" Mairi Chisholm and the Baroness de T'Serclaes driving their motor ambulance through the ruins of Pervyse." The Imperial War Museum.
Speaking as an unequivocal feminist and female director of a play that was written by a male playwright, about ten men in the trenches of the First World War, portrayals of women are notably absent from Journey’s End. That being said, it presents an authentic representation of the Western Front, which was male-dominated. However, MESH is committed to recognising the role of women during the Great War: a vital part of inclusive active remembrance. Women were integral to the war effort, and were never far from men’s minds in the trenches.
Previously, I’ve written about the origin of MESH, which is an acronym of my four grandparents’ names. I’ve expanded on my grandfathers’ respective engagements in combat, however my two grandmothers are essential in the name and mission of MESH. Both strong and spirited women, they were victims of a war-torn generation and partners of these traumatised men, who went on to parent my own parents. MESH is a tribute to them and their generation.
Journey’s End is a story of trenches, tragedy and trauma, featuring references to women whose existence is integral to the characters’ interior and exterior worlds. Trotter makes numerous references to his wife and domestic life; Stanhope silently longs for Raleigh’s sister, his young sweetheart, fueling his troubled alcoholism; Uncle Osborne reminisces over how, while home on leave, his wife would help him “pretend there wasn’t any war at all” while she played the piano and knitted socks; Hibbert and Stanhope are sustained by casual encounters with local girls in a period when regular codes of morality were suspended; Hibbert in particular takes comfort from risqué postcards of pretty girls to escape his interior hell; the German prisoner is ferociously attached to his personal letters, which one suspects are from a wife or lover. Journey’s End is a microcosm of the war in which stories of women are symbiotic.
The emotional anguish of the Western Front is not exclusive to male longing for wives and sweethearts – the silent witnesses. When the play was first produced, it provided a theatrical window for women to recognise and empathise with fathers, sons and brothers, many of whom had not returned. Therefore, women simultaneously affect the characters on stage while female audience members identify their own personal losses through the drama of the production.
Focusing on intimate male dynamics also risks women being dismissed as passive bystanders during the war, which fails to acknowledge the actively brave women who fought and provided medical services to the front line. 1914 saw 18-year-old Mairi Gooden-Chisholm and 30-year-old divorcee, Elsie Knocker join the mobile ambulance corps on the Belgian Front. Together they saved thousands of lives. That same year 42-year-old Kate Luard joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, serving in France and Belgium until 1918. These are but a few examples of remarkably brave women who served during the Great War, but who are not a part of Journey’s End.
Active stories of women are absent from this classic play, for legitimate reasons. Yet its silent female cohort deserves to be remembered in its own right, sharing women’s stories, in their own play.
Watch this space.
Tonight, MESH Theatre Company opens its first production at the Kruitmagazijn in this all-important year to commemorate the fallen in a way only live theatre can do.
MESH produces theatre of war, taking acts of remembrance to historic war zones. We are at a place where history speaks, giving voice to drama, poetry and prose from the mouths and pens of men and women who have experienced war at first hand, in all its complexity; to hear those voices and ask questions about our own history-in-the-making.
When we visit battlefield zones such as this, we are of course stopped in our tracks by the scale of losses: row upon row upon row of headstones, names on memorials, image after image of monochrome faces we almost know, stories of every kind preserved so that we can remember. The vastness of the immaculately-catalogued provision is humbling – and deafening in its silence.
In breathing ‘life’ into this arena, otherwise frozen in time, we open a window directly into our ancestors’ lived experience: here before our eyes are Sherriff ‘s trench mates suffering a war that was tedious, ugly, terrifying, funny, cruel and criminally wasteful. It is no accident that live theatre has a strong, subversive history in illuminating the political through the personal.
Both my grandfathers fought in the First World War. My maternal grandfather Stanley John Draper left Australia to join up in 1914, age 18 years old, and fought the duration of the war, first at Gallipoli then in France. He was shot twice, gassed and suffered recurrent bouts of pneumonia (in the days before antibiotics) but was sent back to the trenches from hospitals in Cairo and Bournemouth. He suffered from weak lungs and dark moods for the rest of his life. I’m told he never liked children much - apart from me, who came along late in his life. My few memories of him are of a kind, humorous old man with whom I could chat away for hours. I am gratified if I was, unwittingly, a late ray of sunshine in his life blighted from such a young age by unimaginable horror. I am also beyond grateful to him for what he suffered in the name of ‘duty’ for the benefit of a conceptual future generation. Not that he had much choice.
My paternal grandfather, Herbert George Ronaldson, a 34-year-old Irishman in South Africa, joined the Allies in 1917 in Tanganyka (now Tanzania). He fought the Germans face-to-face in the African bush, suffered malaria and dysentery, weighing in at under 44kg (7 stone) when invalided home. A chain-smoker, he died young of mouth cancer. It was in the painstaking work of transcribing his war diary, a tiny volume densely-scribed in fading pencil in heart-breaking detail, that first stirred in me a call to action. Such rich, first-hand accounts gather dust in many a family’s private belongings, not to mention archival treasure troves such as the RC Sherriff Trust for those who happened to become famous. There are so many untold stories here – and where there are stories there must be theatre.
So MESH was born: an acronym of my four grandparents names, my two grandmothers holding their own as silent witnesses to a war-torn generation. In the year of Passchendaele, it was a very easy choice for our inaugural production to be Journey’s End, a play I’ve long admired.
So, less than a year ago, I found myself on a ferry bound for Calais, armed with no more than a layman’s understanding of WW1 (GCSE History, Birdsong, Blackadder…) and a steely determination to bring Journey’s End to the Battlefields – and now. A crash course in Remembrance tourism later and we had a venue, a licence to perform and the widespread support of the Ieper / Ypres community whose open-minded generosity has never failed to amazing us.
Special thanks to the RC Sherriff Trust for enabling us to do this play and to In Flanders Field Museum for letting us use this iconic building.
We will remember them.
Journey’s End author R.C. Sherriff (1896-1975) left the royalties to his plays to his old school, Kingston Grammar, and the Scouts Association. From this, it is clear that investment in youth education is a core tenet of the playwright’s legacy. MESH is committed to fulfilling this heritage by fusing drama and history, bringing his work to young audiences.
MESH was privileged to host two troops of St Albans scouts at full dress rehearsals this week. Producing high quality, professional drama that is also accessible is an opportunity to breathe life into our history and exercise imaginations. We believe Sherriff would have approved, as the scouts gasped, shed tears and described this immersive bunker experience, as “like being in 3D”, “amazing”, “so realistic” and the “best play I’ve ever seen.”
History remains current when it manages to inspire younger generations. Drama is a vehicle for such inspiration. Just as this play broke the silence of tragedy and trauma of the Great War when it was first staged, this representation, 90 years later, shares the realities of trench warfare and allows its message to speak. As the world grapples with continued instability, taking a moment to witness and process this representation of events from our past may bring us one step closer to ensuring that history does not repeat itself.