at the Grafton Theatre for The Searcher would change to one evening performance and one matinee each week. I have no information regarding how long this play remained in the repertory.

Prior to the London premier of The Searcher, Yale University’s School of Drama staged a production in March,1930. It was directed By George P. Baker (1866-1935), the faculty member who served as one of the founders the Yale School of Drama.  The set was designed by Donald Oenslager (1902-1975) a young Yale faculty member, who became one of the most recognized names in American scene design during the twentieth century.

In July of 1930, a story circulated in newspapers throughout the United States and Canada titled “Female ‘Journey’s End’ Bows.” It mentioned that The Searcher was following the ideas of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, but from a female point of view.

I read about two productions of this play performed since 2000. A workshop production of The Searcher was presented in 2003 by London’s Two’s Company. It was part of this theatre’s Forgotten Voices series that featured plays related to World War One. This theatre designated its production of The Searcher as part of Greenwich Theatre’s Musical Futures.

In 2008, Two’s Company again staged The Searcher at London’s Greenwich Theatre. It was directed by Graham Cowley (????-   ). Two’s Company had joined with Nitro in 2008, a group developed in 1979 that created opportunities for black artists in Great Britain. I have neither found any additional information that would add to an understanding of this production, the length of its run, its major participants nor reviews of the presentation.

The Searcher is a gripping play that draws the reader into its emotional energy as well as its storyline.


Further reading: Purkis, Charlotte. “The Mediation of Constructions of Pacifism in Journey’s End and The Searcher, two Contrasting Dramatic Memorials from the Late 1920’s.” Journalism Studies 17  February 2016: 1-15.                                                   


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