Thanks to Ann-Marie Einhaus for pointing me towards Lena Ashwell’s 1922 book Modern Troubadours, an account of the musical and theatrical troupes organised by Miss Ashwell, which took entertainment to soldiers in France and elsewhere. (A digital versioncan be found at the Internet Archive.)
Ive just had a skim through so far, and I’m particularly struck by this description of the involvement of shell-shocked men into theatrical productions:
The rehearsals and the interest created by them was extremely helpful to the men. Very often shell-shock cases were sent us from the hospitals; they would sit about during rehearsal, gradually becoming interested, then be invited to bring on a tray, eventually to say a few words, and finally it would be found that in their interest they had overcome their fear. In several cases this interest saved the lives of men. One man, who had been an actor, was deaf and almost unable to speak from shell-shock; his headaches were intolerable. When first admitted to a rehearsal, he sat motionless in a chair, deaf and indifferent ; when the others walked over his out-stretched legs, he gave no sign of life he was, to all intents and purposes, mentally paralysed. Gradually the interest of the rehearsals got hold of him, and it was not long before he was one of the most active workers in the productions and played many parts.
Another man was reported as half-witted. His mouth was twisted on one side, and he could hardly speak. After one or two rehearsals he returned to the camp an entirely changed man. When asked what had happened, he smiled and said, “I’ve got a part!”
One of the theatrical companies was under the direction of Cicely Hamilton (the author of Diana of Dobson’s, William an Englishman, and much else). In 1918, they were in Abbeville, near the fighting line.
During 1918 the air-raids on Abbeville were so frequent and so violent that no one was allowed to sleep in the town at night. The house which we had as a hostel for the artists had a small hall, a kind of miniature theatre, in which many entertainments were given and all the rehearsals took place. A bomb destroyed this, and broke all the windows in the hostel. Every night both the Repertory Company and the concert parties after their work slept in the forest of Crecy in the open, or in some hut outside the town.
It was, no doubt, through these experiences of agonising fear that Miss Hamilton found she was able to describe so wonderfully this kind of warfare in William, an Englishman.
The experience probably contributed even more to Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, her dystopian novel about Britain after a war in which cities and civilisation were destroyed by bombing.
Lena Ashwell’s acknowledgements indicate that part of her book is based on Cicely Hamilton’s diary. I wonder – does this diary still exist?