“Khaki” – and the touchiness of soldiers

When I had my mini-holiday in London a few weeks ago, I read, with great enjoyment, the script of the anarchic farce Khaki (1924) , by Herbert C. Sargent and Con West, written for Ernie Lotinga (T.S.Eliot’s favourite comedian.) Now I’ve been back to the British Library to read the file of comments about the play preserved in the archive of the Lord Chamberlain, the theatre censor.

The Chamberlain’s reader (G.S.Street) did not share Eliot’s admiration for Lotinga’s brand of comedy. “The play is a farrago of idiocy, vulgarity and sham sentiment.”he wrote. His summary of the plot is more or less accurate:

The period is in the War. The villain, Partridge, was a solicitor before the War and is now a Colonel, who can do anything he likes. There is a sub-villain, Spencer, in the RAMC who is in Partridge’s power. Partridge knows that Kitty, wife of Lieutenant Graham, the hero, is coming into a fortune, and determines to get rid of Graham and marry her. He sends Graham on a certain-death expedition, but he is captured by the Germans and imprisoned. Partridge meanwhile is cashiered for drunkenness. He tells Kitty that Graham is dead and that he was cashiered for trying to save him from danger; she believes this, but exhorts him to enlist. Graham escapes and loses his memory, and by Partridge’s machinations is kept by scoundrels in Paris. His comic servant, Josser, after a scene in a hospital in which Partridge and Spencer try to poison him, rescues graham and they appear just as Partridge is going to marry Kitty and he is arrested, and all is well. All this is overlaid by the antics of the low comedian, Josser, who insults the Colonel in several scenes, plays cards with a comic German, outwits the commandant of the internment camp and so on.

Street considered whether the play should be banned:

It might be possible to ban this play as insulting to the Army (1) in the characters of Col. Partridge and Captain Spencer and (2) in the antics of the comedian, a private, who continually insults the Colonel with impunity. The worst passages, apart from the general scheme, are in Scene III pp 3,8,17 (privates not wanting to volunteer) and 24 and 25 (the colonel getting drunk.)

As against this, the audience can hardly take the villain Partridge as a real colonel, or representing military dignity in any way. The whole thing is so preposterously silly that the most ignorant audience could not think it represented reality in any way. As for the characters (sic) of the Colonel, we have had, in a serious play, an officer sending a rival to death, which is possible however unlikely. In the present case, of course, the colonel is a wildly impossible figure.

On the whole, I do not think that there is sufficient ground for banning the play, but that a strong caution against the vulgarity of the comic business (which runs all through; there are no salient instances except those given) being made excessive.

It is therefore, though reluctantly,

Recommended for licence.

The Lord Chamberlain himself was even more hostile:This is the sort of play I abominate & before coming to a decision as to how to deal with it, I shd be glad of the State Chamberlain’s advice.

The State Chamberlain was Sir Douglas Dawson, a member of the censor’s advisory board, and a ferocious soldier who seems to have regarded most drama with suspicion. When asked his opinion of Noel Coward’s This was a Man he growled: ‘Every character in this play, presumably ladies and gentlemen, leads an adulterous life and glories in doing so. I find no serious “purpose” in the play, unless it be misrepresentation. At a time like this what better propaganda could the Soviet instigate and finance?’

He regarded Lotinga’s anarchic comedy with equal suspicion:

Reading through this play confirms the sympathy I often feel for the “Reader” who has to frequently wade through such rubbish.

I concur with Mr Street’s comments as to “a farrago of idiocy and vulgarity” but if asked I would not even recommend reluctantly a licence as the play now stands. For two reasons, both already mentioned in synopsis.

(1)the slur cast on the officer class in the characters of Partridge and Spencer. A Comdg Officer drunk in his own orderly room is to my mind an impossibility, and I would be very sorry to think of the Lord Ch. Making himself responsible for such a travesty of reality to go out to the public with his cachet.
It may be argued that in the play slurs are cast on all classes. Why should the officers be exempted? With this I deal later.

But far more important are the impossible relations between the officer and private soldier. The conversations especially the remarks of the private to his C.O. convey a totally false impression of actual fact as regards relationships between officers and other ranks, as example of which Scene III is much the worst. See pp 3, 4, 8,9,12, 13, 14. Possibly the few remaining scenes might require small revision. Scenes IV to IX are in this respect harmless but idiotic. I should ask consideration of the importance at this moment of upholding the good name of the army. Revolutions only become serious when the soldier refuses to obey his officer. “A l’heure qui l’est” the agitator is at work with propaganda subversive of discipline, and winked at if not supported by the Govt. in office.

Is this the moment for a play to appear the moral of which is to cast ridicule on what may ere long be the only buffer left between us and revolution.

I may be talking from a soldier’s point of view, but if the Lord Chamberlain should think fit to consult the advisory board, those are my views.

The “Govt in office” in September 1924 was, of course, Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour administration. Dawson’s dark talk of revolution suggests that he is envisaging a situation in which the Army might have to step in to protect the country from revolutionaries – and maybe even from the elected govenment. In the early twenties, he would not have been unique in holding such views.

Dawson’s view prevailed and Lotinga was told that the play as it stood could not be performed. The prospect left him understandably distraught. The theatre had been booked and the scenery ordered.  He faced financial ruin if the play was not produced.

In a long letter to the Chamberlain’s office, he pleads innocence of any subversive intention, and points out that during the war he had performed a naval comedy H.M.S. Perhaps at Southsea, Portsmouth and Chatham. He pointed out that:

“Theatre audiences in these towns consist mainly of Naval officers and other ratings. I can assure you they screamed with delight at my burlesque and also at the cheeky answers which I addressed at the other actors in the play who represented Admirals and other officers of the Navy.”

Lotinga willingly agreed to changes in the play, in order to save his investment. The main ones were:

  • The main villain was made a Captain only, not a Colonel
  • A decent Colonel was introduced
  • The repartee was toned down.
  • The officer was no longer shown as drunken (was drugged instead).A line was cut in which Lotinga (as Josser) claimed that he was going to Buckingham Palace to play shove-ha’penny with the King.

Rather plaintively, Lotinga pointed out that:

My burlesque is pure harmless fun, and as I am solely a burlesque comedian, the only way I can obtain my laughs is by doing or saying something absurd.

I find it most interesting to see the weight of the Establishment come crushing down on a farcical and rather silly play like Khaki.

The touchiness of the Army is interesting, too. One starts wondering – why could the Chamberlain have licensed the naval play but come down heavily on the army equivalent?

Maybe the answer is that the Navy was non-political – in internal British terms at least. They threw their weight around abroad, with gunboats sent to recalcitrant colonies, and so on, but in Britain did nothing controversial. The Army, by contrast, were a force that might be mobilised internally, to break strikes or put down riots. Having a more sensitive political role, they could not afford to be so relaxed about their image.

What I want to discover now is – did that great Lotinga fan T.S.Eliot see Khaki? And if he did were Partridge and Spencer in any way models for that disreputable pair of officers Wauchope and Horsefall in Sweeney Agonistes? I shall keep on investigating.


  1. Posted December 4, 2009 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    Hi – thanks very much for this information. It proved invaluable for my blog, ornamentalpassions.blogspot.com.
    Did you know that Ernie Lotinga appears in stone on the Saville Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue?

    • Posted December 4, 2009 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

      I’ve passed that theatre many times – I shall look at it carefully in future. It’s great to think of Ernie Lotinga being commemorated in this way. He was a huge star in his time, but has almost slipped away from public memory.

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