Revisiting war-time drama: The case of J.M. Barrie’s A Well-Remembered Voice (1918)

In this guest Blog,  Dr Andrew Maunder from the University of Hertfordshire and AHRC’s WW1 Engagement CentreEveryday Lives in War‘, talks about re-visiting War-Time Dramas and the case of J. M. Barrie.

While plays about the First World War are now a familiar presence – step forward Oh, What a Lovely War! and War Horse – the playwrights who actually wrote at the time of the conflict have yet to receive much attention. It’s not surprising. Revues and musicals such as Chu Chin Chow (1916) dominated the theatrical landscape attracting soldiers and civilians in equal measure.

Australian Service Personnel – Queuing to see a Musical. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial

There was a market for drama but there is a long-held perception that First World War drama was all about patriotic plots involving German villainy, secret dispatches and cheerful “Tommies.” After the war it very quickly became fashionable to view melodramas like Seven Days Leave (1917) or The Female Hun (1918) as shallow and meaningless, their ‘childish antics’ as George Bernard Shaw labelled them in 1919, the work of opportunistic hacks. By the late 1920s, a play like R. C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End (1928) seemed more ‘real’ and less irresponsible than the plays written during the war itself, particularly in the way it conveyed what the war had been ‘like’ for those who fought, the ‘lost generation’ of young men.

Female Hun - Courtesy of Australian War Memorial
Female Hun – Courtesy of Australian War Memorial

One war-time playwright who was not a hack but who nonetheless tends to get overlooked was J.M Barrie (1860-1937). Once regarded as a key figure in British theatre, Barrie’s plays have all but disappeared in the eighty years since his death – the exception being the celebrity-filled productions of Peter Pan which still appear at pantomime season. As a tour of one of Barrie’s “other” plays, A Well-Remembered Voice (unseen since its premiere in 1918), gets underway in autumn 2016 it’s worth looking at this neglected writer, not least for his attempts to say something about the trauma of war and its impact on those left behind.
When war broke out in August 1914 Barrie, along with Shaw and John Galsworthy, was one of Britain’s leading “serious” dramatists. Plays such as The Admirable Crichton (1902) and What Every Woman Knows (1908) had lifted him to the top rank. Accordingly he was one of several writers recruited by the government’s War Propaganda Bureau. Others included Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, all of whom who were too old to fight but thought it their duty to write patriotically – whatever their private misgivings about the conflict or the way it was being run.

Barrie set to work dutifully. Der Tag (1915), an allegorical two-hander about a bombastic Emperor being taken to task by “the Spirit of Culture” appeared in 1915 at The Coliseum, London’s top variety theatre. It was seen by Virginia Woolf who described it as “sheer balderdash of the thinnest kind.”  On the basis that war-time theatre’s role was to be escapist Barrie followed it up with a revue, Rosy Rapture (1915) for the French exotic dancer Gaby Deslys, a figure on whom he seems to have had a bit of a crush. This was a flop. He then returned to writing what critics tended to label “whimsy.” A Kiss for Cinderella, set in war-time London, premiered in 1916 and a play about second chances, Dear Brutus in 1917.

The problem for war-time dramatists like Barrie was that it was hard to depict what was really happening: how did you represent the horrors of the battlefield and the experience of combat in any meaningful way? Barrie’s solution was to turn to the “Home Front”. His most important war-time legacy is a quartet of one-act plays The New Word (1915), The Old Lady Shows her Medals (1917) and A Well-Remembered Voice (1918). All the plays are powerful miniature studies of pain, loss bereavement and loneliness. They focus on the changing relationships between those who are fighting and those who are left behind.

A Well-Remembered Voice was first produced in June 1918 in aid of a hospital for wounded soldiers in London run by Countess Pamela Lytton (a titled lady who actually did war-work rather than playing at it).  The play isn’t the usual bit of fluff produced for these occasions and its subsequent neglect is odd. It’s a taut, rather moving portrayal about how to mourn the dead – a much-debated question at the time.

A Well-Remembered Voice also deals with one of the most striking developments of war-time life: the growth of spiritualism. Putting one’s trust into séances, table rapping, automatic writing, and other communications with spirits was no longer the business of eccentrics – as it had been prior to 1914. The change was summed up by a Catholic bishop, James Wedgwood, who observed in 1919 how “a very marked change had passed over the face of popular thought in relation to spiritualism and psychical research…the appeal of a son cut off in the full flush of life’s promise, speaking to his bereaved parents…is naturally great.”  Denied the chance even to bury their sons (the transport of soldiers’ bodies to Britain for burial having been prohibited) people tried to re-establish contact and say “good-bye” in another way. In A Well-Remembered Voice, the appearance, after a séance, of Jack, a young soldier, seems to be Barrie suggesting that such things were possible.

For Barrie’s biographers there is, of course, another way in which A Well-Remembered Voice has been seen to be revealing. Although Barrie had no children of his own, he was a famously devoted guardian to the orphaned Llewelyn Davies brothers—George, John, Peter, Michael and Nicholas – models for the “lost boys” in Peter Pan.  Barrie paid for their education at Eton and took them on expensive holidays. In 1914, George Llewelyn Davies (aged 21) was the only brother old enough to enlist. Barrie’s response was to worry.  “I don’t have any iota of desire for you to get military glory”, he told him, “but I have the one passionate desire that we be together again once at least.” In March 1915, George was shot by a sniper. Barrie received his final letter after news of his death. In the letter George wrote that he was looking forward to coming home. While A Well-Remembered Voice recounts the experiences of soldiers in the trenches, Barrie also depicts a family’s anguish, especially that of the father, a man who, because he is a British gentleman, bottles up his anguish.

As we commemorate the Centenary of World War I, J.M. Barrie’s war-time output is worth revisiting. As a piece of war writing A Well-Remembered Voice is interesting because Barrie seems unsure whether he wants to be propagandist (i.e. the dead soldiers are happy in the afterlife) or anti-war (what a waste of young life it has been…). At the time, the play fell foul of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office because the returning soldier has the temerity to suggest that the Germans are actually quite like us. Soldiers from both sides were living happily in the afterlife away from the meddling politicians.

Since the 1960s it’s the testimony of poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke which has done much to stamp a particular way of thinking about the war on the modern consciousness but there should be a space for J.M. Barrie too.

The new tour of the play is being co-ordinated by the AHRC-funded Centre for Everyday Lives in War, based at the University of Hertfordshire https://everydaylivesinwar.herts.ac.uk/ .   This is one of 5 AHRC Funded World War One Engagement Centres.  Such organisations support community engagement activities across the UK, and have, since 2014, provided support for local citizen groups to explore their interest and fascination with their communities relationship with WW1. 

See the play. Dates: 4 October, Twickenham Academy; 7, 8 October, OSO Arts Centre, Barnes; 17 October, Weston Auditorium, Hatfield; 29-30 October Leicester Square Theatre, London.

Séance, courtesy of Io Theatre
Séance, courtesy of Io Theatre

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