Aldington and Maltby

Richard Aldington’s 1930 collection Roads to Glory, there is a rather grim story called The Case of Lieutenant Hall. This is in diary format, and traces the gradual disintegration of an officer (promoted from the ranks) after the Armistice.

At first he is keen to be out of the army and to get home, but soon anxieties start appearing, and memories of an ugly incident when he attacked a trench, took four prisoners and killed them. The thought of this begins to obsess him, as he returns home to an unsatisfacory job and an uncertain future. It ends badly.

One bit that interests me comes near the end of the story:

We made a damned silly mistake in being so eager to get back – the lucky ones are out there under six feet of French mud, God bless it. I saw a play the other night making fun of the demobilised officer who couldn’t shake down to civilian life. A damned nice sense of humour that playwright has. You tell men for years they’re heroes, saving the nation, and making the world safe for everybody – and then you sneer at them because in two months they don’t immediately become efficient and obsequious commercial travellers. I’d like to kick that fellow where he keeps his intelligence, i.e. in his backside.

The playwright whose bottom Aldington’s hero would like to kick is presumably H.F.Maltby, whose play A Temporary Gentleman was a big hit in the immediate post-war years. Its central character is an officer promoted from the ranks with big ideas about his new social status. In the end he accepts the job of travelling salesman which he had previously considered beneath him, and rediscovers his integrity.

Maltby’s intention (explained in his autobiography) was to make fun of non-combatants, not fighting soldiers. His hero is clerk who has become an Army Service Corps officer, and wants the privileges of an officer even though his war service has been no more than glorified clerking. Maltby claimed that the play spoke the language of ordinary soldiers, and was understood by them as a dig at officers who gave themselves undeserved airs:

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.

Aldington’s hero sees the play differently, as a snobbish attack on the fighting soldier. Was it really taken that way by audiences of the time? Or is Aldington, ten years later, misremembering the play, ordeliberately re-imagining it for his own artistic purposes.

Had he, I wonder, actually seen A Temporary Gentleman himself, or is he relying on others’ accounts? Maybe a good example of how the war stories of the late twenties relied on memories that were not always accurate.

3 Comments

  1. Posted October 13, 2008 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I think that Aldington mentions that play – or one very similar – in his autobiography, writing that he saw it not long after the end of the war. (I’m at work at the moment but will try to find the reference later…)

  2. Posted October 13, 2008 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    ‘By way of showing the young officer the way he should go, a play was hastily staged, and I was taken to see it for educational purposes by the editor of several magazines, for whom I was doing some articles. I beheld a demobilised officer so conceited about having held His Majesty’s commission that he refused to know his old friends and considered ordinary jobs beneath him. Finally, under the genial nagging of his girl and family, he chucked away his sword and war medals, and gratefully accepted a commercial traveller’s job on two pounds a week and a percentage. The travesty was bitterly unjust. Already, ex-officers were tramping the streets looking for any job, and within a few months thousands of them were sleeping in Hyde Park, absolutely destitute.’
    Life for Life’s Sake (1968), 188

  3. Posted October 13, 2008 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Gemma –
    Thanks for this. ‘Life for Life’s Sake’ was first published in 1941, so this account is even later than the fictional one.
    Maltby was a man who had enlisted as a private, and took a dim view of some of the officers set above him. This is made clear in the play, whose most positive character is the decent corporal who lives next door to the conceited officer.
    I’ve seen a couple of reviews of the play. The Times thought it very funny, but W.J.Turner, in ‘Land and Water’ shares Aldington’s view, calling it a “really odious play”, and agreeing with him that it makes fun of “the woes of the demobilised officer in search of a job”. The reviewer clearly thought the presentation of the conceited officer quite unfair, and unrepresentative.
    Maltby’s autobiography claims that it appealed especially to audiences of servicemen, who recognised the types satirised. I’ll see what else I can discover about the play.


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