Great War Theatre

Examiner of Plays' Summary:

A play of Belgian life in Brussels under the German occupation by no means violent in language or (except just at the end) in incident, of the most part domestic and touching in a simple homely way. In the first act M. Jadot, an elderly man who was previously employed in the Ministry of war, with his wife and daughter and little grandson and Pierre, the daughter's fiancé dine and discuss the situation. The theme enters Siegfried, a German, a resident and friend in old days and a suitor of Jeanne, the daughter. He is coldly received and ends by saying he has come to take Jadot to the Kommandantur, on a charge of espionage. He does so and the act ends by Pierre, who had stayed at home from ill health, going off to join the Belgian army. Act II is occupied with a prison scene, the prisoners being chiefly Belgians arrested for selling prohibited newspapers. Jeanne visits her father and there is a touching scene of her sharing the prison dinner. In act III Jadot is restored to his family, being acquitted, and all goes happily until the very end, when the brute Siegfried comes again, tells them Antwerp is fallen, swaggers about Germany, announces that Pierre is dead and offers himself as a suitor for Jeanne again. The girl stabs him. I think this ending unfortunate for the success of the play, but there is nothing to censure in it. Only one passage is doubtful, Act II, pp.8 & 9. some prisoners fall on one of their number and pummel him in fun, shouting 'Fluit' a word unknown to me and experts I have asked - and 'Sifflez'!'. Finally he whistles, to oblige them but protests 'ce n'était pas mois'. I don't profess to be sure what is implied but I can think of no other explanation than a (to our taste) very coarse and unsavoury joke, and recommend its excision. Otherwise, though M. Jadot is occasionally coarse in expression, it is only in character and would not offend in this sort of play. Recommended for license. G. S. Street.

Researcher's Summary:

'Up to the present the plays presented during the successful season at the Criterion Theatre, by Belgian artists, have provided pictures of life and character in their country in times of peace. A new piece, entitled “La Kommandatur,” will be produced there next week for the first time, which deals with the present war. It was written during the past few months by M. J. F. Fonson, the part author of a couple of the most popular of the plays now being performed at the Criterion, and in it a vivid spectacle will be offered of Brussels in the grip of the Germans. The author, however, is concerned rather with the domestic aspects than with the horrors of the war situation. M. Fonson is at present superintending the rehearsals of the piece, and several Belgian newcomers will figure amongst the players’. Irish Independent, Friday 15 January 1915. The play was compared favourably to a couple of other 'war plays'. The Sketch, 21 April 1915, noted that ‘the style and dignity which mark La Kommandatur are not to be found’ in a play called 'Alsace'. And The Sketch, 9 June 1915, commented, ‘one sighs over the fact that “Armageddon,” like the rest of the plays about this war produced in the West End, is of no serious art value; I ought to except “La Kommandatur,” which up to a point was a work of very fine art’. The Sketch, 9 June 1915. However, one critic, while also praising Fonson's play, doubted the merit of putting on plays about the war at all. ‘The War play best observed and going most closely, however distressingly, to the heart of its subject was La Kommandatur, by that clever Belgian dramatist Jean François Fonson. This comédie-dramatique, which dealt with Brussels under the German occupation, contained a strong dose of actuality, without revolting the feelings as intolerably as other of these “topical” ebullitions. But it is now recognised that the War, except in some more or less indirect manifestations, is not a suitable theme for dramatic treatment at the present time. Reality at times becomes too profound and overwhelming for the realism of the stage to attempt to grapple with it in interchangeable terms, and so it is here’. The Stage, 9 December 1915. The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 10 February 1915, looked forward to an English translation of the play being performed in Manchester. 'The story is very thrilling, being redolent of the patriotism of a Belgian family and of the cold-blooded espionage system of the Germans. The scenes are laid in Brussels, and the real and poignant story, fresh and warm from life, is told with much feeling and sincerity. The acting is most impressive, and the whole production is well worth seeing’. The comment about the quality of the acting must be based on performances of the French-language version at the Criterion in London since the English-language version was not performed (in Liverpool) until March 1915. In any event, a production in Manchester seems not to have materialised. A modern critic has written about the English-language version of the play: ‘A few plays were regarded, in some quarters at least, to combine truth with sensitivity so as to achieve lasting importance. Of these, Fonson’s Kommandatur survives best. The English version (by Celia Storm and Ina Cameron) was premièred at Liverpool. Although with British actors melodrama overtook genre study, Imeson’s Siegfried offered a gain in subtlety, being less of a “Uriah Heep from the first entrance” than in the Belgian production. And Belgium under the jackboot was literally realized in the view of the invaders’ “great clumsy boots through the windows” of the Brussels basement-home’. Gordon Williams, British Theatre in the Great War: a Revaluation (Continuum: London and New York, 2005), p. 180, quoting from Littlewood, The Referee, 31 January and 21 March 1915. The Bystander, Wednesday 3 February 1915, had called Weiler, in the French-language version of the play, ‘a sort of Prussian Uriah Heep’.

Licensed On: 7 Jan 1915

License Number: 3133

British Library Reference: LCP1915/1

British Library Classmark: Add MS 66087 P


11 Jan 1915 Criterion Theatre, LondonUnknown Licensed Performance
25 Jan 1915 Criterion Theatre, LondonProfessional
Read Narrative
‘the play deals with the situation in Brussels in the early days of the German occupation. In the force of its realism, the depth and variety of its emotion, and the technical skill of its construction and characterisation, the piece will, we think, take a place as high in artistic estimate as anything its author has so far written for the stage ... Our readers must see for themselves the charming, poignant, humorous, profound, and lofty scenes with which M. Fonson decorates his story. Seldom have we seen a play hold its audience so fascinated as was the case last night.' Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday 26 January 1915. '“La Kommandatur” was received with nothing less than enthusiasm. One hesitates to describe it a war play - the phrase has included such deplorable stuff! But there is the sombrous background of the war to a story in which M. Ponson [sic] has contrived to embody the spirit of suffering Belgium as no play so far has done. This is “national drama” in its truest sense. Patiently enduring the brutality of German officialdom in occupation of Brussels, a little family is sketched with humour and pathos ... It is finely enacted, and simply realistic’. The Globe, Thursday 28 January 1915. 'The entrepreneurs of the well supported Belgian season at the Criterion presented there on Monday a first production on any stage of La Kommandatur, a so-called comédie-dramatique (which is not quite the same as dramatic comedy), based on recent events in Belgium by Jean François Fonson, one of the joint authors of the merry and homely pieces of Brussels bourgeois life that have recently been holding the boards of this theatre. M. Fonson, a stalwart, bearded man of middle age, who was enthusiastically called again and again at the close of the first performance by a crowded and mainly Belgian audience, has indeed introduced some clever character studies and episodes, both humorous and pathetic, similar to those in the comedies already played; but he has also give us a sufficiently strong dose of actuality, and the horrors of War are not obscurely indicated, although no acts of revolting brutality are shown coram populo ... the piece will probably appeal to those of the refugees who have not suffered too severely from the havoc of War, although it must be confessed that, even to the heartiest British sympathiser with a nation struggling to be free there is not a little painful and harrowing in these episodes taken from life'. The Stage, 28 January 1915, which publishes a full cast list. 'The Belgian Company at the Criterion Theatre have scored a distinct success with this play, which deals with Brussels under the Prussians, who are unhesitatingly referred to throughout as “les sales Boches.” The polluting hand of the Hun has not been laid so heavily on Brussels as on other cities in Belgium, but it is clear from this piece that Prussians are not at all what you would call nice people ... [one particular scene] is very realistic, and its studied moderation recommends it as a truthful picture of the German occupation. It says much for the Belgian author (M. Jean François Fonson) that he should be able to take so detached a view of the acts of the oppressors, extenuating nothing and setting down naught in malice ... Apart from its dramatic story, the play excels in some quite admirable character-sketches. There is, for instance, the not unkindly picture of the German officer with his amusing pidgin-French, who comes to see if the prisoners have any complaints to make. There is also the German private, who, after raving at his prisoners in the best Potsdam manner, finds himself discussing the little ones at home. Asked if he has any children of his own, he replies that he has seven, and then bursts into tears. People who do not approve of large families may think his grief justified. Then there is Suzanne, the flower-girl, who, apologising for having only two roses left of her stock for the day, explains that it is all on account of the funeral procession of a French soldier which passed along the boulevard an hour ago. Flowers were forbidden by the “Boches,” as also was the singing of the “Marseillaise.” But Suzanne, greatly daring, emptied her basket of flowers on the coffin as it passed, and when she looked up at the crowd she could see by their moving lips that they were singing the Marseillaise in silence. La Kommandatur is a play of distinction’. Illustrated by a photograph of Mme. Jane Delmar captioned ‘The leading lady of the admirable Belgian company at the Criterion Theatre. Mme. Delmar’s performance in “La Kommandatur” adds to her reputation as a great artist’. The Bystander, Wednesday 3 February 1915. 'It is a play of Brussels life - not the Brussels of yesterday, homely, good natured, inclined to frivolity, but the Brussels of this very moment, with everywhere the “Kultured” Huns abroad. And Brussels is so very, very near. In a few months’ time - who knows? - we, too, may be suffering the ignominy and shame and persecution of these brave Bruxellois. It made the play at times too painful to be borne. It was like a tragic page torn out of the diary of to-day and presented to us with all the vividness of reality. To those who like myself know and love Brussels, it was so poignantly tragic as to be almost impossible to sit through. One thought of the gay little city - that miniature Paris presided over by a merry little housewife rather than by a cosmopolitan demie-mondaine - as it was but a few short months ago and now … But the play gripped one. There was no denying the effect of its scenes of comedy and the vivid picture it gave of Brussels under the Huns. And amid all the sadness and the tragedy there were glimpses of the happier days of long ago when love and a peaceful home seemed to be the only realities worth fighting for. Now every day brings its ignominy, its insults, its terror ... By the simplest means M. Fonson, the author, amused and thrilled us during the whole evening. La Kommandatur is certainly a play to see. It is not bombastic, and yet it is full of the best, even if the quietest, patriotism’. The Tatler, 3 February 1915. '‘“La Kommandatur,” at the Criterion, is the first play of real value inspired by the war that London has seen, and I shall not be surprised if there are big houses to see this tragedy of Belgium under the Germans'. The Sketch, 3 February 1915. The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 13 February 1915 published a photograph of a scene from the play captioned, ‘La Kommandatur (the Belgian pay concerning German occupation) at the Criterion Theatre. La Kommandatur, by M. Jean François Fonson, represents a Belgian household at Brussels during the war. The picture shows the horror of Catherine Jadot (Mlle. Jane Delmar) after she has stabbed Siegfried Weiler (M. L. Baert), the German officer, who had just produced a medal taken from the dead body of Catherine’s fiancé at Antwerp’. ‘Of the Belgian play, “:La Kommandatur,” by Fonson, now running (in French), we can speak much. It is at least a real war play, with credible characters and situations, and shows fairness towards the other side, and how the effects of war penetrate the home, both spiritually and materially. We strongly advise a visit’. Daily Herald, 13 February 1915. ‘“La Kommandatur” will played for the forty-fifth and last time at the Criterion Theatre to-morrow evening, a run of performances which is said to constitute record for a French play in London'. Pall Mall Gazette, Friday 5 March 1915.