THEATRE / Bury the dead: Rhoda Koenig reviews Noel Coward's Post Mortem at the King's Head

'In Post Mortem,' Sheridan Morley explains in a programme note, '(Noel) Coward does not so much write as explode onto paper.' The logical reaction, one would think, would be 'Duck]' but Richard Stirling has, with more theatrical fervour than regard for basic safety practices, decided to give the 1930 one-act drama its first professional stage production. The efforts of his large and energetic cast, however, only show that this rather hysterical anti-war play has been under cover for good reason.

Post Mortem begins in 1917, in a dug-out where the soldiers are laughing at the patriotic rubbish in the popular press, such as Lady Stagg-Mortimer's declaration that she is proud to give 'flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood' for England. John Cavan finds this particularly annoying, as her father edits the newspaper that runs it. Relieving a jittery friend, John is hit, and carried back to the trench to die, but he's not gone for long. We next see him in 1930, calling on his parents, friends and sweetheart to find out what the war has wrought. John's affectionate mother is, thankfully, unchanged; as a comrade says, that kind of love is 'the only form of sex that really holds'. But John's girlfriend consoles herself for her husband's infidelity with affairs of her own. His best pal, Perry, has just published an anti-war book that is going to be not only banned but burnt. 'They're afraid my book might start something,' he explains, as he prepares to blow his brains out. John's father, whose tabloid has led the censorship campaign, is less interested in welcoming his son than in exploiting his return to boost circulation. Dejected, John bids his mother, whom he calls 'darling' and 'dearest', a final goodbye before heading back to the other side.

Unlike Hemingway and Erich Maria Remarque, Coward was not inspired to denounce war by direct experience. He wrote Post Mortem after performing for a few nights in Journey's End, and his play's shrillness, grandiosity and caricature reflect Coward's remoteness from the battlefield as well as his denial of the contemporary mood. Not only was R C Sherriff's pacifist play immensely popular, but, for several years before Coward wrote his, numerous anti-war novels, plays and films had won critical and commercial success. In that climate, how could Perry's slim, sensitive volume provoke terror and literary bonfires? Though Coward always vivisected hypocrisy, the sweeping reproaches of Post Mortem sound as if they emerge from a self-aggrandising infatuation with the subject and a desire to be part of the current fashion. Coward repudiated John's tirades ('When your boys grow up and there's another war, will you be proud when they enlist?') with the patriotic pieces he wrote after bombs fell on London and the fashion changed again. He couldn't have seen into the future, but he could have looked further back than 1914 to see that all wars are not alike, and he could have given his drama more action than repeated finger-pointing.

If the King's Head has an uneven record for disinterments, it has a splendid one for action, which it enhances once again with Avril Angers' dotty-haughty Lady Stagg-Mortimer, Sylvia Syms's achingly tender mum, Harry Barton's staunch John, and Steven Pacey's suave, near-imperturbable suicide. But their time could be better spent than in a vaporous polemic, which turns oddly sentimental at the end, when John praises the joys of battle: 'Love among men in war is gallant and worth remembering.' Somehow it's not surprising that the masters of pacifist literature never found Noel Coward a comrade-in-arms.

The King's Head, London N1 (071-226 1916).

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