Beverley Baxter LONDON LETTER

Adventure in Playwriting

November 15 1942
Beverley Baxter LONDON LETTER

Adventure in Playwriting

November 15 1942

Adventure in Playwriting

Beverley Baxter LONDON LETTER

FOR seven years in these London Letters we have shared experiences and thoughts, and therefore I feel that it would not be candid if I did not write today what is uppermost in my mind. It is a strange story and not an exciting one, and if, by necessity, it is personal I ask your indulgence in advance.

The story begins in October, 1941, when Floyd Chalmers, of the MacLean Publishing Company, and I found ourselves in Portugal with no immediate prospect of getting a plane to Britain. Chalmers and I would go for walks along the lovely Estoril coast where the sun turns the Atlantic into glinting diamonds, while the skies seem to be asking what the Mediterranean has that they cannot equal.

In our conversations I began to outline the plot for a play. Chalmers is a sensitive soul but keeps his emotions well in hand—a perfect collaboration for those initial stages. There were three themes that I wanted to combine in the play: the responsibility of my own generation in allowing this war to take place, the tragedy of the younger generation caught in the vortex of events, and the sinister part that the month of September had played in it all. In September, 1937, Hitler held his Nuremberg rally that marked the shape of things to come. In September, 1938, there was Munich. In September, 1939, there came the war. In September, 1940, there was the Battle of Britain.

One might have carried on to September, 1941, when Hitler proclaimed that the Russian resistance was broken, or to September, 1942, when Hitler announced that Stalingrad would fall in two days. But a play cannot go on for ever and I decided to have its climax with the Battle of Britain.

There then emerged the central character of the play, Sir Alexander Banstead, a Tory M.P. In this I was somewhat influenced by the case of my friend and colleague. Sir Arnold Wilson, M.P., who visited Nazi Germany many times and genuinely believed to the very declaration of war that the Hitler movement was an uplifting and constructive force. When war came, he said, very simply: “I have been a blind fool. I must atone.”

Although fifty-seven years of age he was in wonderful physical shape and insisted that he should join the R.A.F. as a gunner. He passed all the physical and instructional tests and was posted to an air crew. He went into battle over Norway and Belgium and France. His great frame shrank and there were cruel shadows under his eyes but, when urged by his friends to give it up, he simply repeated: “I must atone.”

And so he went to his death.

Appeaser to Fire-Eater

HOWEVER, as the idea of the play developed, •the heroic side of the M.P. had to disappear and instead Sir Alexander Banstead, M.P., became a terrific appeaser up until the war when he became an equally terrific fire-eater. A cruel portrait in many ways but not without its human touches and certainly not without example.

From that to creating the M.P.’s son, a sensitive, music-loving, idealistic undergraduate at Oxford, was a natural development. This boy Gerald was to personify that type of youth which sought for beauty and the enduring things of life as a protest

against the gathering cruelty of the times in which he lived. Needless to say the M.P. and his son were strangers to each other and had no common language.

From Nuremberg, therefore, the M.P. brings back Siegfried Zeigler, a young German Nazi of the same age as his son, ostensibly to perfect his English but really to put “guts” into his artistic son. Needless to say there is a girl on the next estate, Prudence Wainwright, who has been a friend of Gerald’s for many years, but who becomes dazzled by the attractive German boy who falls in love with her at once.

So the clash of character and events proceeds with an inevitability that none can escape, until the final act when Gerald comes home, a blinded Air Force pilot, and during a blitz the German boy, shot down, makes his way to the house where he once lived. The last twenty minutes of the play show the final conflict of character between the boys, with Prudence also in Air Force uniform, until the spirit of Gerald rises to supreme heights and overwhelms the crude and rigid philosophy of the German.

In other words the plan of the play was to move from high comedy to bewilderment, to controversy, to tragedy and finally to exaltation—with world events making themselves heard all the time like a gathering thunderstorm. And since it had to have a name I decided to call it: “It Happened in September.”

Playwriting is a most difficult art. Unlike the cinema where one can use fifty scenes the action of a play must take place in one setting and it must seem natural that everyone should be there. However, the plane for England arrived while I was realizing this and after getting home I forgot all about the play for a time. Then I finished the first act, read it to Jack Hylton the producer, who gave me a contract and paid down £200 as a guarantee. Further than that, he agreed that I should select the cast, superintend the production and have the final decision in everything.

Naturally I decided then and there that Jack was a grand fellow. I still think he is.

But if anyone thinks that theatrical successes are as easy as that, I urge them to follow with patience the rest of this story. For one thing I suddenly realized that the two principal parts in the play were for two boys of twenty years of age. From a box-office standpoint this meant that it had to be a play with no “star” names since there are no famous actors of twenty, the other parts were not big enough to attract headliners. Another thing— where in a war was I to find two young male actors?

I interviewed a motley lot of young fellows, “conchies,” neutrals, asthmatics and men of forty who said that they could look twenty on the stage. At last in desperation we offered the lead to Esmond Knight, a charming young actor who was actually blinded in this war. I knew that I would be charged with trafficking in human tragedy but on the other hand I was offering a blinded artist a chance to pursue his own career.

Knight was most enthusiastic and we were

working out a system of “treads” on the stage

for him to follow when he lost his nerve and

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threw in his hand. That was that.

The next episode concerned Basil Dean, perhaps the finest producer on the London stage. His “Constant Nymph” will be remembered always. Dean took charge of the entertaining for the Services in the war but he had permission to go back to the stage for one production. Hylton suggested that he should direct my play.

For five nights Dean and I dined together at my house. Let me summarize his character. He hates authors, despises actors, has a contempt for the people who attend the theatre and has a passionate love for the theatre itself. I leave you to sort that out for yourself.

He gave me much valuable advice about the play. We quarrelled boisterously but I knew that I was listening to a master. In the end he turned my play down and not only decided to do a new play by Sir Patrick Hastings but to put his own money into it.

All this time there were the House of Commons, innumerable speaking engagements in the country and my journalism to keep up. I began to wish I had never written the wretched play.

Then a charming young actor named David Peel turned up. He had been invalided out of the Army and was available. He read “Gerald’s” part and was delighted with it. He was too good-looking for the part, because Gerald was a “solitary” and a queer youth, but by that time I was desperate. Based on him I began to assemble a cast.

In the process he telephoned me that he had been offered a part in Gielgud’s “Macbeth” and had accepted it. He was within his rights as Hylton had neglected to confirm the contract. Rehearsals had been called for the following week. That truly great actress, Miss Eva Moore, was to play the M.P.’s sister: Gordon

MacLeod who had toured Canada as Sir Martin Harvey’s leading man, was to play the M.P.—but I had no

Gerald. It is true that I had found a fine young actor for the German boy, Derek Blomfield, but where, oh where, was Gerald? Also I had no producer.

In desperation I phoned a theatrical agent. By that time I had dug my heels in. I felt that the play had a great message, that it was the first real portrayal of English life through these fateful years. May the gods forgive me but I even felt that the play would live in the future. If that sounds bombastic you must realize that with so many discouragements one has to sound the rally for one’s self.

The agent said that there was a good young actor, physically exempt from the Army, who was playing juvenile lead with the Birmingham Repertory.. His name was Richard Curnock and telegrams were sent at once. The next morning he walked into my drawing-room. He was not Richard Curnock. He was Gerald !

Sensitive, young, artistic, courageous ... I could not believe my eyes or my ears. Tremendously encouraged I phoned Hylton that I would produce the play myself (he agreed) but would engage that veteran producer, Leon M. Lion, to keep me right on essentials (he agreed). The more I think of it the more I realize what an agreeable fellow Jack Hylton is.

Started Production

SO THE machinery of production was set in motion. Scenic artists appeared asking for my diagram of the M.P.’s drawing-room: stage

managers turned up to discuss “properties,” bewildered publicity people arrived asking what it was all about. All 1 cared about was that rehearsals started on Monday at St. James’s Theatre and that my cast was complete.

Complete? . . .

On Saturday, Derek Blomfield, playing the German boy, phoned that he had mumps and would be

quarantined for three weeks. There was only one thing to do and I did it.

I laughed long and loud.

But fate was taking a hand in it all. That Saturday night Sir Patrick Hasting’s play, which Basil Dean had produced in preference to mine, came to an early end. And out of the i cast came John Nicholson, invalided out of an armored division. He was not John Nicholson, he was simply Siegfried, my young German!

To my delight we had secured Anne Firth, who played with Leslie Howard in the Spitfire film, “The First of the Few,” to play the girl. A lovely creature, and a brilliant young actress.

So we met at St. James’s. But alas! Noel Coward was rehearsing a play of his on the stage and we were offered the foyer. Instead, as it was a lovely day, I ordered the whole company to my house and we rehearsed in the garden. I don’t know what the neighbors thought, but we had a grand time and played badminton for recreation. Several times we used my garden and I think they were the best rehearsals of all.

And so, in three weeks time, came the “try out” at Brighton. It was Saturday morning, we were to open on the Tuesday night, and I asked the company to assemble at my house for the last tuning up. Fortunately Parliament was in recess and I could give most of my time to the play, except for speeches in the evenings.

We all assembled. Then there came a telephone message from my leading lady, Anne Firth. Yes, you are right. She had mumps, and would be out of the cast for three weeks. Solemnly I ordered champagne to be brought up (it is now worth a king’s ransom) and we drank to the unhappy fortunes of “It Happened in September.”

Fortunately we had an understudy and all day long the people who knew their parts went on and on helping to train her. By that time I felt that the fates were so against us, that nothing mattered.

Brighton ... a prohibited area. The huge Theatre Royal ... everything wrong . . sound effects hope-

less . . . everybody fluffing their lines . . . Leon M. Lion in a violent temper ...

Tuesday afternoon. The company knocks off. The performance is at 7.30 p.m. With two friends I go to lunch on the deserted, barbed-wired front. Then we take a walk but it is too depressing. There will be nobody in the theatre and the play is no good anyway. In desperation we go to a cinema. What a marvellous picture, and what good entertainment ! Why should anyone go to my wretched play when they could have entertainment like this at a third the cost?

At six-thirty we walk home to our hotel and pass the theatre. Eight women and two men are standing outside the gallery door waiting to go in. And for no particular reason I I suddenly had a most uncomfortable i lump in my throat. I wanted to say ! to them: “You mustn’t pay for your seats. This isn’t a real show. If you must go in I’ll let you in for nothing.”

Instead I went to the hotel and had a bath and some sandwiches.

Packed Theatre

A PACKED theatre. People being ushered in and buying programs just as if it were an ordinary play. I make the round of the dressing rooms giving the confidence I do not feel to the nervous artists.

And so the play began.

The opening did not go too well. The audience was puzzled by the character of Gerald, the humor did not register, the actors were going too fast and the audience was slightly restless. Then Eva Moore and Gordon MacLeod took charge. With their great experience they steadied the pace and gave confidence to the rest. And suddenly the play gripped.

Like a symphony it swept on its way. Not a single actor had to be prompted. It was as if it were the hundredth performance, and so into the last terrific scene.

The two boys played as if they were inspired. The bomb came that threw the stage into darkness save for the moonlight from the garden. The blind boy staggered forward for his final declaration of faith in the

future, and the curtain came down.

I hardly remember the rest. Curtain call after curtain call from a wildly excited audience. I made some kind of a speech which must have been terrible. Then they came around to the stage, friends and producers from London, my brotherin-law, Major Letson, with another Canadian officer, and Jack Hylton smiling behind a cigar.

“What do you think, Jack?” “Here’s my answer. I’ll buy out your interest tonight if you will sell.” I would have liked to have gone for a walk by myself on the front but it would have been ungracious and besides there is a 10.30 p.m. curfew by the sea.

Leon M. Lion brought us down to earth. “Rehearsal at 11 o’clock tomorrow morning,” he announced.

Well that’s the story and I hope it has not bored you too much. We still have to tour for three weeks because of Anne Firth and then we come to London. And perhaps London will reverse the verdict. And although we played to full houses the rest of the week in Brighton let me admit that an apoplectic colonel was heard saying as he left the theatre: “Did you ever hear such tripe in all your life?”