Great War Theatre

Examiner of Plays' Summary:

A well-written and (I think) very accurate study of a phase of soldiering there is no ‘plot’: it is simply a slice of daily life. The scene is in a men’s mess room in barracks at Malta at the beginning of the war and the men are Territorials, nicely distinguished from soldiers in the old army as showing more of their different civilian types. Two young cockneys have a quarrel; the corporal scolds them and is chaffed about his age - he is really 50; one young private turns out to be a gentleman, fresh from Cambridge. One of the young cockneys get a newspaper and letters, and learns from the former that his brother has been killed. He gets the Cambridge boy to read his letters for him and then persuades him to read one he (the Cambridge boy) has been writing to his girl. The scene closes on the general arrival of letters and papers and the putting out of the lights. There is of course no woman in the cast. The boys talk frankly of their views of the war and so forth, and there is no attempt to idealize in the popular way either their lives or themselves. But they are all good fellows in their different ways, and no intelligent spectators could fail to have an increased sympathy and pride in them and their like. Recommended for license, G. S. Street

Researcher's Summary:

In the preface to the printed text of ‘D Company’ dated September 1916 Malleson explained that he wrote it ‘towards the close of 1914, while I was a private in a Territorial battalion at Malta. 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 … Some slight foot trouble was responsible for my being invalided home and out of the Army. That was in January, 1915. Since then my view of this colossal catastrophe of the war has changed. “Black ‘Ell” has been just recently written’. The intended performance of ‘D Company’ at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, on Saturday 17 June 1916 did not take place. That would have been at the end of the first of a four week season at the theatre by a company led by Esmé Percy and Kirsteen Graeme who performed a variety of plays during their stay but not 'D Company'. In the event Percy was responsible for the play being performed in Oxford in February 1917. By then Malleson and ‘D Company’ were caught up in controversy. On 26 October 1916 copies of the printed volume containing ‘D Company’ and ‘Black ‘Ell’ were seized from the publisher, Hendersons of London, by the Government (The Globe, 28 October 1916: the volume is not listed in the British Library catalogue but at least one copy survived the cull and is available online at A Minister said that the book contravened the Defence of the Realm Regulations, in particular that it was ‘a deliberate calumny on the British soldier’ (extracts from Hansard 31 October and 7 November 1916 quoted in Malleson’s preface to the 1925 edition of the plays). Certainly one of the soldiers in ‘D Company’ admits that he is not ‘burning with an eagerness to get into the firing line’ and worries about killing a German who shares his political beliefs and love of Wagner or ‘who simply loathes fighting as much as I do’. But the Government may have found ‘Black ‘Ell’ more provocative. Its central character is a soldier who, home on leave having been awarded a medal for gallantry, breaks down as he tells his sweetheart how he killed a German soldier whose last thoughts were of his own sweetheart. He identifies with German soldiers who are fighting for their country as much as British soldiers are fighting for theirs; denounces the statesmen, newspaper men, parsons and clever writers of all countries who keep the war going; and vows that he will not go back and fight again. Certainly reviews in the Labour Leader (2 November 1916) and Freedom, A Journal of Anarchist Communism (1 January 1917) implied that it was ‘Black ‘Ell’ that provoked the Government. A review in Forward (Glasgow), 11 November 1916, doubted that theatre managers would want to stage it. By contrast, ‘D Company’ was performed. And unlike ‘D Company’, ‘Black ‘Ell’ was written after Malleson’s espousal of pacifism as set out in ‘Cranks and Commonsense’ (1916) and ‘Second Thoughts’ (1917). Both plays were published again by Hendersons in 1925. In a new preface dated December 1924 Malleson wrote of ‘the sense of utter impotence’ that he felt when the plays were suppressed. ‘To write “a deliberate calumny on the British soldier” was the last thing I wanted to do … There was no way of making answer. Now after eight years it is possible to reprint. The plays must speak for themselves’.

Licensed On: 8 Jun 1916

License Number: 285




British Library Reference: LCP1916/13

British Library Classmark: Add MS 66134 R


17 Jun 1916 Lyceum Theatre, EdinburghUnknown Licensed Performance
10 Feb 1917 New Theatre, OxfordAmateur
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‘There was quite a galaxy of talent, both professional and lay, at the New Theatre, Oxford, on Saturday, when the cadets now in training there organised a special matinée in aid of the War Relief Fund of the St. John Ambulance. There was a very full and most appreciative house, and it was estimated that a sum of about £105 would be handed over to the fund - a very gratifying result … At the … matinée a new playlet, in one act, was produced, for the first time, by Cadet Percy Esme, entitled “D Company,” by Miles Malleson. The scene is laid a barrack-room at Malta in 1914. There is no particular plot, but it is rather an episode dealing with soldier life in barracks. As the Cockney private Cadet Frank Steward showed true grit(?); while Cadet Percy Esme as Pte. Garside, the gentleman who had no need for a “job” for a living, was truly a sympathetic “pal.” The other characters were all played with great naturalness. The little play, full of touching pathos in places, had a very cordial reception. The cast included Cadets Frank Steward, Brewer, Packer, Wills, Spink, and Percy’ (The Era, 14 February 1917). The Stage, 15 February 1917, also reviewed the play, the cast of which was Private Alf. Tibbutt … Cadet Frank Steward Private Tilley … Cadet Brewer Orderly Corporal … Cadet Packer Private Jim Penley… Cadet Wills Corporal Joyner … Cadet Spink Private Dennis Garside … Cadet Esmé Percy. The review continued, 'The scene was a barrack room at Malta in October 1914. The review continued: ‘This little piece is essentially a sketch, from the author’s personal experience, of military life as live din barracks abroad by a London Territorial regiment in the early days of the war. There is practically no plot to describe, and the play consists of dialogue pure and simple. The soldiers come into the room straight from a route march, and are tired and hungry, and it appears there is very little food procurable. A discussion takes place amongst the early comers as to the station in life of one of their number, Dennis Garside, not then present. He, it seems, is of a quiet, reserved nature, and keeps much to himself. It is decided that he belongs to a good family, and is, if not wealthy, comfortably well off and of good education. This surmise eventually proves correct. The dialogue is mostly of an amusing nature, but there is one very pathetic passage, wherein Alf. Tibbutt, a typical cockney, receives letters from his mother and young wife, informing him that his brother has been killed in France. This little scene was very skilfully and artistically portrayed by those who took part in it. It was realistic in the extreme. The play ends with a humorous incident between Tibbutt and Garside, the former getting the latter to write a letter for him to his wife. Tibbutt is at a loss for words; so finally he notices a letter lying on Garside’s knee, and inquires who it is intended for. It is going to Garside’s fiancée, and is readily read out to Tibbutt upon a request to do so. As it is written in a romantic and poetical strain, it fairly takes poor Tibbutt’s breath away, and before he can recover himself and dictate his own letter the bugle sounds “Lights out,” and so – curtain. The trifle was capitally acted, and did credit to all the actor-soldiers concerned. The production was in the hands of Cadet Esmé Percy, and Cadet Allison deserves high praise for his excellent stage management. The play was written by the author when a private in a regiment stationed at Malta in 1914’.
14 Oct 2003 Pleasance Theatre, LondonProfessional
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'Two of [Miles Malleson's] early plays, Company D and Black ‘Ell, based on his experiences as a serving soldier in the First World War, are being revived at the Pleasance, London, this month. They are vivid and searing accounts of a young soldier’s ordeal as he prepares to face a hellish situation out of his control ... Graham Cowley, producer of the Pleasance season, unearthed these works while researching plays written in and around the First World War. “What was so astonishing about them, apart from their passion and directness, is that they are so naturalistic both in their language and subject matter, which was quite radical for the time,” says Cowley. In May this year Cowley mounted a production of Black ‘ Ell at the Soho Theatre in protest at the Iraq war. “I couldn’t think of a better way of expressing what I felt about the war than this play written in 1916 about a young soldier who returns from the war a hero, riven with guilt, appalled by the carnage and refusing to go back.” … At first sight, it might seem odd that an actor who made his name playing pillars of the establishment should turn out to be such a radical thinker but on further reflection what lay behind Malleson’s superficially gentle buffoonery was a mistrust of the processes of officialdom and bureaucracy. Like all great actors and artists, Malleson’s mission was to find the truth, whether it was on stage or on the page. In 1946 he gave an interview in which he heralded the arrival of a new type of theatre which mirrored the real world and “snatched up life in the raw.” Actually, he had helped to pioneer just such a more naturalistic theatre some 20 years earlier. Forgotten Voices From the Great War will be playing at the Pleasance, London from October 14 to November 2’ (The Stage, 9 October 2003). ‘Forgotten Voices From the Great War is a collection of three works, by two different authors, about the First World War. The short plays are not connected but are vaguely sequential. The first and third performances – ‘D’ Company and Black ‘Ell - are both from writer Miles Malleson. Set before and after a battle respectively, these two plays display the mindset of the naive, gung-ho and, inversely, the mentally battle-scarred soldier. Neil Ditt’s Private Dennis Garside unexpectedly steals the performance of Company with the character’s eloquent dialogue. Daniel Weyman has a similar physiological effect on the audience with his desperate, confused and sickened portrayal of battle “hero” Harold, in Black ‘Ell. However, it is the middle play, Brigade Exchange [by Ernst Johannsen], which imbues the most horror … Although starting slowly and with a 45-minute interval after D Company, Graham Cowley and directors Ian Talbot and Tricia Thorns can be sure they will instil the real horror and tragedy of war on their unsuspecting audiences’ (The Stage, 23 October 2003). Theatre Record, 11 November 2003, published reviews from the Evening Standard, What’s On and Time Out among other publications [not seen].