I’m looking at what was published during the war books boom of the late twenties, and it strikes me that it was often those too young to have been personally involved in the war who were most eager to hammer home the message of war’s horror and futility. Evadne Price, for example, who produced the fake memoir Not So Quiet under the pen-name of Helen Zenna Smith.
Noel Coward was born in 1900, joined the army briefly in 1918 and underwent some training, but never saw anything like action.
In 1930, having performed the role of Stanhope in Journey’s End for a few performances in Singapore, and while his head was still full of war, he wrote Post-Mortem, a play that brings into explicitness themes and possibilities latent in Sherriff’s. It begins with soldiers in a dugout, mocking the concerted dishonest propaganda of the patriotic press, and the ignorance of the civilian public which “must enjoy its war”. His war poet character, Perry, predicts that after the war “They’ll smarm it over with memorials and Rolls of Honour and Angels of Mons and it’ll look so noble and glorious in retrospect that they’ll all start itching for another war…” Even the books and plays of the war boom are suspect:
You’ll see, there’ll be an outbreak of war literature in so many years, everyone will write war books and war plays and everyone will read them and see them and be vicariously thrilled by them, until one day someone will go too far and say something that’s really true and be flung in prison for blasphemy, immorality, lese majesty, unnatural vice, contempt of court, and atheism, then there’ll be a glorious religious revival and we’ll all be rushed across the Atlantic to conquer America, comfortably upheld by Jesus and the right!.
This promise of truth-telling collapses into facetious exaggeration, but this speech is gesturing towards a book or play that Coward would like to write but cannot, because, as he later commented, of a “lack of detachment and lack of real experience” The work that he wants his audience to imagine is one going beyond the consensus values and reticence of Journey’s End to something more daring and “really true”.
In this play, though, the horrors of war are described rather than dramatised, and though the descriptions are forceful (for example:“an attack, treading on men’s faces, some of them not dead, with the bloody din of the barrage in our ears, and thin human screams cutting through it – quite clearly, like penny whistles in a thunderstorm –” ) this sort of horror-description had actually been published many times before – even during wartime – for example in Patrick MacGill’s The Great Push of 1916.
Post-Mortem develops as an expressionist ghost story; a dead soldier from the first scene returns as a ghost to the London of 1930. Seeking to know whether the war had been a “blind futility”, he finds a society that is trivial and dishonest, but forgetting or lying about the war. (In other words, Coward goes from a war he doesn’t know much about to social satire of a kind he was comfortable with.) There is a very good scene where the ghost is talking to the people who run a newspaper; they turn everything he says into soporific press clichés.
Even the ex-soldiers have turned their back on the truth of their memories. The youngest, “Babe”, denies the affection he felt for Armitage, who died – he wants to censor any suggestion of “unnatural vice” out of the record. Playing Stanhope, Coward had presumably recognised a repressed homosexual subtext of Journey’s End, and here he is making it more explicit.
He seems to want to imagine a war play whose political directness would offend the Lord Chamberlain as much as the sexual implications of his Vortex had done. He published the play in 1931, but so far as I can gather made no attempt to get it put on. Would the Lord Chamberlain have objected? I don’t think he’d have liked the homosexual reference, but by that time there seems to have been little political censorship of anti-war plays. In Hodson’s Red Dawn, the bloodies were reduced, but I don’t think other significant changes were made.
The first performance, apparently, was by captured British soldiers at a prison camp in Germany in 1944. The first professional performance was on BBC television in 1968. The first professional stage performance in London was not until 1992.
The war poet truth-teller in Post-Mortem commits suicide, because the war has confirmed his sense of the pointlessness of a Godless universe. This is a very bleak play, and after writing it Coward recoiled to produce the far more successful, and more comforting, Cavalcade.