In pursuit of Rollo Balmain and Sara Mignon

Recently I’ve being trying to find out everything I can about a rather obscure pair of playwrights. They are Rollo Balmain and Sara Mignon, authors of Are We Downhearted? and A Sailor’s Love, both staged in 1915. Rollo Balmain alone is credited with A British Soldier, a topical play that hit the stage in September 1914, just six or seven weeks after the declaration of war.
My research is part of the Recovering First World War Theatre project, organised by Dr Helen Brooks of the University of Kent. She and her assiduous team have gone through the vast store of plays in the archive of the Lord Chamberlain (His office read every play about to performed in a public theatre in Britain, and allowed or disallowed the scripts, or demanded cuts and changes. This system of pre-censorship persisted until 1968.) They have noted all the scripts applying for licenses between 1914 and 1918, and have discovered that a large number of these deal with the war. In each of the years of the war, at least a quarter of the scripts make some dramatic use of the war (and a huge number of them are spy plays).
I have joined the crowd of volunteers who are now trying to find out about the performance histories of the plays, and about the lives of the playwrights. For the purposes of the project, the most crucial fact is the date of the playwright’s death, because this determines whether or not the script is in the public domain, and can therefore be legally published online by the project.
I was struck by the exotic names of Rollo Balmain and Rosa Mignon, and I liked the Lord Chamberlain’s reader’s summary of Balmain’s play, A British Soldier, licensed in September 1914: Read More »

Strong and Stable

Today’s Guardian has a letter from Dr David Blazey of Newcastle pointing out that Teresa May’s slogan ‘strong and stable’ is a cliche referenced by Galsworthy in The Forsyte Saga. The Guardian website illustrates the letter with a pretty picture of late Victorian poshness, but the quotation is in fact from a later instalment of the Forsytes, The Silver Spoon of 1926. It’s worth quoting at greater length:
Read More »

The National Service Board – and A.E. Housman

In 1940 Percy Withers recalled occasions when, during the previous war, he had told A.E. Housman about his work at the National Service Board:

He was greatly interested too in the technicalities of the work, the material it exploited, the revelations it brought to light, the ugliness, the momentary relief, the sordidness, the enduring pity. I could speak with both experience and conviction. We were putting through sixty recruits a day, many of them past middle life, more of them prematurely old – many ill-nourished, deformed in limb, toothless, defective in hearing or in vision – men who had rarely been beyond a neighbouring village, or to the county town for an annual festa: few or none too decrepit, too debilitated or too forlorn to escape the narrowed mesh of the latest Government netting. It was in all the most degrading task I was ever set to do, I told him, but I was not sure that he acquiesced.

Read More »

Pagan, by W. F. Morris


Pagan (1931) is by W.F. Morris, the author of Bretherton: Khaki or Field Grey?, that slightly mad yet highly enjoyable novel about a British officer who, while suffering from amnesia, becomes a general in the German Army. Morris is one of those ex-soldier novelists for whom the war is always the main theme, and the touchstone by which other experiences are judged. He also had an imagination attuned to the Gothic, and his books shun easy credibility in order to explore wild and strange possibilities. They will not be to everyone’s taste. Read More »

Compton Mackenzie, disillusionment and Douglas Jerrold

Mostly,  Gallipoli Memories (1929) is a rather jolly memoir by someone who presents himself as hanging around the Staff with not very much useful work to do.

It’s only towards the end that Mackenzie makes it clear that this is partially intended as a contribution to the opposition to the ‘disillusioned’ literature that had taken its tone from All Quiet on the Western Front:

And I have lived to hear Rupert Brooke sneered at for a romantic by the prematurely weaned young sucking pigs of the next generation. It was welcome to find a year or two ago the sanest pages I had read about literature and the war written by an R. N. D. survivor, Douglas Jerrold, at the close of his excellent book, The Hawke Battalion. I commend them to any people who are as much nauseated as I am by the Teutonic hysteria which is the intellectual vogue of 1929.

Jerrold is more successful than Mackenzie in arguing the case against disillusionment, both in his Criterion Miscellany pamphlet The Lie about the War and in his very readable book of memoirs, Georgian Adventure. Reading Mackenzie, and being disappointed with him, has sent me back to Georgian Adventure. Maybe I’ll blog about that book soon, but meanwhile my review of Gallipoli Memories, which I read for the Sheffield Reading 1900-1950 group, is online at


There’s a striking short exchange in Compton Mackenzie’s Gallipoli Memories (1929):

Some time after this General Paris visited Army Corps Headquarters, and to him General Hunter- Weston spoke enthusiastically of some successful action on a portion of the front.

“Many casualties?” asked General Paris in a voice that could not hide the bitterness he felt over the losses of his own splendid division. And as I think of General Hunter-Weston’s reply I fancy I see a falcon strike angrily at some grizzled trusty old dog.

“Casualties?” he cried, eyes flashing, aquiline nose quivering. “What do I care for casualties?”

The other rose from his chair.

“I must be getting back,” he growled.

“You’ll stay to tea?”

“No, thanks.”

And as that burly florid man went slowly out, who might not have felt that there was between him and General Hunter-Weston as wide a chasm in nature as if he were a dog indeed and the other a falcon? And as that burly florid man went slowly out, who might not have felt that there was between him and General Hunter-Weston as wide a chasm in nature as if he were a dog indeed and the other a falcon?

Read More »

Arnold Bennett, the theatre and the cinema

Looking for something quite different altogether in the October 1920 copies of The Stage, I came across this item about Arnold Bennett. It prints his rather abrupt reply to a request to help the campaign trying  to preserve the Royal, Hanley, as a theatre, and prevent its conversion into a picture palace: Read More »

The Return of the Brute

return of the brute

Liam O’Flaherty’s Return of the Brute (1929) tells the story of what happens to a group of ineffective soldiers who are sent forward into no-man’s-land in 1917, as part of a large offensive. They get lost, they are victims of the mud, and of random enemy fire, and above all they endlessly chafe against one other as they unwillingly undertake a fruitless military exercise.
I was a few chapters into the novel before I realised that this was a version of Philip Macdonald’s Patrol (1926), transferred to the Western Front. (Patrol had been a best-seller, and 1929 was the year in which Walter Summers’ film version The Lost Patrol appeared. John Ford’s remake would appear in 1934.)
Read More »

Company K by William March

company k

Company K (1934) is a strange novel. At the recent Aberdeen conference, Steven Trout made strong claims for it, and with reason. It is wide-ranging, hard-hitting and original. Its form is a succession of brief (sometimes under a page) fragments, each relating a war experience of a different member of an American company of Marines. These combine to make a collage picture of the war and its aftermath. Read More »

‘The Fictional First World War’ at Aberdeen

I’m now back from the Fictional First World War conference at Aberdeen, with my head full of ideas, and with a lengthy list of additions to my reading list. The conference was of a very high standard; here are some of the highlights.
Read More »