- The Theatre of War: The First World War in British and Irish Drama
The Theatre of War: The First World War in British and Irish Drama by Heinz Kosok, professor emeritus of English and American literature at the University of Wuppertal, is a valuable comprehensive survey of plays by British [End Page 243] and Irish writers on World War I. The slant provided by the British/ Irish distinction is understandable given the eminence of Professor Kosok in Irish literary studies—he is past president of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures. The distinction becomes necessary in that the concerns of Irish writers, both before and after Irish independence in 1921, are different from those of English writers. During the war itself, the insurrection in 1916 as in Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars (1926) and Irish recruiting as a background to Shaw's O'Flaherty V.C. (1915) had political ramifications that did not exist in Britain. And only since 1980 have Irish writers like Frank McGuinness in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985) belatedly tried to come to terms with the experience of Irish soldiers in the British Army during the war, a subject the politics of twentieth-century Irish nationalism had made practically taboo. Another intriguing slant offered by this book on plays about the Great War from the British/Irish point of view is that its author is a distinguished German academic.
The book's primary interest to readers of Shaw is the context it provides for Shaw's own plays, both major and minor, during or about that war. Shaw's "playlet" Augustus Does His Bit (1916) is discussed, and even Annajanska, the Bolshevik Empress (1917) is mentioned, if only to state that it will not be considered. An ancillary interest is to be derived from the contributions of Shaw's theatrical associates and friends. Thus such names as Archer, Granville Barker, Barrie, A. B. Walkley, Galsworthy, and Drinkwater come up repeatedly, from the prewar London theatrical scene in which Shaw had been the dominant voice. Plays by Patrick McGill, Lennox Robinson, St. John Ervine, and O'Casey feature among the Irish contributions, along with the efforts of the English Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward from the postwar era, brave in their wanting to go beyond their more crowd-pleasing plays for London audiences. Shaw, of course, straddled both countries and in this survey is placed somewhat hors concours, as if any fuller consideration his plays would overbalance the carefully built structure of Kosok's study.
The book is structured in six unequal parts covering subject matter, presentation, attitude to the war, reception, evaluation, and two checklists of plays; neither plays nor dramatists are treated individually. The result is that plays like Heartbreak House (1919), O'Casey's The Silver Tassie (1928), Drinkwater's X=0 (1917), and Maugham's For Services Rendered (1932—"a bitterly uncompromising contribution to the discussion of the consequences of the war") crop up repeatedly in different contexts. Shaw's short play (short plays were part of the phenomenon of World War I drama) O'Flaherty V.C. provides a good example of Kosok's methodology. The play, which the author rightly rates highly, is mentioned three times in part 1 devoted to subject matter: in the "Home Front" chapter as "another [End Page 244] home-front play, albeit one set in Ireland and centered around the serious issue of experience-based pacifism"; in "The Return of the Soldier" chapter; and, most thoroughly, in the one devoted to Irish plays, where Kosok points out that it was one of "only two World War I plays set in Ireland"—the other being The Silver Tassie. "Both of them," Kosok writes, "are essential for an understanding of the Irish attitude to the war." O'Flaherty is mentioned again in part 2, which deals with presentation, in a chapter titled "The Comic Side of War," while in part 3, which examines attitudes to...