Great War Theatre

Eva Elwes’ life and work during WW1 by Mary Newman

T. Edward Ward's Tours. Now in the 20th Year. Pals by Eva Elwes. Joy-Sister of Mercy by Eva Elwes. Verb, amp:0- 'only two losing weeks since production, Xmas 1914'. Forthcoming Xmas Production. A Striking Family Drama. Unique because so natural. A Wonderful Money-maker. Booking Spring 1916. Stock Season at Prince's, Portsmouth, in November. Address, T. Edward War, this, T. R. Lincoln; next, Queen's, Leeds.

A Prolific Playwright

Eva Elwes was a prolific playwright and 17 of her 46 plays, submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for licensing, were written in 1914-18. As well as being a playwright Eva was also an actress in touring companies, sometimes acting in her own plays, such as: Mother Mine, His Mother’s Rosary, Joy Sister of Mercy, The Girl Mother, The Cottage Girl and Love’s Young Dream. In a performance of the latter she was described as “an actress of quiet distinction” (Yorkshire Evening Post, 5 November 1918). She also turned her hand to theatre management, assembling her own company to stage The Cottage Girl. Many of her other plays were performed by Will H. Glaze’s touring company.

Performances

Some of Eva’s plays had very short lives and didn’t outlast the war years. Others, like John Raymond’s Daughter (a morality tale and domestic drama), The Fishermaid of Old St Malo, His Mother’s Rosary and The Cottage Girl (a play of country life) were more durable.

The chart below shows how often and when the following plays were performed, based on my research to date:

TitleNo. of performances (approx.)Years performed
Mother Mine301914-1916
Joy, Sister of Mercy301914-1916
His Mother’s Rosary1651915-1939
The Woman Pays – Back241915-1920
John Raymond’s Daughter1001915-1926
Pals251915-1916
Should a Woman Forgive?221916-1919
The Sunshine of Paradise Alley401916-1927
Heaven at the Helm301916-1918
The Fishermaid of Old St Malo221916-1926
A Mother’s Prayer451916-1918
The Cottage Girl521916-1938
Honour the Man you Wed251917-1918
The Girl Mother331917-1921
His Wife’s Good Name241917-1921
Love’s Young Dream111918-1919
Billy’s Mother131918-1919

 

Performances were held all over the country, although they were primarily seen in the Midlands and Northern England. Outside of London, her plays were performed in Birmingham, Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, and Newcastle, as well as in smaller towns such as: Eastleigh, Cradley Heath, Longton, Lowestoft, Aberdare, Edmonton, Falkirk, and Ushaw Moor to name a few.

Scrutiny by the censor

The Lord Chamberlain’s Play Examiners during the war were G. S. Street and E. A. Bendall. While social issues could be discussed on the stage it was the Examiners’ job to monitor religious, political and moral issues portrayed in the drama and insert their infamous blue pencil through anything objectionable in a script. Eva’s scripts were not immune from the blue pencil or the Examiner’s concern. Issues which arose during the licensing of her scripts were around sex and bedroom scenes, unmarried mothers, and offence to living persons. In response to the latter, in The Cottage Girl the name of the character Lady Peel was changed so as not to cause offence to, or confusion with, a living Lady Peel. The Examiner also requested that the names of the generals in Joy – Sister of Mercy be changed if they were the names of actual generals.

Sex was an ongoing concern in many plays. In his report on Honour the Man you Wed Street commented that: ‘The plot of this melodrama is disgusting. It involves incest and rape; its chief scenes are laid in a brothel and two of the chief characters are the keeper of the brothel and her assistant…[its] appeal is simply a morbid and disgusting sensationalism.’ The correspondence file shows that the company manager, Will Glaze, who applied for the license, was interviewed. The license was refused and the refusal confirmed by the Lord Chamberlain. Scenes that were ‘blue pencilled’ were either altered or cut completely. When the license was granted Glaze had to confirm that the play would be performed as per the amended script.

Street also objected to some of the farce and a bedroom scene in His Wife’s Good Name, writing, ‘This is a melodrama of the lurid type…The comic characters get jumbled up and one comic male finds the wife of the other in his bed and his wife arriving suspects the worst etc. It is merely broad farce but it will not do…I think it is sufficient to direct that these pages must be modified and that there must be no getting in and out of bed in this scene’.  A blue line had been put through several pages of the script which were replaced with handwritten pages and a note in Eva’s handwriting stating ‘There is no bed on the stage in this scene’. In Heaven at the Helm Street was satisfied that no offence would occur because the bedroom was in a recess of the stage with curtains between it and the main stage.

On reading Heaven at the Helm Street also commented that ‘there is no harm in the play, though one may regret the frequency of the “unmarried mother” in contemporary melodramas.’ Illegitimacy was also a topic in John Raymond’s Daughter but here Street was not concerned. ‘We are not troubled arguments about illegitimacy’, he wrote, and the moral of the story ‘the harm of a man’s irrationally tyrannizing over his family, is a good one.’

Examiners’ comments vs newspaper reports

Street and Bendall’s reports make interesting (and sometimes amusing by twenty-first century standards) reading especially when compared with reviews or reports in the newspapers of the time. Their comments are often caustic, or dismissive. Sometimes one wonders if the Examiner and newspaper reviewer were watching the same play. A comparison of the Examiners’ comments and newspaper reviews highlights this disjoint. 

Mother Mine

Bendall: ‘This melodrama reads like the clumsy adaptation by an amateur of a wild sentimental novel.’

Review: ‘…a new domestic drama….which has been splendidly received where ever it has been played’ (Western Daily Press 31 July 1915)

Joy, Sister of Mercy

Street: ‘Most of this play is the common form of flatulent melodrama.’

Newspaper: ‘…a new play….is well written in an attractive style….it is a play which can be thoroughly enjoyed, interest being maintained from start to finish, and it is topical’ (Walsall Advertiser, 29 May 1915)

His Mother’s Rosary

Street: ‘This play is absolute chaos and I cannot imagine any audience standing the confusion as it is now arranged.’

Newspaper: ‘Lovers of the domestic melodrama will be entirely satisfied with “His Mother’s Rosary”, which is running at the Theatre Royal this week. It is full of incidents which appeal strongly to the audience, who are spontaneous in their applause.’ (Leamington Spa Courier, 4 August 1916), and, ‘There is a distinct war flavour about the melodrama at the Theatre Royal. In “His Mother’s Rosary,” Eva Elwes has written a story admirably adapted for stage production, and in the hands of a thoroughly capable company, of which she is a leading member, the play is exceptionally entertaining.’(Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 15 October 1915)

The Woman Pays – Back

Street: ‘It is harmless rubbish…’

Newspaper: ‘A pretty and interesting play…’ (Shields Daily News, 15 February 1916)

Pals

Bendall: ‘The bewildering plot suggests the inexpert dramatization of a sensational novel: but, if it is often inconsequent, it is never objectionable…’

Newspaper: ‘Eva Elwes….has constructed a play that is never lacking in movement and often grips the imagination. The interest is well sustained, and the author has been at pains not to handicap the play with a superabundance of those comic scenes that so often militate against the success of Irish melodrama. The dialogue is good, and the characterisation well above the average.’ (The Stage, 13 January 1916)

Should a Woman Forgive?

Bendall: ‘This is not the problem-play that its title suggests. It is simply an amateurish and wildly improbably melodrama, having for its central motive the determination of a father to prevent his daughter’s marriage to the man she loves in order to force her to marry a hated rival of his own choice.’

Newspaper: ‘A domestic drama, into which the present war enters as a party theme…this drama caused an unusual amount of interest last night.’ (Hull Daily Mail, 29 November 1916)

The Sunshine of Paradise Alley

Bendall: ‘The characters are all impossible save on the stage, and the incidents are wholly lacking in plausibility; but there is no offence in any phase of the transportive melodramatic romance…’

Newspaper: ‘Good, wholesome, direct drama, with many telling lines and effective scenes…’ and ‘All the characters in this adroitly-constructed and well-written twice-nightly domestic drama are admirably played by the members of Mr. Will H. Glaze’s company.’ (The Era, 22 March 1916)

The Fishermaid of Old St Malo

Street: ‘An old-fashioned melodrama… naïve and harmless, with nothing over-violent in dialogue or action.’

Newspaper: ‘Refinement rather than sensation is the keynote…altogether it is a charming play.’ (Hull Daily Mail, 19 February 1918)

A Mother’s Prayer

Bendall: ‘An extremely crude and immaterial dramatic melodrama…The whole of this serious story is as incredible as are the childish humours of its comedy relief; but it can do no possible harm, even if it can be only to an uneducated audience to which it will afford any interest.’

Newspaper: ‘a capital healthy and stirring drama of the sea…it is well-written…The story was very much to the taste of the audience, and was of a manly type. The humorous element was very much to the front, and greatly admired.’ (Hull Daily Mail, 10 April 1917)

The Cottage Girl

Bendall: [it] ‘may, however, serve to interest quite innocently those able to enjoy primitive domestic melodrama; and the crude little play may safely be recommended for license.’

Newspaper: [the play] ‘is not wanting in depth of plot, of which there is sufficient to keep the audience guessing, and to hold their interest, till the end.’ (Falkirk Herald, 27 February 1918)

The Girl Mother

Bendall: ‘It is a complicated story of the more or less criminal proceedings of people who are all of them stagey and none of them, whether Bad Baronets or injured flower-girls, in the least like real human beings. But there is no offence other than that of silliness in the romance, which is as sound in moral as it is shaky in verisimilitude.’

Newspaper: ‘…last night patrons agreed that Miss Eva Elwes’s latest production was of a higher standard than any of its predecessors. It runs on original lines, and throughout the interest is well maintained.’ (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 18 September 1917)

Love’s Young Dream

Street: ‘The nonsensical plot of this melodrama is very complicated… Some of the comic relief is vulgar horseplay but no harm is intended. And of course the bigamous marriage is “in name only” and no harm is done.”

Newspaper: ‘The play’s ingredients of plot and counterplot, and the eventual realisation of the dream, are familiar, but they are mixed and serviced with practised skill, and action and dialogue are alike above the average.’ (Yorkshire Evening Post, 5 November 1918)

Billy’s Mother

Street: ‘An absurd melodrama… The only objectionable thing in this farrago of rubbish is that the villain should be a British officer. But we have had officer villains before and though this is a bad case (in point of depths of villainy) the whole thing is so childish that nobody could be offended. Nor could any American, I think, be offended by the comic American figures, which are meant to be sympathetic.’

Newspaper: [the play] ‘received a cordial send-off at the theatre last evening. With a series of stirring episodes as the component parts the play has a particularly apposite setting in the introduction not merely of war scenes, but of incidents designed to illustrate the whole-heartedness with which America’s sons are entering the conflict. In this aspect along it cannot fail to meet with generous appreciation.’ (Birmingham Daily Post, 15 October 1918)

The end of the war

Billy’s Mother was in performance at the armistice. As the Huddersfield Daily Examiner reported, ‘The war play, which should so soon give way to the peace play, has not yet quite had its day, but it already is in a stage of metamorphosis, for last night at the Hippodrome the final scene of the melodrama, “Billy’s Mother,” presented by Mr. Will H. Glaze’s company took place just “when peace was declared,” an innovation which the house commended with overwhelming applause.’ (12 November 1918).

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