A GALLANT SADNESS : FACES OF WAR
“We don’t do glum here. Glum just doesn’t work”. Clipped, officerly with an edge of confident eccentricity, cradling his Cambridge Blue oar and musing on blood vessel repair, the speaker in Howard Brenton’s WW1 play is James Garnon as Major Harold Gillies. He was the Army surgeon whose pioneering work in plastic surgery at Sidcup saved, or made bearable, hundreds of young men’s faces blown to horror by the burning, spinning, infected, jagged weaponry of trench warfare.
Taking him at his word, Brenton avoids the centennial pitfalls – prurient wallowing in misery or simplistic hostility towards the officer class. This is neither Birdsong nor Oh What a Lovely War, and frankly a better play than either. Never ‘glum’, although at times the tale of one young volunteer, blown into the hospital of ruined faces, is compassionately poignant, and never dodges the irony that many such young men took their mended faces straight back to the front.
Soldiers are not glum, and will not be made so. Furious, suicidal, bitter at moments, male youth will extraordinarily defy gloom. And Gillies, famed for his practical jokes, does not allow despair. “The medicine of fun” has him prowling the wards by night in a comedy Scottish rig and ginger beard as the mysterious Scroggy, dispersing nips of champagne and vaudeville jokes, and outraging the Matron and senior officers by encouraging bandaged, faceless patients to drag up in frocks and do a cabaret for the visiting Queen Mary.
Which may sound mawkish – consoling fodder for our softer age – but is balanced by the baldness of facts about mutilation, by almost casual scenes of VAD nurses checking through corpses for signs of life, and by the attitude of our hero Jack (Will Featherstone). He is a Thames mudlark who won a Balliol scholarship, a “temporary gentleman” promoted for his intelligence but explicitly despised by toff officers and a purblind Chief of Staff (Paul Rider). Featherstone gives Jack a chippy patriotism and an adolescent stubbornness as he resists Gillies/Scroggy all the way, both in his initial suicidal despair and then in needy, restive determination to go back to war.
Gripping historically and emotionally, and often very funny in laddish soldierly humour and domestic vignettes, the play lightly conceals its subtlety. Brenton knows how to play the Globe: clean simplicity, speed, and a few casual comradely addresses to the groundlings (“You all know what’s going to happen to me” says Jack early on “I’m going to lose my face”). But within the first minutes interesting undercurrents are flowing: the decay of the old class order, the brittleness of fading Edwardiana, the parallel seductive challenge of both warfare and experimental medicine, the naïveté of propaganda.
Nor does Garnon fail to indicate, fleetingly but credibly, the need for emotional release of the doctor himself in his practical jokes like the (ooh, fortuitously topical) comedy kilt-and-beard. And goodness, how the music helps: not least if you recognise the odd snatches of “When a knight won his spurs…” from trumpeter and ‘cello above. Another sad, necessary echo of understanding. We will never entirely empathise with these great-great-grandparents, but theatre gets some distance.
So altogether, ia perfect Globe piece. But I hope that like this author’s Eternal Love and Anne Boleyn, similar leaps towards understanding of past sensibilities, it soon tours to other stages.