Wednesday, December 29, 2021

PAUL RAYNAL’S THE UNKNOWN WARRIOR (Le Tombeau Sous L’Arc de Triomphe)


The French title of Paul Raynal’s 1924 play refers to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which was created in Paris in1920. It is the grave for a World War One Unknown French Soldier located beneath L’Arc de Triomphe. The French monument created an interest in other countries to dedicate a similar single national site to commemorate a nation’s unknown military dead, whose identities are “known but to God.”

Raynal (1885-1971) served as a soldier of France for four years during World War I in Champagne and in the French Army of the Orient. This special French unit was created in October 1915 after the allies lost the Dardanelles Campaign. His military experience fueled Raynal with the desire to write a trilogy of plays about World War One. The Unknown Warrior written in 1923-24 is the first of these plays.  It was followed by La Francerie, a three act play that was performed in 1933 at the Comedie-Francise in Paris. The third play, written in 1935, is titled Le Materiel humain. It was staged after World War II. This third play was not a theatrical success; however, it was published in 1946.

The Unknown Warrior is a tragedy in three acts.  Act I consist of five scenes. Acts II and III have one scene each.  The cast is composed of three characters. The French Soldier wears “the regulation uniform of an infantry regiment without any badges or distinguishing marks, save a number on the collar.” His Father, who is not described, and “Aude, a girl of twenty,” who is the Soldier’s fiancée. At the opening of Act One, Aude and the Father are awaiting the arrival of The Soldier for his first visit home. Aude has not seen him in fourteen months and eight days.  They plan to get married during his four-hour visit. The date is October 8, 1915, and the time is 2 A.M. “The setting is a house in the country, a day’s journey from Paris.”

Over the course of the Soldier’s brief visit, the reader is exposed to how the war is overshadowing his youth, his love, and his life.  Each one of the characters represents a point of view regarding war. This places the Soldier in conflict with his patriotic father who does not realize the hard realities of the current war. His relationship with Aude is not as solid as he hoped. She held the romantic idea of being attached to a soldier departing to the Front. Additionally, the Soldier offered her the opportunity to move to his farm, away from Paris, where she would live more safely.

Upon the Soldier’s return home, Aude realizes his absence has dissolved her love for him. She gives herself to him even though the planned marriage ceremony never takes place. The Soldier is determined to live in the present during every moment of his home visit and he succeeds despite the difficulties the other two characters present.  The Soldier was granted this four-hour home visit since he volunteered for a dangerous assignment which is believed by his Commanding Officers to lead to certain death.

The focus of the play is on the Soldier. It shows the issues that soldiers must face to survive on the battlefield.  The attitude of the soldier is one of endurance. Throughout the play the Soldier raises the question “what is war?” and there are multiple answers—War is drudgery. War is uncertainty. War is the anguish of waiting. War is learning how to accept bad news. War is the faith that something positive is to evolve from all the sacrifice. These are several of the insights.

The Unknown Warrior was premiered on January 30, 1924 at the Paris National Theatre, the Comedie-Francaise. Not every critic was positive about this play following its initial performances. Some critics believed it was critical and disrespectful of the common French soldier, but these points were eventually dismissed.  The play was revived in 1929 at the Theatre de l’Odeon, Paris.

The Unknown Warrior was first performed in England in 1924 at London’s Arts Theatre Club, but it was not published in English until 1928.  The translation was done by Cecil Lewis (1898-1997) who was an ace English pilot during WWI as well as one of the founders of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). These are but two among several other interesting activities that bear his name. Lewis’s translation of The Unknown Warrior had ten editions in its first year of publication.

After its Paris premier, Raynal’s play quickly attained popularity throughout Europe. During the years between the two World Wars, it was staged in Berlin, Stockholm, Vienna, Moscow, and many other continental cities.  The American production opened on Broadway the evening of October 29,1928. The cast consisted of Tyrone Power, Senior (1869-1931) as the Father, Beatrix Thomson (1900-1936) played Aude and Lester Vail (1899-1959) A French Soldier.  The production was staged by Charles Hopkins (1884-1953) who also owned and operated the theatre. The production was produced by arrangement with Arts Theatre.  It closed in November 1928. It received mixed newspaper reviews.

Maurice Browne (1881-1955) a theatre producer born in England, brought his 1931 production of The Unknown Warrior to open in New York City before touring Pacific coast cities.  He had several motivations for doing this including his deep belief in the play and his desire to play the leading role of The Soldier. The tour started with four performances on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre.  It opened October 22,1931 and closed October 31st. Other cast members included Rosalinde Fuller (1892-1982) as Aude and Daniel Reed (?) as the Father.

The next major production occurred when BBC Television presented a live performance of this play on November 11, 1951. Arthur Wontner (1875-1960) played The Father, Isabel Dean (1918-1977) Aude and Peter Neil (1913-1994) The Soldier. This performance was to commemorate the armistice that ended World War One.

There was a production of The Unknown Warrior planned for November, 2021 at the Finborough Theatre in London to mark the centenary of the burials of the unknown warriors in France and England. Unfortunately this production was cancelled due to the Covid epidemic.

Along with Journey’s End, The Unknown Warrior is considered by many critics and scholars as one of the finest pieces of dramatic literature resulting from World War One.

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