Monkhouse’s War Plays

Yesterday, writing about Allan Monkouse’s excellent post-war play The Conquering Hero, I mentioned some other of his plays that dealt with war. I’ve now found his 1916 collection War Plays digitised online.

The book includes three plays, of which only one (The Choice) had been produced before publication.

Shamed Life is about Claude, a young man who has not enlisted. We see the pressure on him, for example in this exchange with Isabel, fiance of Jim, who is already a soldier:

Eh ! There was a time when I thought of old England like the rest. And I liked to play at soldiers when I was a boy. Why didn’t I go? I might have been at peace now.

It ‘s not too late.


Are you simply a coward?

Simply a coward? There are a thousand ways of being a coward.

And only one way.

Claude’s mother constantly says that she does not want him to go, but this is part of a complicity between the two of them. She is taking the responsibility for his non-enlistment, by telling friends and neighbours that it is at her insistence. Claude, though, senses that she would really like him to go, whatever she says. Claude has his excuse, but is made to feel that it is not enough.

What is bravery?

It’s many things. It’s unselfishness. It’s justice. It’s imagination.

I’m young. I’ve not had my share.

What is life if everyone despises you?

Claude confesses to Isabel that he is indeed frightened, but when the telegram comes announcing Jim’s death, Claude announces that he will enlist. It’s as though the confession has left him free to take action. The play ends with the sound of a brass band passing the window, playing a patriotic song.

This play strikes me as similar to John Galsworthy’s one-acter Defeat, written at about the same time, but also, I think, unperformed during the War. That is also about the conflict between military duty and human feeling, and ends with the assertion of military identity. Both plays would be available for two different readings – either that military duty has properly triumphed, or that something better has been steamrollered by the emotions of the time.

Night Watches is a one-act comedy, set in a military hospital. A new orderly is told to keep an eye on a small ward where there are two men who don’t get on. First Soldier (they don’t get names) comes and complains to the orderly about Second, who is supposed to be deaf and dumb because of shell-shock, but talks in his sleep, in a way that first considers frightening. Soon Second comes in, and writes on a pad his complaints about First, while the Orderly makes ineffective attempts at calming them.

Then First makes a loud noise, to which second reacts. They notice the reaction, and start making more noises, excited by the possibility of cure. When the din becomes excessive, the Nurse comes in to protest, but the three men are excited, and First’s grievances against Second are quite forgotten in his pleasure at being part of the cure. He promises: “I’m goin’ to make ‘im ‘ear proper in the mornin’.”

I like the way that this play suggests that the cure for psychological problems is more likely to come from chaotic interaction with equals than from the organised treatment personified by the Nurse, who wants to keep everyone to a routine, and infantilises the patients by referring to them as “boys”.

I’d like to know about reactions to these plays on first performance – especially if that performance was during wartime.

Monkhouse is pretty well a forgotten writer these days – I don’t think he’s even been revived at the Orange Tree, though these plays would work well there, I think. For his generation, theatre was a place for words and ideas, and he can certainly get as talky as Shaw sometimes. He was a colleague of C.E.Montague’s on the Manchester Guardian for twenty-five years, and the two have much in common (Montague dedicated Dramatic Values to him in 1911.) There is a sympathetic account of him by Frank Swinnerton in The Georgian Literary Scene, though this concentrates on earlier work, and doesn’t mention the war plays.


One Comment

  1. Alan Godfrey
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Interesting comments. Just for information, Holmside Productions gave an amateur performance of ‘Shamed Life’ at the Saltburn Drama Festival in 2017, and on 7th March 2018 we will be performing ‘Night Watches’ at the Durham & Sunderland One Act Festival, at Arts Centre Washington. The Finborough Theatre gave a professional performance of ‘Night Watches’ about 2 years ago. I believe Orange Tree have given a revival of Monkhouse’s ‘Mary Broome’.

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