For his new play at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, Howard Brenton has chosen to tell the story of one of the most remarkable men of the Great War. Harold Gillies (a New Zealander) was the pioneer of plastic surgery in Britain, developing remarkable techniques to help men with broken faces. Among the most successful of these techniques involved taking a long piece of skin from the leg, making it into a tube, and then leading it up to attach it to the breast. When the graft had taken at the breast, the pedicle (as it was called) was removed from the leg and taken upwards to the face, where it would grow as new skin to replace the damage of war. (Some foreign surgeons had experimented with the pedicle method before the war, but Gillies at Sidcup was the surgeon who realised that a tube was better than just a flap of skin, because it was less likely to dry out.)
You can download Gillies’s book Plastic Surgery of the Face here: https://archive.org/details/plasticsurgeryof00gilluoft. Be warned – it contains some very disturbing images.
Howard Brenton has picked up hints from Reginald Pound’s biography of Gillies that the man was a paradoxical character, something of a dual personality. As a surgeon he was slow and utterly meticulous, often delaying an operation if he was uncertain of success; a favourite dictum of his, repeated in the play, is ‘Never do today what you can honourably put off until tomorrow.’ Yet there was another side to him – a rather wild practical joker, and a man who took champagne to his patients at night to cheer them up. the play runs with this idea, and presents Gillies as tending to men’s faces with careful surgery, but helping their souls with a regime of anarchic joy.
‘We don’t do glum here. Glum doesn’t work,’ Gillies tells a man with half his face blown away. This is the motto of the play, too. It treats wartime surgery not with Crimson Field-style striving after poignancy, but with raucous jokes.Perhaps I ought to declare an interest. Howard Brenton is my brother-in-law, and over the year or so in which he has been writing the play, we have often discussed the War. I’ve shoved a few books his way, including Into Battle, the war diary of John Glubb, whose jaw was smashed at Arras. He was patched up by Gillies’s team at Sidcup, but then was eager to get back to the fighting. Jack, the main soldier-character of this play, is definitely not Glubb, but shares his commitment to the Army, despite the War having ruined his face.
Among Howard’s reading was Richard Holmes’s biography of Sir John French. Howard was fascinated by French, and so centred the first part of the play on the Battle of Loos, the failure of which lost French his command. French was unable to speak French, and like Oh What a Lovely War this play contains a scene where British and French Generals talk at each other in unsatisfactory versions of the other’s language. In Oh What a Lovely War the scene is played simply for farcical effect, showing the absurdity of the men in charge of the armies. In this play the scene is quite different; there is some comedy of misunderstanding, but in the end French and English generals manage to communicate, on both a military and a human level.
The theatre critic of Time Out begins his review of the play by asking:
Would it be controversial to say that the only two playwrights who’ve really cracked writing for the Globe are William Shakespeare and Howard Brenton?
Well, Shakespeare and Brenton are the only two playwrights whose work I’ve seen there, but reviews do seem to suggest that many writers find it a difficult space to handle. The theatre suits Howard’s writing, which is outgoing and public, and fills scenes with twists and surprises. At the Globe a large segment of the audience is standing in the Pit, as in Shakespeare’s day. Their attention must not be allowed to wander. Howard says that it is a theatre where the writer needs to be clear and quick; the audience must know what is happening, but must not be allowed to get ahead of the play. At one rather chilling moment in this play, Jack, the soldier hero, about to go into battle, turns to the audience and says: ‘You know what is going to happen to me, don’t you?’ The result is that the audience are not left feeling his wounding is predictable, but that it is inevitable – a very different thing.
The question of accuracy often arises in discussions of Great War literature, and I’ve done my share of carping at stuff like The Crimson Field and Private Peaceful, which present a version of the War with little relation to reality. Howard’s version of Gillies is not exactly photographically accurate. Compare this photo of he actual Gillies in Doctor Scroggy disguise
with the portrayal by that excellent actor James Garnon ( as riveting in this play as he was as James I in Ann Boleyn) of Gillies in full Scottish fig as Scroggy.
For the theatre some things have to be omitted or compacted to provide a clear narrative. For example, in 1915, the wounded Jack would have been taken to Aldershot, not Sidcup, and then moved. The story of the move is not important to the play’s story (though it was very significant in the career of Gillies), so this, and all his struggles with bureaucracy, are cut from the play. The play’s way of telling us that he had to work hard for support and funding is by showing us the importance attached to a visit by the Queen (singled out by some critics as the best scene in the play).
I think one should object when a novel or play simplifies history to make it fit a thesis (for example, when they exaggerate shot-at-dawn stories to preach the futility of the War). In this play, I’d suggest that the simplifications work differently, as they are used to point up the moral paradoxes of the war. We are shown plenty of horror, but Jack stays committed to the war effort to the end. He stands up against a pacifist, and against the compassionate arguments of Scroggy – and the play presents no resolution. He heads off into the smoke of battle again, at the end, and the audience are left to make up their own minds about which characters are right or wrong.
If you do go to see the play, be sure to buy a programme, which contains an essay by myself explaining what happened at the Battle of Loos, and how it was reported in the newspapers, as well as a very interesting article by Dr Andrew Bamji, the custodian of the Gillies archive at Sidcup, on Gillies and his achievements in plastic surgery. The programme also contains some of the snippets of unlikely information about the War that I have included from time to time in this blog, such as the Times report of officers fox-hunting behind the lines, and the 1917 letter to the Spectator giving a long list of reasons why the war has been good for the country.
In this week’s Spectator, the theatre critic Lloyd Evans,finishing a negative review that rather misses the point of the play, writes:
Thankfully, the Globe’s programme is a wonderful artefact gleaming with nuggets of useful info.