Shell Shock as Comedy

Most commonly shell-shock cases have been presented as tragedy – Septimus Smith and his visions of horror in Mrs Dalloway, for instance. Sometimes in literature of the war years and early twenties it could be presented as romantic – a man given mystery by his amnesia. Occasionally, as in The Fight for Freedom or A Bill of Divorcement, it is a subject for fear – madness threatening to intrude on otherwise ordinary life.

So it’s a change to find shell-shock a subject for a rollicking farce, in the play Three Live Ghosts (1918/1920/1922 in various versions) by Frederic S. Isham and Max Marcin . This begins with Cockney Mrs Gubbins and her friend attempting to call up the spirit of her stepson, killed in the War. Bang on cue, in comes Jimmy, not dead at all, but a prisoner of the Germans for the past few years. With him come two friends, Bill and Spoofy. Bill will turn out to be a thief, on the run from the American police, and Spoofy is shell-shocked.

“Spoofy we calls him because ‘e ayn’t any branes,” Jimmy explains. “He ayn’t exactly crazy, only bug-house – suffering from shell-shock.” Spoofy’s oddity involves total amnesia and kleptomania – as soon as he arrives in the house he is stuffing the salt cellar into his pocket. Jimmy points out that this thieving could be an asset in wartime; he and Bill feel “gratitude for the things he swiped for us while we were starving our way through Germany and Holland.”

Spoofy leaves the house for a while, and comes back “with a silly smile and a vacuous expression”, a “stunning shiny high silk hat” and an “aristocratic perambulator” with a baby in it. His pockets are full of expensive jewels.

The play’s comic momentum builds brilliantly, and Spoofy becomes a sort of Lord of Misrule, stealing back the jewels from the police who apprehend them. Finally, he is hit over the head. His memory returns, and when he knows who he is it miraculously sorts out all the complications of the plot.

The whole thing is very silly and immensely improbable, but I imagine it had the potential to play brilliantly on stage, if audiences were happy to see shell-shock treated farcically. I don’t know about British productions, but after it opened on Sep 29, 1920 on Broadway, it played for 250 performances.

Isham and Marcin are Americans, and despite the play’s London setting, I can only find American references to it so far.

Its provenance is confusing. The book I was reading from was an American Samuel French acting edition from 1922, credited to Frederic S. Isham and Max Marcin. The copyright notice in the front mentions a 1918 novel version, and a 1918 play (called The Daisy Pushers) by Isham alone. Marcin takes a share in the copyright in 1919, and it becomes Three Live Ghosts, copyright Isham in 1920. Did Marcin contribute to the text, or was he one of those producers (like Billy Rose) who always wanted to grab a share of the credit and royalties? These matters can get tangled.

The play was filmed three times, in 1922, 1929 and 1936. I first began investigating the play because I saw the 1922 film listed as a British production, but all three seem to have been American, though at least the 1922 one kept the Cockney setting. Here’s a poster for the 1936 movie.




A rather different comic treatment of shell shock can be found here.

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