Beauties of Bethune

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My research sends me squirrelling through lots of old magazines, and this week it has been Pearson’s Weekly for 1919. Not much use for war fiction, unfortunately – but I found this article about a British Army concert party, Les Rouges et Noirs, created by Capt. Eliot Makeham (“late of the London stage”). As the article explains:

Helped by General St.John Parker – the patron saint of Les Rouges et Noirs – Captain Makeham set to work in earnest. What did the average Tommy long for; where did his thoughts go in spare moments;what pleased his eye most of all? Just- GIRLS! But the genuine English-speaking variety was non est; therefore a good colourable imitation was the next best thing.

So, as the article goes on to explain, all the lovely ladies pictured are actually soldiers in drag. Most of the photos are in pairs, showing the men first in uniform, and then in a frock.

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We are told that “Phyl and Co regard their work in feminine garb as a huge joke” but that they brought “real and necessary entertainment to their soldier audiences in France.”

J.G.Fuller in his Troop Morale and Popular Culture (OUP, 1991) discusses shows like this.  He quotes a description of an audience by Henry Williamson:

Each herded man in the audience was fascinated, filled with longing, stirred by lust which made him shout or grin or hide his facial feelings according to the experiences, or lack, of his body.

Fuller makes the good point that the troops were not entirely otherwise deprived of female company – there were Frenchwomen in billets and estaminets, and suggests that “the appeal of the concert party ‘girls’ owed as much to their emphasis upon  glamour as to the sheer fewness of females. Peasant girls, working hard at practical tasks with their menfolk away, wereoften the reverse of ‘feminine’ in the restricted sense of the age.”

I think he’s right. It’s often said about drag acts that they enact femininity better than most women can, and what these men perhaps wanted was to be reminded of an idealised femininity that was the opposite of war.

But what is the article doing  in Pearson’s in 1919? Well, it’s publicising a tour of English theatres by this company after the war. I find this even more interesting than the wartime origins of the troupe.  Were they appealing to the nostalgia of soldiers? Or to the curiosity of civilians? Or were they just experimenting to see if a wartime success could be translated into a peacetime one? In any of these cases, what was the gender agenda?

The obvious  response today, I suppose, would be to “queer the text” – to suggest that this is a gay article about a gay troupe appealing to a gay audience. That’s how I took the article at first, especially since the next month’s Pearson’s gave several pages to the paintings of Henry Tuke. Now I’m wondering,though.

These days we tend to see gay subtexts everywhere. I went to a conference recently where someone analysed a story by a Victorian woman writer. Her two heroes ended up drowning, but clutching each other and reconciled. The scholar suggested that this was a way of writing about a gay relationship. I’ve not read that particular story, but I couldn’t help wondering whether it wasn’t perhaps the opposite – a way of saying “Look, men can have intense feelings for each other without it being in any way sexual.”

Similarly, this article in Pearson’s and the theatrical tour are maybe an attempt to de-queer the concert parties – to bring them out of the all-male war zone and say “Look, this is what went on. It’s a display of very clever acting that anybody can enjoy, and it’s got nothing to do with perversions of the Oscar Wilde variety.”

I wonder how successful the tour was, and what happened to the actors.

3 Comments

  1. Posted February 17, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    The Victoria and Albert Museum’s theatrical collection has a poster for a show featuring this company: see http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O153935/poster-advertising-the-revue-splinters-poster-haydock-cadle-ltd/#

    The V & A website tells us:

    In December 1918 Les Rouges et Noirs was called by the War Office to appear in London and played a three-day engagement at the Canadian YMCA’s Beaver Hut Theatre in London’s Strand, followed by a Command Performance at Windsor Castle for George V and Queen Mary. The troupe returned to France in 1919, and after hostilities ended appeared in London’s West End in June and August 1919 and toured new versions of the revue commercially throughout the British Isles until 1924.

  2. David Manners
    Posted January 4, 2022 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Great blogs, George.

    Margaret Chute’s article on the “Beauties of Bethune” would be very useful to my own research. Would you mind sharing where you traced the magazine?

    Many thanks indeed,
    David

    • Posted January 4, 2022 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      As the blog post says, this was from Pearson’s Magazine 1919. I came across it many years ago, when I was searching (for something completely different, as I remember) the collection of Pearson’s in the Bodleian Library. To read the whole article, you’d need to look in a copyright library – with the best options probably the Bodleian or the British Library.


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