Thursday was quite a theatrical day. Not only did I see the excellent Chains of Dew at Richmond, but I spent a bit of time delving into theatrical history. A few years ago the British Library took over the archive of the Lord Chamberlain, who from 1737 to 1968 was the censor of plays in Britain. No performance could take place unless the script had been licensed by the Lord Chamberlain’s office.
The archive, therefore, is an astonishingly complete record of British dramatic literature. From large banks of filing drawers in the Manuscript Room you can find the reference for any play of the period. This allows the script to be ordered; it will come bound in a large volume with a dozen or so others, all from the same year. The play I wanted to read was H.F.Maltby’s A Temporary Gentleman of 1919, so the volume I was given had a random selection of 1919 plays (all now forgotten even more profoundly than Maltby’s) together with the Lord Chamberlain’s reader’s reports on each of the plays.
The tone of these reader’s reports is not only judgmental – that’s their job, I suppose – but superior and weary. “Ordinary melodramatic nonsense” is the comment on one play, which contains “talk of the ‘White Slave’ traffic and the female villain drinks, but nothing particularly unpleasant happens.” Well, actually, the synopsis of the play shows that somebody gets shot, which might sound unpleasant – but that’s not what “unpleasant” means. “Unpleasant” means to do with sex or other taboo subjects.
Theatrical managers probably knew that it was just these taboo subjects that would get the patrons in. In this tiny sample of plays from 1919 we find Dope (first presented at the Theatre Royal, Barnsley) and Drug Fiend (at Brixton Theatre, S.W.) Neither of these plays offended the Lord Chamberlain’s reader enough to be banned, and both came down solidly on the correct side of the moral issue. The reports note that happily the plays contain “no reference to a recent court case”. I wonder what case that was.
Maltby’s A Temporary Gentleman was described by the reader as:
A clever but perhaps necessarily rather sordid study of the false position into which a rather snobbish young man of the shopkeeper class may fall when, having been promoted to a commission, he tries after the war to retain his social superiority to the class from which he has sprung, and to which he must now return.
It’s actually a very funny play. Maltby had served in the ranks during the war, and had formed a not very flattering view of those set above him. His protagonist, Walter, had been a clerk before the war, but has been elevated to the position of Lieutenant in the Army Service Corps (The fighting soldiers regarded the A.S.C. as just a bunch of clerks anyway.) He exults in his position. There is some sharp comedy about the excessive amount of kit he takes to France with him, because, unlike the private soldier, he doesn’t have to carry it himself. His sister, a V.A.D., is also a snob, and Maltby’s prtrait of her is refreshingly different from the usual representation of the wartime nurse. She complains about the hospital:
At the last minute they brought two new stretcher cases into my ward… I don’t see why I should have to have all the serious cases and Sister Graves none…
For both brother and sister, War is a time of social opportunity. They consider themselves vastly superior to the family next door, whose son is only a corporal.
The first act is set in wartime, but then, like several texts of this period (Sorrell and Son a good example) the play slides into the near future, and we see the post-war world. Demobilised, Walter is offered his old job, but now considers himself above it. Unfortunately, there is a glut of ex-officers, and nobody wants to give him a job consonant with his high opinion of himself.
His snobbish sister has managed to catch a doctor and marry him, but he too is finding peacetime difficult, and looks back nostalgically to his days in the R.A.M.C.:
McGregor: I’ve no patience with this civilian business. When a person comes to me I expect them to have something I can see or listen to. Most of them don’t seem to know what’s the matter with them and come to me to tell them. I can’t tell them they’re all right – as we did in the Army – or they won’t come again, and I can’t mark the “P.N.O.” and hand them on to someone else or I’d lose the job. It’s a bit of a devil altogether.
Mrs H: I thought a doctor was there to tell people what was the matter with them?
McGregor:Not in the Army. The patient has to prove that he is ill, and then it is up to the doctor to prove that he isn’t. But some of these civilians, they don’t want a doctor – they want a thought-reader.
McGregor is particularly annoyed by being “called in the middle of the night by people who have nothing wrong with them. Why can’t they parade sick in the usual way?”
The third act is set in 1921, when Walter has learnt his lesson, has taken on the salesman’s job that he had preciously spurned, and is making a proper hardworking success of himself. Dr MacGregor too has prospered; as his wife explains: “It’s the influenza. It’s been a godsend to Albert.”
Walter’s reformation gives him the right to deliver a ringing third-act condemnation of the smug industrialist who has done well out of the War. He also meets a nice girl (ex-W.A.A.C) who is far superior to the industrialist’s vacuous daughter, whom he had yearned after in his snobbish days.
The Lord Chamberlain’s report sees the play (approvingly) as the story of a man getting above himself and being shown his place in life. I think it’s a bit more subversive than that. It was a huge hit in the post-war years, because it endorsed the experience of the ordinary soldier. In his memoirs, Maltby explains;
The play was full of what might be called “overseas talk” – words and expression that could only be understood by men who had been overseas…
He describes a performance where one man was beside himself with loud agreement throughout but:
was so obviously enjoying himself that no one had the heart to “hush”him. At last one line particularly took his fancy: carried away by his enthusiasm he jumped to his feet, and waving his arms above him in delight shouted to the rest of the audience, “That’s bloody true!” We had a job to go on after that.
Maltby went on to write a very different play about the war – The Person Unknown for the Grand Guignol company.
One of the main readers for the Lord Chamberlain was G.S.Street. He was a friend of Max Beerbohm, who drew several caricatures of him. Here is one of them.