The First World War produced a remarkable body of poetry by the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. It's less well known that this conflict also provoked protest in the form of plays. That's hardly surprising, since dissident drama was apt to be suppressed. Shining a torch into this dark, neglected corner of theatrical history, the enterprising Two's Company now present a fascinating triple bill comprised of two English plays by Miles Malleson, published in 1916 and seized by the police, and a staged Geman radio drama, broadcast in 1929 but later banned by the Nazis.
In the English pieces, the War throws the perennial question of class division into a more acute perspective. Set in a Malta barracks in October 1914, D Company shows us an illiterate private (Leo Conville) asking a Cambridge-educated comrade (Neill Ditt) to read him a letter from home. The incongruity between the cultivated tones of the latter and the cockney dialect of the mother's missive recalls Eliza Dolittle poshly fluting lowlife family gossip in the Ascot scene of Pygmalion.
It's not, though, a simple point about class that Malleson is making. He suggests, rather, that both these tribally different types now have more in common with each other and with their counterparts in the German army than with the brigadiers and the purblind civilians of their own nation.
This is brought home with savage force in Black 'Ell, in which an upper-middle-class family await the arrival of their hero son, who has been recommended for a DSO. But Daniel Wayman's Harold proves to be a neurasthenic ghost of man, haunted by guilt and politically radicalised. His class has pretended that "the beastly little streets" did not exist, except when putting weapons into the hands of the menfolk and sending them off to kill each other. Earlier, a young jolly-hockey-sticks woman had rhapsodised jauntily about "the wonderful way [the war] has brought all classes together" in the "terrific sport" of helping on the home front. The play, though, suggests that what is needed is not a patriotic but a socialist solidarity of trans-national scope.
That point is cannily reinforced by Tricia Thorns's powerfully atmospheric production of the third play, Brigade Exchange by Ernst Johannsen. Set inthe German trenches, it immerses you in the confusion and panic as the communication lines go down and the enemy tanks advance. Hauling in a horse carcass from the battlefield to make a goulash, the cook reassures the men that "it's one of ours" and when all hope seems lost, a private exclaims: "Everything is in God's hands. Let's hope he's a German."
But if you were to substitute English for Teutonic names, you could believe you were in the trenches of the opposing side. It's a clever move to give the soldiers the accents of cockney camaraderie and clenched pukka tones to the voices of high command that are heard over the phone. Once again, we see that the lines dividing "them" and "us" are false. This triple bill is an eye-opener to a forgotten seam of principled protest.
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