Rediscovering World War I Theatre
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Hertfordshire
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
In the years 1914-19, over 1,000 war plays, pageants and revues were
submitted to the Lord Chamberlain's Office for licensing. Dr Andrew
Maunder led a project that recovered these since-forgotten plays,
introducing modern audiences to a largely unknown dimension of cultural
life on the WWI Home Front through performances staged between 2011 and
2013. These allowed audiences to think well beyond the `war poets' and to
reappraise their understanding of the war and its culture. School-age and
adult audiences have come to understand that, if theatre is cut out of the
picture, it is impossible to gain a full and accurate sense of WWI culture
and its legacy.
Andrew Maunder, Reader in Victorian Literature, began researching First
World War theatre in 2010. The immediate context was the five-volume
anthology British Literature of World War I (Pickering and Chatto,
2011), for which Maunder was General Editor (with Angela Smith, University
of Plymouth). The anthology made available rare short stories, novels and
plays from 1914-19, and looked beyond the iconic WWI texts in the popular
canon (Owen, Sassoon, Kipling et al.)
In planning the series, Maunder looked at a forgotten treasury of over
1,000 plays and revues in the Lord Chamberlain's archives in the British
Library. The majority of the plays existed only as typed or handwritten
manuscripts, and were submitted for licensing between 1914 and 1919, often
for merely a one- or two-week run. Alongside works by familiar names such
as Barrie, Shaw and Galsworthy were plays by writers who are now unknown
and whose work had languished in the archive. The vast number of
submissions, together with the very detailed reports from the Lord
Chamberlain's readers, suggest a lively wartime theatrical industry — and
one that needs to be acknowledged if we want anything approaching an
accurate sense of World War I literature and, by extension, of early
twentieth-century popular entertainment and recreation more generally.
The `lost' scripts chosen for republishing in the anthology were as
follows: Edmund Goulding, God Save the King (1914); Edward Temple
Thurston, The Cost (1914); Frederick Lonsdale, The Patriot
(1915); Edward Knoblauch, The Way to Win (1915); John G. Brandon,
For Those in Peril (1916); Berte Thomas, For My Country
(1917); Gwen John, Luck of War (1917) and Herbert Tremaine [Maude
Deuchar], The Handmaidens of Death (1919). Taken together, the
texts served as a snapshot of some of the main trends in wartime theatre:
the recruiting drama; the spy play; the well-made play; the melodrama; the
missing husband who returns; the anti-war play.
All of the plays were dramatically ambitious — For Those in Peril,
for example, featured a submarine in a Scottish loch — and demonstrated
strong performance potential, demanding a particular brand of melodramatic
acting that stood on the cusp of the Victorian and the modern theatrical
traditions. Many of the scripts were escapist; others fostered paranoia
and/or patriotism in a straightforward way and have a relevance for
contemporary scholars that is as much socio-historical as literary.
Goulding's and Lonsdale's plays, for example, shed light on expected
masculine codes of behaviour; Thomas's and Brandon's are reminders of the
fears — shared by Kipling, amongst others — about spies and the `enemy
within'. The plays by Gwen John and Maude Deuchar brought into sharp focus
the female experience, challenging the long-held view that the conflict
allowed new freedoms for women. Both plays were less than optimistic about
the post-war prospects for women. As this body of work constituted such a
rich source for understanding how the conflict and its challenges were
represented at the time, the next logical step was to investigate how
today's audiences would respond to them in their intended context: in
performance on stage.
References to the research
Articles and Books
Andrew Maunder (ed.), Drama, volume 5 of British Literature
of World War I series, General Editors Andrew Maunder and Angela K.
Smith. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2011, 268p. ISBN (5-vol. set)
- This output is listed in REF2
The anthology furnished acting texts for six theatre company productions:
7 June 2011: Seventy people attended Remembering World War
at the Weston Auditorium, University of Hertfordshire, and saw
performances of God Save the King and For My Country staged
by Twisted Events Theatre Company.
1 July 2011: Three of the anthologised WWI plays — For My
Country (Thomas), The Patriot (Lonsdale) and The
Pacifist (Brandon) — and another wartime drama, The Quitter
(Sewell Collins), were staged at the Drill Hall, London by professional
actors for an audience of twenty-five.
29 June 2012: Eighty students and staff saw The Handmaidens of
Death (Herbert Tremaine) at [text removed for publication] St
Albans, staged by a company of professional actors.
4 August 2012: Fifty people attended The Pacifist
(Brandon) and For My Country (Thomas), staged by Twisted
Events Theatre Company at Newhaven Fort, East Sussex.
8 November 2012: 120 people saw The Handmaidens of Death
at the DeHavilland Sports and Social Club, staged by professional actors
and University of Hertfordshire students.
17 July 2013: An audience of 20 saw two performances by Twisted
Events at the Swedenborg Hall, Bloomsbury, central London: The
Pacifist (Brandon); and Conscientious Objector or Coward? The
Case of Arthur Waterman (new work in progress, by Twisted Events in
collaboration with University of Hertfordshire; Society of Friends,
Hitchin; and Bishop's Stortford Museum).
British Academy Small Research Grant Scheme. £6,000. Awarded to
Andrew Maunder (July-October 2012).
Details of the impact
While researching the `missing' WWI plays, Dr Maunder realised that they
could present today's audiences with a dimension of 1914-18 cultural life
that would allow them to see beyond the war poets and re-appraise their
understanding of the period. He took the scripts to theatre companies that
regularly revive `lost' works, including the Orange Tree, Richmond; the
Finborough, London; Theatre Royal Brighton Productions; and the National
Youth Theatre. All rejected the plays as unstageable or uncommercial.
Nevertheless, convinced that the works had contemporary resonance, in
2010 Maunder advertised for a director, recruited two with good track
records in period drama, raised production funds and nurtured small,
flexible `repertory companies' of experienced, professional actors who
remained with the project over two years and six productions. In 2011, two
one-act spy plays (God Save the King and For My Country)
were performed at the Hertfordshire Heritage Hub's `Remembering World War
I' symposium. The audience included ten pupils from St Albans, whose
teacher said they had gained `a different view of WW1 than the one which
is mentioned in History lessons. It made them think from a very different
perspective and what life was like on the Home Front . . . they didn't
realise that people would . . . be willing to go and spy in that way.'
This prompted Maunder to consider school students as a particular
audience, especially those studying World War I for examinations, and this
group was accordingly added to the audience base for the project's next
phase. In summer 2012 For My Country and The Pacifist were
performed at Newhaven Fort (East Sussex), attracting a paying public; in
concurrent development was Maude Deuchar's The Handmaidens of Death
(1919), a two-act drama about female munitions workers first performed at
[text removed for publication] St Albans, where some pupils joined the
professional performers on stage or wrote reviews. A second production in
Hatfield in November 2012 was attended by thirty-five Stevenage
sixth-formers, who received copies of the script as A Level study texts.
At a 90-minute seminar afterwards, the students, soon to visit the French
battlefields, were struck by the play's alternative focus on women's
wartime experience and its suggestion that women shared responsibility for
the slaughter. The performance was repeated that evening for a public
In January 2013, the project entered a third phase, of further
dissemination in advance of the 2014 centenary. A July `showcase' in
central London, advertised via Time Out, specialist mailing lists
and a Twitter campaign, attracted a small but fully engaged audience who
braved one of the hottest nights of the summer to see The Pacifist.
One person commented that the play `opened my eyes to the official
attitude to the war on the home front', while another found that it
`portrayed a layer of meaning of pacifism in particular and the war in
general that I had not considered before'.
The fullest impact is strongly indicated to occur in the centenary year.
Dr Maunder has been asked to run a workshop on the plays at an English
Association/Historical Association event scheduled for April 2014,
supported by the British Library and featuring Michael Morpurgo as keynote
speaker. Jermyn Street theatre, in London's West End, has offered a
week-long booking for May 2014, while Centre Stage youth theatre (Gretna)
is looking at Handmaidens as inspiration for a new work about a
local munitions factory. Letchworth Arts Centre is planning several
performances of Handmaidens connected with a project on women,
munitions and pacifism, and other local groups are developing their own
Audience experience, reaction and feedback
The `lost' 1914-18 plays have offered an alternative to familiar post-war
representations such as Journey's End (1927) and Oh What a
Lovely War! (1963). They tend to express pro-war sentiments and
anxieties that today's audiences have sometimes found uncomfortable or
laughable but that also voice aspects of wartime life rarely found
elsewhere. Analysis of audience surveys conducted after each show
suggested that well over half (68%) felt that the dramas had altered,
added to or complicated their views of the period. Feedback gathered after
Handmaidens performances illustrates the powerful shift in
ingrained thinking that can occur:
`[It] reminded me of the number of spinsters and maiden aunts who were
around when I was growing up. I had not really thought about the effect of
the loss of so many young men in this way before.'
`The play has given me a completely new perspective on WWI, of the women
who stayed at home and their concerns.'
School pupils who previously studied only the `war poets' felt that Handmaidens
augmented their knowledge `by posing questions that need to be
considered', and finding it `thought provoking — the ending is left very
open (and initially annoying!)'. Tellingly, it also alerted one pupil to
alternative perspectives on women's lives at that time: `I think this play
has altered my perception of WWI as before I used to think that all the
women did was cry and wait for their husbands to come home.'
Audiences for The Pacifist were similarly intrigued `to see
pacifists portrayed as spies, as opposed to the more modern, positive idea
of pacifism', finding that the play `gave such a strong female voice to
the women back at home and highlighted the paranoia that must have been
Overall, audience reaction indicates that the project has filled a gap in
cultural understanding, reminding us that theatre-going remained a potent
force during the 1914-18 conflict.
Sources to corroborate the impact
Local Press Reviews
Hard and/or electronic copy of the following articles are available on
Duncan Hall, `The Overriding Sense of Duty: For My Country and The
Pacifist', Brighton Argus (4 August 2012), p.22.
Catherine Meek, `Theatre: For my Country and The Pacifist', Brighton
Argus (7 August 2012), p.15.
A file of audience questionnaires and written feedback is available on
request. The audience response rate is as follows (no feedback was
solicited for the 1 July 2011 performance at the Drill Hall, London):
7 June 2011, Weston Auditorium, Hatfield: God Save the King
and For My Country 61 questionnaires completed (85% audience
29 June 2012, [text removed for publication] St Albans: The
Handmaidens of Death 29 questionnaires and student reviews completed
(36% response rate).
4 August 2012, Newhaven Fort, East Sussex: The Pacifist
and For My Country 13 questionnaires completed (26% response
8 November 2012, DeHavilland Sports and Social Club, Hatfield: The
Handmaidens of Death (two performances, afternoon and evening)
49 questionnaires completed (40% response rate, the majority originating
from the school audience).
17 July 2013, Swedenborg Hall, Bloomsbury, London: The
Pacifist. 13 questionnaires completed (65% response rate).
Videos of Performances
For My Country, Weston Auditorium, 7 June 2011 (video in two parts):
God Save the King, Weston Auditorium, 7 June 2011 (video in three