THE WAR TIME was commissioned by Tessa Wagnall for Longsands Academy, St Neots, as their entry for the 2015 Cambridge Drama Festival. Tessa had been working with the pupils on Oh, What a Lovely War! but had found – not entirely to my surprise – that the young pupils didn’t really understand it. It was a ground-breaking piece of radical theatre, but that was in 1964, over half a century ago. Moreover, it played with conventions, such as music hall and the pierrot show, which were still within living memory (as indeed was the First World War); nowadays, however, very few people remember them and our understanding of the war itself is much deeper and more nuanced than when Joan Littlewood was working. Even in theatrical terms, the show cannot pull the punches it originally had: multimedia presentations are nothing new and the loose form and structure of the show is common practice too.
So, I decided to go for an approach which was at once much more realistic than OWALW and also more specifically geared to young people. The obvious vehicles to use, it seemed to me, were the school battlefields trip, which would certainly be a familiar experience to them, and time travel. Travelling to another world is a common theme in children’s literature – just look at the Narnia stories or at Harry Potter – but the specific inspiration for the time slip in THE WAR TIME was the book Fattypuffs and Thinifers, which I read and loved as a child. In that story, two brothers, one fat and one thin, reach another world by passing between two rocks at the seaside. They find themselves in a world where two countries, one inhabited by fat people and the other by thin ones, go to war over a small uninhabited island. It’s a pacifist story, stressing how dreadful the war was and how upsetting it was for the brothers. I didn’t feel I had to make up the nature of the First World War, but I did want to bring out its reality in order to scotch a few commonly-held assumptions. Time travel also gives an interesting basis for reflecting on history and the nature of our relationship with the past.
The other device that Tessa and I discussed for the play was what film makers would, I suppose, call a McGuffin – an object that would somehow tie the story together. The one I hit on was a postcard, one of those rather sentimental ones that were popular in the 1910s and which nowadays are sold as souvenirs or collectors’ items.
In THE WAR TIME, Beth and Danny are with their school party visiting the battlefields in Belgium when they encounter the mysterious Recollector. He transports them to 1914, where they find that they have taken on the identities of two people from then, a young British soldier and a Belgian girl. In their new identities they witness and take part in some of the events of 1914, including German atrocities in Belgium, the retreat from Mons and the Battle of Le Cateau, which forms the climax of the play. Through Beth we also meet Peter, a young German soldier – it is as important for young people to get a feel for the Germans (and Belgians) in 1914 as it is for them to understand the British. When Beth and Danny finally return to their own time, they discover an unexpected twist that links them very directly with the history they have just lived through…
The full text of THE WAR TIME is available at Lazy Bee scripts.
(Josette is the 1914 version of Beth)
RECOLLECTOR: So. It is Josette, isn’t it?
JOSETTE: Yes. It is. Can I ask you something?
JOSETTE: What happened this morning. We did about it in class. About the Germans invading Belgium. Miss Hewell said the stories of what the Germans did were exaggerated. But this morning – that was real, wasn’t it?
RECOLLECTOR: Yes. That was real.
JOSETTE: Then I don’t understand. Was Miss Hewell wrong?
RECOLLECTOR: What did she tell you people said?
JOSETTE: She said people said the Germans bayoneted babies and tied priests upside down and smashed their heads against church bells. Stuff like that.
RECOLLECTOR: And have you seen anything like that?
RECOLLECTOR: But you have seen innocent people being shot.
RECOLLECTOR: So was Miss Hewell right or wrong?
JOSETTE: I suppose what she said was right. But there’s more to it than that.
RECOLLECTOR: Isn’t that often the way? When we try to remember the past? It is rarely as straightforward as we want it to have been.
(Night. Archie, Harry and Billy are in their entrenched position – i.e. a position they have dug for themselves, rather than one of the permanent trenches from later in the war.)
BILLY: I don’t understand. Why does Sergeant Collins use our first names? I didn’t think sergeants were supposed to do that.
ARCHIE: Billy, I know you’ve gone a bit funny over that girl but you can’t be that far gone.
HARRY: You must remember Collins. From school? He was only a couple of years ahead of us.
ARCHIE: He knows us and we know him.
(Enter SERGEANT COLLINS)
COLLINS: Too right I do, Archie. More fool me.
HARRY: (Indicating the trench) Will this do, Sarge?
COLLINS: It will have to, won’t it?
BILLY: When do you think they’ll come, Sarge?
COLLINS: Could be tonight. Could be tomorrow. Could be next week.
ARCHIE: First light tomorrow, I reckon. They won’t attack at night.
COLLINS: No, but they can raid at night. So stay alert. Now, have you all got grenades?
ARCHIE: I used mine at Mons.
HARRY: I’ve only got one, Sarge.
COLLINS: Billy, first thing in the morning, fetch a box of grenades for this section. Before you’ve shaved, before you’ve had breakfast. Clear?
BILLY: Yes, Sarge.
ARCHIE: Are we going to be attacking, then, Sarge? If we’re to have grenades.
COLLINS: We will do what we need to do, Archie. And if we do counterattack, we’ll need bayonets and grenades to do it with.
HARRY: Tea’s up. Stay for a cup, Sarge?
COLLINS: Don’t mind if I do, Harry. Ta.
HARRY: It’s a night for soldiers, this is. The night before battle.
BILLY: You mean, you’re thinking about tomorrow?
COLLINS: No, Billy. This is a soldiers’ night. We don’t think about tomorrow. We think about tonight.
ARCHIE: And what we’d like to be doing tonight. And who with.
HARRY: You sex maniac.
ARCHIE: Just saying.
BILLY: I know where I’d like to be.
ARCHIE: Where’s that, Billy?
BILLY: Here. But one day in the future. Far, far into the future.
ARCHIE: That is bad luck. Thinking about the future.
HARRY: I wouldn’t mind seeing this place again. After the war. It would be good to think that we had saved it. That it was only carrying on because of us.
ARCHIE: What about you, Sarge? Where would you be tonight if you could?
HARRY: Go on, Sarge.
COLLINS: On a night like this, I’d be at home. Back with my old dad. A Sunday evening round the harmonium.
BILLY: The what?
COLLINS: Lay preacher, my father was. Every Sunday evening, without fail, he’d sit at the harmonium and play hymns, and we’d all sing, my brothers and I. Raise our voices in song. That’s what I’d be doing tonight, if I wasn’t here.
ARCHIE: We can have a song, can’t we? I fancy a song.
BILLY: I don’t know any.
ARCHIE: Wrong mood. Something quieter.
HARRY: Tipperary in a whisper.
ARCHIE: Shut up, you.
HARRY: No, it’s all right. I’ll give you one.
(He sings the first verse of THERE’S A LONG, LONG TRAIL A-WINDING.)
COLLINS: That’s beautiful, Harry. Really beautiful. Well, I’d better get on: check up on the others. Remember, Billy – first thing in the morning, fetch those grenades.
(Exit SERGEANT COLLINS. Lights down.)