Thursday, May 27, 2021



Miles Malleson (1888-1969) wrote ‘D’ Company in late 1914 when he was a Private in a British Territorial battalion assigned to Malta. Black ‘Ell was written in the Fall of 1916. These two one-act plays were published in a single volume in November,1916. The book was available for sale at Hendersons, a bookstore located on London’s Charing Cross Road. On the first day that this book was available, the police accompanied with military members entered Hendersons and confiscated all the books. The British Government then banned the two plays from being staged in theatres. The rational for these two actions was that the plays were deemed to be “a deliberate calumny of the British soldier.” Malleson retorted “To write a deliberate calumny of the British soldier was the last thing I wanted to do, yet the book was called that by a cabinet minister who had not read it.” It was not until 1925 that these two plays were cleared for publication and in 1926, they were each granted the opportunity to be licensed for performance.

From today’s perspective it is easy to understand why these two plays, written from a soldier’s point of view in the early years of World War One, would be banned by the government. ‘D’ Company reveals a glimpse of what life was like for recently inducted British soldiers, who were deployed to face the enemy in Malta. The playwright specifically sets the time of this play as “October 1914” and “the Great War is now in its third month.”  Malleson states “It is, in one sense real: there is scarcely a sentence in it that I did not hear, or an episode I did not witness.” The play illustrates that the training these young soldiers received was inadequate and haphazard.

The officer in charge of ‘D’ Company is Corporal Charles Joyner, he is about fifty years old and his job in London was to mend roads. The soldiers are all young, uneducated men who are “Very much English civilians under their khaki uniforms.” There is one Cambridge University educated, upper class Private in this unit named Dennis Garside. These young men are barely being prepared to face an enemy in combat. It is a poignant theatre piece that would have been distressing to readers and audiences in its time, and I found that it remains so today.

Black ‘Ell, Malleson’s, other censored one-act play, dramatizes how war is perceived differently by those on the home-front from the young soldiers engaged in the battles. The situation revolves around Harold Gould, a soldier from an upper-class background, who arrives home from the Front to receive the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). This recognition is being given to him for extraordinary service in combat. During one battle, Harold killed six enemy soldiers.

While his parents, girlfriend and others herald him a hero, Harold realized that the German soldiers he killed were young men just like him who will be mourned by their loved ones. Harold only remembers killing one soldier who, just prior to his death, reached for a picture of his sweetheart that he wore around his neck. Harold believes he may have done the same thing if he was dying.

Harold’s other realization is that many of his fellow British soldiers never had a chance to have a better life since they lacked education and opportunity. Harold’s two perceptions suddenly put the war into a different perspective for him and he believes that the war needs to cease immediately. He resolves not to return to the Front and fight.

Black ‘Ell’s strong antiwar message became useful to the League of Nations Union. This British organization was formed in 1918 and local chapters developed in cities throughout the kingdom. The League’s major goal was to maintain a permanent peace between nations. Many cities throughout England formed their own local chapters of this organization. Black ‘Ell was presented by numerous dramatic clubs all over Great Britain throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. Many of these productions were sponsored by the League of Nations Union. Black ‘Ell’ was also presented in Canada and the United States by numerous nonprofessional dramatic organizations throughout this same postwar period.

During October 2003, ‘D’ Company and Black ‘Ell were presented in London by Producer Graham Cowley under the general title of “Forgotten Voices From the Great War.”  A short article by Rob Speight in Stage on October 23, 2003 stated that the producer and directors of the plays “can be sure they will instill the real horror and tragedy of war on unsuspecting audiences.”

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