There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out
‘Til the boys come home.
Thanks to Simon Thomas for pointing me in the direction of A. A. Milne’s 1918 one-act play The Boy Comes Home (included in First Plays, online at Project Gutenberg).
At the Victoria Palace in September, 1918, the leading role was taken by Owen Nares, who later played a range of returning soldier parts in plays of the twenties, including Oliver Bashforth in Pinero’s The Enchanted Cottage, and Mark Sabre in the stage adaptation of Hutchinson’s If Winter Comes , which you can see a dramatic extract from at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBr2tzq2WWI
The Boy Comes Home is considerably more light-hearted than either of these, but it is rather an effective little play in the way it looks at a topical issue.
The play starts on ‘the day after the war’ with Philip coming down to breakfast in his uncle’s house, two hours later than the rest of the household, and asking the maid for breakfast:
PHILIP. You can boil me a couple of eggs or something. And coffee, not tea.
MARY. I’m sure I don’t know what Mrs. Higgins will say?
PHILIP (getting up). Who is Mrs. Higgins?
MARY. The cook. And she’s not used to being put about like this.
PHILIP. Do you think she’ll say something?
MARY. I don’t know what she’ll say.
PHILIP. You needn’t tell me, you know, if you don’t want to. Anyway, I don’t suppose it will shock me. One gets used to it in the Army. (He smiles pleasantly at her.)
This juxtaposition of the cook’s righteous (but doubtlessly very ladylike) indignation with the ripely colourful language of the trenches sets the tone. Philip has seen and heard things in France that mean he is not the boy that he was when he left.
He is still dependent on an allowance from his Uncle James, whose jam and preserves business has done very nicely out of the War. When Philip has asserted himself with the authority of a soldier, and convinced the cook to serve him breakfast, Uncle James appears, intent on putting his nephew straight about his place in the peacetime world. James is the embodiment of the Old Man of the period’s mythology – pompous, self-serving and self-righteous:
I don’t want to boast, but I think I may claim to have done my share. I gave up my nephew to my country, and I—er—suffered from the shortage of potatoes to an extent that you probably didn’t realize. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for your fortunate discovery about that time that you didn’t really like potatoes, I don’t know how we should have carried on. And, as I think I’ve told you before, the excess-profits tax seemed to me a singularly stupid piece of legislation—but I paid it. And I don’t go boasting about how much I paid.
Waiting by the fire for his nephew, Uncle James dozes for a minute, before being awakened by Philip, who annoys him by smoking, and who then suggests that he should now have the inheritance left him by his father.
JAMES (coldly). You come into your money when you are twenty-five. Your father very wisely felt that to trust a large sum to a mere boy of twenty-one was simply putting temptation in his way. Whether I have the power or not to alter his dispositions, I certainly don’t propose to do so.
PHILIP. If it comes to that, I am twenty-five.
JAMES. Indeed? I had an impression that that event took place in about two years’ time. When did you become twenty-five, may I ask?
PHILIP (quietly). It was on the Somme. We were attacking the next day and my company was in support. We were in a so-called trench on the edge of a wood—a damned rotten place to be, and we got hell. The company commander sent back to ask if we could move. The C.O. said, “Certainly not; hang on.” We hung on; doing nothing, you know—just hanging on and waiting for the next day. Of course, the Boche knew all about that. He had it on us nicely…. (Sadly) Dear old Billy! he was one of the best—our company commander, you know. They got him, poor devil! That left me in command of the company. I sent a runner back to ask if I could move. Well, I’d had a bit of a scout on my own and found a sort of trench five hundred yards to the right. Not what you’d call a trench, of course, but compared to that wood—well, it was absolutely Hyde Park. I described the position and asked if I could go there. My man never came back. I waited an hour and sent another man. He went west too. Well, I wasn’t going to send a third. It was murder. So I had to decide. We’d lost about half the company by this time, you see. Well, there were three things I could do—hang on, move to this other trench, against orders, or go back myself and explain the situation…. I moved…. And then I went back to the C.O. and told him I’d moved…. And then I went back to the company again…. (Quietly) That was when I became twenty-five…. or thirty-five…. or forty-five.
The ‘boy’ of the title is the play’s key word. James wants to keep Philip in a subservient, juvenile position, at home and in the family firm; yet in war he has been expected to act like a man.
Philip says he does not want to join the jam and pickle business, and expresses a wish to begin training as an architect (which is, of course, a lengthy and expensive process). James adamantly refuses him on all counts, and buries himself in his newspaper as a sign that the interview is over.
At this, Philip draws a revolver (‘Souvenir from France. Do you know, Uncle. James, that this revolver has killed about twenty Germans?) He makes no direct threat to his uncle, but asks:
Does it ever occur to you, Uncle James, that there are about a hundred thousand people in England who own revolvers, who are quite accustomed to them and—who have nobody to practise on now?
His Uncle asks if this is a threat:
JAMES. At the point of the revolver? You settle your arguments by force? Good heavens, sir! this is just the very thing that we were fighting to put down.
PHILIP. We were fighting! We! We! Uncle, you’re humorist.
JAMES, Well, “you,” if you prefer it. Although those of us who stayed at home—
PHILIP. Yes, never mind about the excess profits now. I can tell you quite well what we fought for. We used force to put down force. That’s what I’m doing now. You were going to use force—the force of money—to make me do what you wanted. Now I’m using force to stop it. (He levels the revolver again.)
Soon a Mills bomb is brought out of his pocket to add to the persuasion, and Uncle James capitulates. Philip gets his uncle off his knees, settles him in his chair again, and says he’ll come back with his terms.
When he does return, Uncle James wakes with a start. Gradually the audience realises that the previous scene of guns and threats has just been the uncle’s dream. The real Philip is much more amenable, is happy to start in the family business, and talks about selling his revolver, because it will not be needed in England. In James’s mind, though, the threat still lingers…
Milne is clearly on the side of the ex-soldier. Philip has been through a lot, while his Uncle is a pompous caricature of complacency, who thoroughly deserves to be frightened. The Philip of reality is good-tempered and charming, and does not talk about the hardships he has undergone. It is only in Uncle James’s fantasy that he reveals his gruelling experiences, and demands compensation by threatening violence.
Milne preserves a characteristic lightness of tone throughout, except in that central speech in which the imaginary Philip explains why his experiences have left him no longer a boy. The comedy is pleasant, and the pompous uncle so deserves his comeuppance that the play’s message comes across as hardly controversial. Yet Milne is showing an industrialist threatened with a gun, and saying in effect: ‘Our returning men (not boys any more) are far too nice to do this, but they could if they were pushed.’
The return of soldiers experienced in killing was a source of anxieties in the post-war years. Unrest in Britain was never as great as in continental countries (especially those that had suffered the traumas of occupation or defeat) but the part played by ex-soldiers in the Russian Revolution, in the attempted socialist revolutions in Germany, and in Mussolini’s Fascist movement in Italy was a warning of what might happen. Some in Britain were eager to limit this potential political force; others wanted to harness it.
The literature of the early twenties has several examples of an imaginary intervention of an ex-soldier in politics: For example Coningsby Dawson’s The Kingdom Round the Corner of 1920, in which a valet who has enlisted and risen to the rank of brigadier finds himself at a social loss in post-war society, and ends by leading a political party giving voice to the wishes and desires of ex-soldiers. To hindsight he reads rather like a precursor of Oswald Mosley.
I’m not saying that Milne is a proto-fascist; he’s much too nice. I’m just saying that the easy contrast between the complacent war profiteer and the decent soldier that is embodied in this play is the same contrast that would be at the heart of some of the nastier rhetoric of the time, but here is made palatable by light comedy.