When I posted before about Douglas Goldring’s melodramatic 1920 play The Fight for Freedom, I’d only read as far as the end of the second act. Returned soldier Michael was alone with the woman who’d rejected him for another. He’d spiked her champagne with a drug that knocked her out, and was saying, “Mine… at last!”
The third act shows Margaret distraught after the rape, and her mother seeking advice from her deeply conformist friends, the war-loving (and unsubtly named) clergyman, Rev Samuel Slaughter, Dean of Devizes, and his wife.
Michael has sent a letter (“a most manly letter” the Slaughters decide) admitting his fault, and offering to make amends by marrying Margaret, a solution that pleases everyone except the girl herself. The Dean and Mrs Slaughter use all sorts of moral pressure to persuade Margaret:
“For a year and a half he has been risking his life… for you. Try to make allowances for the terrible effect which the war has had on the fellow…”
“You have it in your power now not only to ensure your future happiness, but to save Michael’s soul. If you refuse him I am much afraid that you will drive him to evil courses. He will despair… He will go under… All that he needs to keep him straight is the softening influence of a good and pure woman.”
and (because she is no longer a virgin):
“I may as well tell you that your only chance of marrying in your own class is to marry Michael Henderson.”
Supported by her feminist aunt, Eleanor, Margaret refuses. In this scene the conventional characters are so unfeeling that they come across as rather obvious caricatures, but their glib talk is disturbed by the entrance of Michael, a raging personification of all the negativity and horror of war:
“Before the war you promised yourself to me. And all through the months that I have been stuck in that cesspool of mud and blood and putrid bodies and infernal noise, I had nothing but the thought of you to cling to. And when at last I got leave, all the accumulated longings of those horrible months consumed me. I came home – to find that you had been spending your time flirting with some snivelling socialist.”
He pours out his aggression until Margaret slaps his face. Then he is finally convinced he stands no chance with her (but the cardboard cut-out conformists blame her for being unladylike).
In the fourth act Margaret meets Oliver, her socialist boyfriend again. He editorialises about how it’s not the soldier but the system that is to blame:
“Punishment for the crimes of soldiers, even for “atrocities” ought to be visited not on the tortured devils who actually commit them, but on the heads of those who made the war, on those who have prolonged the war’s torment for two extra years by rejecting peace.”
Margaret can’t accept what he is saying (and doesn’t like her experience being turned into the subject of a sermon). She learns that Michael drank himself stupid after her second rejection of him, and has now been incarcerated in a lunatic asylum. She chucks Oliver, and decides to accept the marriage proposal of Philip, Michael’s uncharismatic Civil Servant brother, who has always adored her.
Goldring seems to blame Margaret for cowardice in accepting safety and respectability in this way. In his introduction to the play, he says that there are too many Margarets in the world and not enough Eleanors. The final tableau of the play is Oliver and Eleanor together, singing The Red Flag.
After writing the play, Goldring realised that there was no theatre in England likely to put it on, so he roped in D.H.Lawrence (who wrote Touch and Go for him) and tried to start a People’s Theatre movement. Nothing much came of it, and Lawrence felt let down. Goldring says that the play had productions in Germany and Hungary, though.
In many ways it’s a bad play – clumsily written and with stereotyped nasty characters who must have been fun to write, but let the playwright avoid deep exploration of the reasons why people actually did support the war. On the other hand, it’s interesting because it’s trying to do something no other play was doing in 1920 – making the violence of war erupt in the polite sitting-rooms of Middle England.