For his new play at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, Howard Brenton has chosen to tell the story of one of the most remarkable men of the Great War. Harold Gillies (a New Zealander) was the pioneer of plastic surgery in Britain, developing remarkable techniques to help men with broken faces. Among the most successful of these techniques involved taking a long piece of skin from the leg, making it into a tube, and then leading it up to attach it to the breast. When the graft had taken at the breast, the pedicle (as it was called) was removed from the leg and taken upwards to the face, where it would grow as new skin to replace the damage of war. (Some foreign surgeons had experimented with the pedicle method before the war, but Gillies at Sidcup was the surgeon who realised that a tube was better than just a flap of skin, because it was less likely to dry out.)
You can download Gillies’s book Plastic Surgery of the Face here: https://archive.org/details/plasticsurgeryof00gilluoft. Be warned – it contains some very disturbing images.
Howard Brenton has picked up hints from Reginald Pound’s biography of Gillies that the man was a paradoxical character, something of a dual personality. As a surgeon he was slow and utterly meticulous, often delaying an operation if he was uncertain of success; a favourite dictum of his, repeated in the play, is ‘Never do today what you can honourably put off until tomorrow.’ Yet there was another side to him – a rather wild practical joker, and a man who took champagne to his patients at night to cheer them up. the play runs with this idea, and presents Gillies as tending to men’s faces with careful surgery, but helping their souls with a regime of anarchic joy.
‘We don’t do glum here. Glum doesn’t work,’ Gillies tells a man with half his face blown away. This is the motto of the play, too. It treats wartime surgery not with Crimson Field-style striving after poignancy, but with raucous jokes.