Toplis again

The figure of the petty criminal Percy Toplis, and the (almost certainly mistaken) notion that he was a crucial ringleader of the Etaples mutiny of 1917, had a great attraction for left-wing writers of the 1970s and early 1980s. I’ve already written about the treatment of Toplis by Alan Bleasdale in the TV series The Monocled Mutineer, and he also made an appearance in the Charlie’s War comic.

Another version of Toplis is presented in Howard Barker’s play Crimes in Hot Countries, which was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978, though they declined to give it a full production. It was granted only a rehearsed reading, but since then it has enjoyed several productions elsewhere.

Barker’s style is deliberately difficult, and his work is often both obscure and disturbing. “A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal,” he says. “I’m not interested in entertainment. [….] Theatre should be a taxing experience.” I gather that his plays get more productions in the heavily subsidised theatres of France and Germany than they do in Britain. Many academics are fond of his work.

The play is set in an unnamed tropical location in the twenties. The inhabitants are crooks, prostitutes, ex-mutineers and Lawrence of Arabia. These characters treat each other abrasively, and both sex and violence are always bubbling under the surface,

Toplis is something of an outsider even in this ragbag of outsiders. He presents himself as a magician and juggler, and his language affects a consciously ‘poetic style’ that is a long way from anything we can believe the historical Percy Toplis indulging in:

My magic will spill continents, set pavements shaking and splash blood in the flower beds, but I will save you, spare you from the pain of painlessness, the half-fuck and the semi-anger, the endless rattle of your questions which are not questions.

When asked to perform a conjuring show, gives instead a display of gratuitous violence.

He talks about the mutiny:

The day we stripped the general at Etables and used his baton on his balls. ‘Such distinguished bollocks,’ I quote one Sergeant Music, ‘should be served on silver. Where is the hallmarked bollock tray?’

This bears no relation, I need hardly say, to any actual recorded events at Etaples. Barker uses the name Toplis only as shorthand for his own conception of the eternal mutineer:

Show me a joy like the joy of pure disobedience! No woman’s flickering tongue can touch it, can it, for sheer loveliness.

As in Bleasdale’s TV plays, Toplis here is an exemplar of the instinctive rebel, the working-class hero who will not play the game as his superiors want him to, but who is utterly without ideology; he lives for himself alone. Bleasdale wants us to look at him with Brechtian-style detachment, as a man who possesses courage and the rebellious instincts that are needed, but who puts these to no positive use. In Barker’s wild and confusing play, the question is less clear. Toplis’s lewd energy is just one element in a seething cauldron of conflicting wills and passions.

Crimes in Hot Counties is not a very good play, and I note that Barker does not now want to include it among the plays listed on his own website. But I mention it here as yet one more example of an author taking something from the Great War, and adapting it to his own agenda, with a carefree attitude towards historical accuracy.

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