Revival of The Pacifist (1918)

July 2013 saw the latest production from the Staging World War I project: a performance of John Brandon’s 1918 melodrama, The Pacifist.

This play hasn’t been seen since its original production at the Empress Theatre Brixton in October 1918.

This time the play was staged at the Swedenborg Institute in London on one of the hottest days of the summer.

Janet Rawson from Twisted Events Presents directed the play and she was helped by a superb team of professional actors: 

  • Emily Bowker ('Dr Madge Verinder')
  • Martin Richie ('Richard Brunner')
  • Kali Peacock ('Mrs Garritt', the housekeeper)
  • Eleanor Jones ('German spy')
  • Paul Anthoney ('Sergeant Harding')

The author, John Brandon was an Australian based in Britain. He was an extremely productive writer. His plays during the War are characterised by their patriotic invective and virulent anti-German sentiments.

In There was a King in Flanders (Balham Hippodrome - 1915) an English nurse marooned in a farmhouse in Belgium cuts the telephone as a way of hindering communications between advancing Germans. She also comforts a wounded Belgian soldier who has killed a German soldier who had raped his sweetheart.

When news arrives that the Belgian troops have rallied the soldier dies happy, knowing that he has been of service to his country. Thereafter Brandon concentrated on spy dramas.

In The House of the Five Lanterns (Palace Theatre, East Ham - April 1917), the attempted theft of the plans of a new railroad, important to the Allies for the transport of munitions from Japan to Russia is thwarted by the hero, an Irish engineer, after much signalling with lanterns.  The German spy is killed.

In The Silent Service (Pavilion, Leicester - June 1917) a group of German spies set up their headquarters in the Albany in Piccadilly and plot to rob a French actress of secret plans for the defence of Verdun.  The Pacifist fits into this pattern and in 1918 would have been very topical.

However, trying to stage the play presented several challenges as it has an elaborate set. It’s set in a flat near the Port of London with a large bay window, though which the main character, Richard Brunner, the pacifist of the title, signals to enemy submarines.

This kind of realistic set wasn’t possible for us, so our audience just had to imagine all this. At one point brick is thrown through the window and knocks out one of the characters, a German spy. Some clever slight of hand seemed to work for us.

Finally, the play also calls for a mob of angry women to congregate outside the flat; we had to rely on a pre-recorded sound effect.   The trickiest part of the play is the acting style. The play is a throw-back to Victorian melodrama and to us the characters actions and speeches can seem extreme and a bit one-dimensional.

As the heroine, Madge says at one point: 'God, that I were a man to kill the fiend who first thought of slaughtering innocents wholesale, and then call it, WAR. And to think they are helped by men and women here, who call themselves ENGLISH, God, it’s maddening.'

The play is an example of war-time propaganda, of course, but judging by the nervous laughter than erupted from some sections of 2013 audience it's something which we now find difficult to take seriously.

Were used to naturalistic expression on stage; this kind of declamatory speech just sounds a bit weird and over the top.   More public performances are planned in the autumn.