Few writers are as aware of the War as a constructed narrative as Allan Monkhouse in his play The Conquering Hero (1923). His main character, Christopher, is a writer who in 1914 cannot see that he has any duty to become a soldier: “My body would go through with it. My mind would be in perpetual revolt.”
The bellicose women of his family regard him with righteous disgust, but he hears everything they say as cliché. He is horrified that the world has become simplified, so that men are divided into only two types – “The man who goes to the war and the man who doesn’t.” He has respect for his pacifist brother Stephen, though he doesn’t share his ideals, but when Stephen announces that he will join the Red Cross, Christopher turns on him for having succumbed to the glamorous narrative of war:
“It’s the war you want. It’s the neighing steed and the shrill trump. It’s the call. It’s to follow where the men are going. You won’t kill anybody, of course. Nobody wants to kill. It’s a compelling force. It’s the great adventure. You can’t escape it. Be honest; it’s the war.”
When asked what he knows about the war, Christopher replies:
“As much as the correspondents faking up their reports.” and on being asked “Do you read the letters home?” he says:
“Yes, and I could write them. They’re what we expect; they’re a kind of literary convention. You read a letter in the paper one day, and a week afterwards some poor wounded devil tells the same story. He had to tell something because his friends clamoured for experiences.”
People at home are desperate for the war to have meaning, so need it to be shaped like a story – which has to be the right story, too. Margaret (one of the ferocious women in the play) is uneasy at the thought of her husband, Frank, being a prisoner of war. As another character explains:
“You know, it hurts Margaret’s pride – his being a prisoner. One doesn’t like to hear of all these prisoners, Henry. I know, I know. Modern warfare’s different. When they’re surrounded it’s no good trying to fight it out.”
When, in a terrific Act II curtain, she hears that Frank has died of wounds, she becomes transformed, because though he is dead his story now has an emotionally satisfying conclusion : “You thought he was a coward. You doubted him. … Who can be prouder than I today?”
Despite his scepticism about the melodramatic war narrative that engrosses his family, Christopher eventually enlists, for appropriately unclear reasons (“I did it to get away from the war, I think.”) Act III shows him in France, in a morally confused scene where he is taken prisoner by a German. In the course of a few minutes Christopher’s behaviour is both cowardly and brave, and the German is both cruel and decent. There are no moral certainties, and no clear stories.
In Act IV Christopher comes home, the only survivor among the soldiers of his family who went to France. Stephen the Red Cross Worker has also been killed.
Christopher can give no coherent account of the War to his family. “Our language – words – are made for peace. I can’t tell you about war.” He has no stories to tell, and implies that the truth about war is untellable. “We come home to brass bands, but there are secrets in our hearts.”
This is not a play by an ex-soldier. Allan Monkhouse was born in 1858, so was too old to fight. Like many writers of the time, though (of various political persuasions) he uses the figure of the fighting man as a truth-teller. (Other plays of the same period that do the same are Maugham’s The Unknown and Goldring’s The Fight for Freedom – though they use their soldier-figures in very different ways.)
Monkhouse was a founding member of the Manchester School of dramatists, but his plays have dropped out of the repertory. I’ve not read any of the others, but they sound interesting. Before the War, he had written The Choice,a play in which a boy is urged by his sweetheart to fight in the Boer War, where in the crucial moment he is shot down by his commanding officer because his courage has failed. His Night Watches of 1916 is about wounded soldiers in hospital. I must hunt these out.