Tunnel Trench is a play by Hubert Griffith, first staged in 1924 by the Repertory Players at the Princes Theatre. It was one of those club performances where the play was presented for just one night in the hope that a commercial management might take it up for a longer run. No managements seem to have been interested, but the play got serious attention in the press.
The script has recently been republished in First World War Plays (Bloomsbury), edited by Mark Rawlinson, and can best be described as a fascinating mess.
The main action takes place in a Flying Corps mess in France, in September 1918. The Allies are pushing the enemy back by carrying out surprise attacks on German positions, and planes are sent up to get information on the progress of the battle. We meet a pair of lieutenants, Smith and St. Aybyn, who go up together as pilot and observer. They are especially needed to examine what is happening around Tunnel Trench, a key point in the battle (and by coincidence where St. Aubyn’s brother is fighting at ground level). The St. Aubyn/Smith relation is more than professional; St. Aubyn has refused leave to stay with Smith, and as a character later says of the pair: ‘They ate together and fooled about together, and always went on as though they couldn’t live without each other.’ The audience is left to decide how far this is a homosexual relationship; nobody labels it as such, but their attachment is noted (and accepted as not abnormal) but the possibility is definitely there for more sophisticated members of the audience to notice. Griffith’s dialogue in these scenes gives a good sense of men trying to hide their stress and deeper feelings under a layer of banter.
These realistic scenes, however, are intercut with fantasy scenes. There is one, set in a grim trench, where British Tommies chat surrealistically with the Germans they will be attacking in half an hour’s time. In another, the Valkyrie Brunnhilde appears, to say that the old joy of battle is no more, and the modern age must find new gods. The horror and grimness of war is strongly reiterated, sometimes in speeches that amount to preaching.
The mixture does not work very well. I would imagine that in a theatre one would be asking oneself, for example in a scene where the airman St.Aubyn finds himself in a trench with his soldier brother, whether this bit is supposed to be real or imaginary.
War plays were written during the early and mid twenties, but they were often oddities like this, trying to find a convincing way to present the war, and not succeeding. It was not until Sherriff found a realistic (and non-preachy) formula in Journey’s End that war plays could take the stage with confidence and draw large audiences.
Tunnel Trench was revived hopefully in 1929, in the wake of Journey’s End, but the reviewers generally gave it faint praise, while finding it dated.
back in 1924, however, that first performance had received a very interesting review from Arnold Bennett, who for a while was adding to the multitude of his other writing commitments by stepping in as dramatic critic for the Observer.
Bennett is impressed by the authenticity of the first act:
‘How is this for truth?’ I whispered to a Flying Colonel near me.
‘Lifelike,’ he answered.
He has criticisms of the play’s structure (‘a marked absence of development’) and of the writing and acting:
when St. Aubyn’s friend is killed, neither the author nor the actor Mr Henry Kendall rose to the emotional height demanded by the situation.
He is very keen, though, to praise the play as one that should be performed and seen:
The value of the play – and it has value – lies not in its story, for it has no story; nor in the narrative unity, for it has no narrative unity; nor in the quality of its tragic emotion for its tragic emotion is by no means first-rate; nor in its originality, for it has not originality enough to confuse even a Sunday night audience in the slightest degree. Its value lies in the uncompromising courage to depict war as war is, at any rate in its externals and also in some of its inwardness.
‘Tunnel Trench’ is the natural self-expression of an artist who has been through war and righteously hates it for its insanity and fantastic cruelty. We can forgive him if he does not go very deep and fails to show that war is a great deal more than ‘a mug’s game’
He praises the play for its ‘ruthless refusal to make any concessions whatever’ to conventional audience expectations:
Imagine it! A score and a half men and not a woman! No visual beauty and not much spiritual beauty. He hits and hits and hits. We should like in our moral cowardice to forget what war is and what men suffered in it. We are tired of being grateful to the sufferers. I warmly admire the dramatist because he decided, and enforced his decision, that we should not forget. Such honest antiwar plays as ‘Tunnel Trench’ should be performed annually for our confounding.
During the twenties Bennett often reviewed books about the war, making similar points about its ‘insanity and fantastic cruelty’, but this is an exceptionally direct statement.
How does this kind of writing square with Bennett’s wartime role, as an apologist for the war in Liberty and elsewhere, and as a director of propaganda at the Ministry of Information? Some writers about Bennett are scornful of his war work (Randall Stevenson in Literature and the Great War (Oxford, 2013) is particularly annoying in this respect, when he suggests that Bennett’s promotion to take charge of the propaganda operation was ‘perhaps as a reward for the four hundred articles on the war he had published since its outbreak.’ This suggests that Professor Stevenson has not read too many of those articles, which were frequently critical of the government, strongly arguing against conscription, arguing for the rights of conscientious objectors, and so on. Perhaps he has not read A.J.P. Taylor’s life of Beaverbrook, according to which Bennett was promoted because he was the best of Beaverbrook’s recruits. Perhaps he doesn’t know that Bennett refused payment for his war work.)
Actually, there is no contradiction. Bennett was one of those Liberals who had an inbuilt detestation of war, and had expressed that detestation during the Boer War. The Great War was the exception, because he saw it as a moral war that had to be fought (even though the system of alliances put Britain on the same side as illiberal Russia. Since it had to be fought, Bennett threw himself into it wholeheartedly with charity work and propaganda work, while reserving the right to criticise when the government was falling short according to the principles that it was fighting for.
In the twenties, novels like Riceyman Steps present the damage that war can do to individuals and to a way of life (‘We haven’t been straight since 1914,’ says Henry Earlforward.) In his journalism, and especially in his book review columns, Bennett took what opportunities he could to remind his readers that the war had been terrible and repetitions must be avoided. Tunnel Trench is an imperfect play, but it provides the opportunity to remind his readers that they need to be reminded.