I’ve been back looking at old playscripts in the Lord Chamberlain’s archive at the British Library, and the most interesting is a 1917 comedy called General Post, by J. E. Harold Terry; this was quite a hit at the time, because of the way that it commented ironically but optimistically on the social disruption caused by the War. The main source of its comedy is the idea that a provincial tailor, who is also a member of the Territorials, can rise to the rank of General during wartime, a change that causes a great deal of confusion among his social betters.
The first act is set in 1911. Sir Dennys, a pompous local worthy, is disturbed to hear that Betty, his headstrong daughter, is keen on the tailor, whose name is Smith. He is also scornful of the Territorials, the foundation of which he considers “a measure which is a disgrace even to a radical Government.” He is especially annoyed when his son is asked to join:
It’s amazing. To suggest that my son should march beside my butcher, my baker and my candlestick maker at the head of all the rag-tag and bob-tail of the city – well – it’s – hardly credible.
Smith himself convinces Betty that their marriage is socially imposible, before he heads away to his Territorial duties.
The second act happens in 1915. Sir Dennys is now “in the uniform of a private of the National Reserve”. His sergeant is one Johnson, a man who helps in the stables. His wife is horrified by this; she asks incredulously: “And you have to do what he tells you? I never heard of such a thing!” She comments: “It’s like one of our old nursery games. The Kaiser’s shouted “General Post!” and we’ve all changed places.”
Their son Alec, now a keen young officer, has been transformed from a snob into a democrat. He says:
The War Office don’t give a hang whether a man’s been a cheap-jack or a crossing-sweeper, so long as he knows how to command a regiment. They don’t ask him for his family tree. Family trees are played out. The man who’s top-dog today is the man who can do things. Nothing else counts.
Alec’s commanding officer is no other than Smith the tailor, now a Colonel. There is some good fun when he visits. Sir Dennys, still in his private’s uniform, insists on remaining rigidly at attention and calling his tailor “Sir,” to general embarrassment. Smith explains that “The Army is run on strictly democratic principles,” and that the war has transformed the nation:
Snobbery’s a peace-time complaint. It’s like the German measles. It’s gone completely out of fashion since the war.
Act III is set in the year “19-?”, six months after the “Peace of Berlin”. The tailor is now General Smith, V.C. and a local hero. Sir Dennys remembers (not altogether accurately) the way that he recognised Smith’s talents early, and encouraged him in the Territorials. He proudly reads a newspaper report of a speech in which he eulogies Smith’s career – which is spoilt slightly by the paper’s misprint. Smith is recorded as having acted valiantly “under a hail of flying mullets.” As Alec explains:
He must have thought that there were flying fish in the Dardanelles, and the Germans had tamed them to “frightfulness”. They were quite capable of it.
By now Sir Dennys and his wife are very keen for their daughter to marry Smith. His being in trade is swept aside as irrelevant, and Sir Dennys reveals the secret that his family fortunes come from “Ponsonby’s Pillules”, a patent medicine. Betty, however, has become convinced of her own worthlessness because of the way she had rejected Smith in the first act. Predictably, though, the general manages to persuade her otherwise, and the play ends happily.
It’s a very jolly comedy, and the part of Sir Dennys is a gift for the right actor – I can imagine the late Robert Morley enjoying himself thoroughly in the role. It seems to have had a successful run in London. The author, J.E.Harold Terry was also co-author of the successful comedy thriller The Man Who Stayed at Home. Together with it in the Lord Chamberlain’s papers was a 1939 rewrite called Homeguard. I don’t know what success this had.
What strikes me most is the cheery social optimism of the play. The war has turned the social system upside down, and everyone will be the better for it. What is more, the traditional gentry will welcome the upstarts who have proved themselves in war.
It didn’t quite happen like that for a lot of people, however, and I am struck by the contrast between this play and Maltby’s Temporary Gentleman, staged only two years later. In that play the ex-officer’s military career is not valued, and he need s to prove himself afresh in a tough post-war world. Coningsby Dawson’s 1919 novel The Kingdom Round the Corner also presents the general who has risen from lowly origins as much more problematic.Things were even worse for the heroes of Deeping’s Sorrell and Son or Deane’s The Victors. The officer fallen on hard times in an uncaring world became the big weepie theme of the 1920s, in fact. General Post’s naïve enthusiasm for a democratic future that never happened, by contrast, seems rather sweet.