Allan Monkouse’s The Conquering Hero is one of the most interesting plays of the twenties, and the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond have given it a production of their usual high standard.
Allan Monkhouse (1858-1936) was himself too old for military service in the war, but here, as in his 1919 novel True Love, he expresses how troubled he was by the degree of moral pressure put on men to enlist. His protagonist is Christopher, the son of a soldier but a man who simply cannot see himself in that role – partly because he has taken on the role of a writer, an observer and analyst of life, rather than a participant.
Christopher cannot accept the idea of becoming a soldier, but is clearly distinguished from his brother Stephen, a pacifist on religious principle. Christopher is something of an aesthete; his writing is the most important thing in his life, and he sees no reason why politics, or what other people see as his duty, should interfere with it.
He is an intellectual, recognised as more intelligent even by family members who disagree with him. Unlike them, he can easily see through the fog of propaganda, and in this production the actor expresses very well his pain and incredulity at the way other people were seduced by war talk.
He points out that the official reports are not to be trusted, and is asked: ‘Haven’t you read the letters from the front?’
He replies: ‘Yes, and I could write one… It’s a literary convention.’
(He has a point. Such was the demand for letters from the front that quite respectable papers commissioned them from writers who had never been near a battlefield. A prime example is the series of ‘Billet Notes’ printed in Nash’s Magazine, with no hint as to their utter inauthenticity, or that they were written not by a serving officer, but by a versatile female writer of romantic fiction – Marguerite Jervis, alias Marguerite Barclay, alias Countess Barcynska, alias Oliver Sandys).
Christopher, a writer of stories, can see that the rest of his family are ruled by the myths they believe. When the rather unsoldierlike family servant enlists in the Army, Chris tries to bring him to a sense of reality by offering to fight him (It’s one of the best scenes in this production).
The trouble is that Christopher, even though he does not believe the grand narratives that have sent others to war, cannot escape them. His mind becomes dominated by the war – maybe more even than the minds of others who have enlisted. He develops writer’s block, and can no longer produce stories. (I wish Monkhouse had given us a clearer idea of what kind of writer Christopher was. A realist? A satirist? A fantasist?)
Increasingly Christopher becomes isolated in the family. Intellectually he may be right about the War, but emotionally and socially he has got it wrong. The aloofness that must have been rather admirable before the War comes to seem like egotism or selfishness, and he is increasingly isolated. He enlists in the Army as an act of perverse defiance, a meaningless acte gratuite challenging the fate that has put him in an impossible situation.
He goes to war, and the Orange Tree production cleverly makes the confused third act, set in France, even murkier by having it happen in near-darkness. Christopher’s German captor and his English fellow-prisoner are complex characters, both capable of both cruelty and generosity. There is no simple moral truth about the War.
In the last act, Christopher comes home, a wreck. I liked the way this production made clear that even those family members who had been hostile to him before were now caring and considerate, and understanding even when he spoils their welcome-home party.
Simon Harrison as Christopher was particularly impressive in this last act, I thought. All the easy articulateness of the first act has gone, and he is reduced to basics: ‘I want warmth; I want rest; I want food… I want to be alone.’
He insists: ‘It was right for me to go. I have no regrets.’ He has learnt dreadful truths about life, and about himself.
One thing he learned is expressed in a line that I had not particularly noticed when I read the play a while back. ‘And deep down I am an Englishman,’ says the man who had deliberately distanced himself from his country’s mood in the first act. ‘The old tunes were calling.’
The Conquering Hero has been presented as a pacifist play, which simplifies it, I think. (The Orange Tree programme has an article on conscription and conscientious objection which is not very relevant – since the play is set in 1914-1915, before conscription was introduced. The article is not very accurately written, either.) It makes more sense as a study of a man unsuited to war, who has to face its challenge.
The play has something in common with other plays produced in the 1920s in which a soldier returns from the front demoralised – Maugham’s The Unknown, for example, or Douglas Goldring’s sensational The Fight for Freedom. But was it in fact actually written before the Armistice? The Lord Chamberlain’s censor seemed to think so. After a summary of the plot, G.S.Street’s report on the play (in the Lord Chamberlain’s archive in the British Library) reads as follows:
I have read that the author did not want this play acted during the war. Rightly, I think, and at that time it might not have been licensed, because the ‘pacifist’ argument in the first part, and in the latter part the collapse of courage due to starvation and exhaustion and the final nervous state of the ‘Hero’ might have had a bad effect. But I see no reason now for withholding a licence. The arguments in the play are familiar and the realities of war and the fact that not every Englishman is always a hero are now known. It is a moving play to which a bare analysis cannot do justice. It has been produced by the societies, I believe.
If the play really was written during the War, then that maybe explains the way that Christopher is presented. In wartime patriotic texts, objectors or protesters are very often shown as egoists, putting their own opinions before the national will. Christopher actually fits this pattern, though Monkhouse treats him much more sympathetically than most authors would.
Seeing the play on stage reminds me of its faults as well as its merits. The first act is wordy, and given to rather repetitive debate. I wish that Monkhouse had told us more about some of the characters – especially Helen, Christopher’s fiancée. What drew these two together? The Orange Tree supporting actors did very well at fleshing out characters who could be played as nothing more than personified opinions. I especially liked Paul Shelley as Christopher’s kindly father (the professional soldier who never actually had to go to war) and Claudia Elmhirst as Margaret, the sister who is clearly less bright than Christopher but has a much more certain sense of what is right and what is wrong.
On Saturday 26th May the Orange Tree are running a morning seminar about the themes of the play, including a talk by Will Ellsworth-Jones, who wrote the excellent study of conscientious objectors, We Will Not Fight. I’d hoped to be there – but it’s around the time that I’m moving house, so I don’t think I’ll make it.