Tuesday, May 3, 2022

THE WHITE CHATEAU by Reginald Berkeley


Reginald Berkeley (1890-1935) was an Englishman of multiple talents, who served in World War One as a Captain in the British Rifle Brigade. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1916 for his “conspicuous gallantry in action.” Berkeley was a lawyer briefly before he was elected to serve as a Member of Parliament in 1922, where he served until 1924.  He wrote The White Chateau to be presented on the radio by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC).  It was aired throughout England on Armistice Night in November 1925. It is the first play in English specifically written for radio.


The White Chateau is divided into six scenes. It has a cast of fourteen characters: four women and ten men. An original music score was created by Norman O’Neill (1875-1934). O’Neill also served as Musical Director for the BBC radio program.

The White Chateau has a narrator, designated as THE CHRONICLER, who sets the focus for each scene. He informs the audience that as SCENE ONE begins “This story of the White Chateau” that was built centuries ago in Flanders plain, was burned down, and rebuilt through succeeding years.  It would be destroyed once more and rebuilt again due to another war.

When Scene One commences, members of the Van Eysen family, who reside in the White Chateau, are having breakfast when suddenly their meal is disrupted by men in uniforms. These soldiers are not dressed in the color of their country’s military.  Not only is the family’s breakfast disrupted, but the family is plunged into an immediate tragic situation with the murder of their son as World War One is sprung upon them by the invading German soldiers. 


THE CHONICLER: informs the audience that a war is raging:

The Grand Headquarters Over All

Is some great Mansion—once alight

With children’s voices, loud and small—

Now bare and bleak, directs the fight…

The White Chateau is serving as headquarters for Germany’s military leadership in this area.  This scene reveals the issues that the Chief of Staff and Commander-in-Chief have with the Minister for War.


THE CHRONICLER recounts the current situation at the Chateau:

An army in long retreat,

Trudge, trudge of tired feet, . . .

Long since departed G.H.Q.

From the Chateau (with its whiteness faded!)

And leaves the Chateau stark

                    In No-Man’s-Land.

A division of the British army arrives at the Chateau. The surrounding grounds of the property have been further destroyed by German troops building trenches. Some German soldiers remain at the Chateau and as the British division attempts to take the Chateau the final rounds of shelling demolish the west wall of the building.


THE CHRONICLER ruminates about the normal activities for day and night, but concludes with “The night—a nightmare from the Deeps of Hell, The Day—a worse Damnation?” 

This scene announces the arrival at the ruined Chateau by American soldiers. They must defeat the remaining German soldiers.  The Americans come under enemy fire and the captain of the unit is killed. A soldier named Philip is now in command of this American unit.


THE CHRONICLER laments the loss of the chateau and the land “on which no blade of grass

could grow---”

A Casualty Clearing Station is currently operating on the property. Philip is being taken care by an American doctor.  The nurse is Diane, the sole surviving member of the Van Eysen family, who lived in the Chateau in Scene One.  She takes care of Philip, and a romantic relationship develops between them.


THE CHRONICLER laments man’s need “to slay and slay and slay---” Philip and Diane are married, and they are rebuilding The White Chateau. During this final scene Diane has a dream in which “Voice” recounts to her the long history of war this piece of land has endured, and a future filled with more wars. At the conclusion of the play, there is hope expressed by the Voice of The Chateau for there to be lasting world peace. Berkeley wanted the audience to realize that “Nothing is to be gained by labouring the causes of the Great War and reviving the animosities that it bred.”

The White Chateau was published in 1925 as a book and again in 1927. During these two years, six editions of the script were published. It obviously was a popular drama to read. The Publisher was Williams and Norgate, Ltd.

In March 1927, The White Chateau was staged at London’s Everyman’s Theatre. It played for thirteen performances before it closed. This production was reworked and basically recast prior to its next opening in late April 1927 at St. Martin’s Theatre. The second London production received excellent reviews. Henry Oscar (1891-1969) was praised for his impressive elocution as the Chronicler in The Illustrated London News on May 7, 1927.  Another news paper especially noted the trench scenes that were staged with heightened effects that made them harrowing.


                                                   TRENCH SCENE SAINT MARTIN'S THEATRE

The White Chateau had another transformation in 1938 when it was made into a film by the BBC.  It was released in England on November 11,1938 and it starred Peter Ashmore (1916-1997), Claude Bailey (1895-1950) and Ivor Barnard (1887-1953).

What is unique about this play is how it relates to the effects of wars on the land and the distinguished historic structures that help tell the story of western civilization. It further recounts the human desire to rebuild even though “Men have not learned the lessons of going to war.” It pleads through The Voice that “There can be no more war. It is too wasteful, too uncivilized.” 


1. Reginald Berkeley's photo appeared in THE ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS 2/2/1929.


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