A letter to Simon Russell Beale

privateson-parades_2423627bDear Mr Russell Beale,

First of all, please allow me to apologize for making such a complete idiot of myself when I saw you on Friday evening before the performance of Privates of Parade. In the first instance, it was extremely rude of me to stare at you so long and so idiotically while you enjoyed your cigarette at the stage door. Secondly, when you had the civility to say hello, for me to mutter something incomprehensible and slink off in the other direction was beyond impolite. My only excuse is that, at that stage, I did not have anything I could have said to you that would not have been more than the burblings of a long-term fan.

In all honesty, I do wish our encounter had taken place a few hours later, after I had had the privilege of seeing your hugely enjoyable performance as Terri Dennis. As a theatrical experience it was, as the reviews have said, enormously enjoyable, courageous, full of energy and life and wit. But writing as a historian of gender and warfare your performance,along with that of all the rest of the cast and Michael Grandage’s highly accomplished direction, offered a great deal of food for thought as well.

The story the play tells is, of course, one about the achievement of masculine maturity, both sexual and emotional, in a theatre (in all its many meanings) of conflict. As Steven says in the final scene, he has become a man thanks to his experiences in SADUSEA, specifically, rather than in the military more generally. But what I found far more fascinating was Terri’s attainment of a conventional masculine identity at the end, one defined not by his military status, which is so successfully undermined throughout by the campness of his demeanour, but through his marriage and impending (surrogate) fatherhood, a narrative emphasized by the modulation you brought to that closing scene.

For me, that was the most powerful theme of the entire evening, the importance of the domestic and of home to the identity of all the men involved. The scene in which letters home are opened and read is the first in which their characters become fully defined, as sons and husbands, and throughout it is through their domestic ties, former, potential, respectable and subversive, that the characters developed. Dennis’s own story of domestic tragedy was profoundly moving, a lovely counterpoint to his eventual domestic ‘respectability’.

Not that these were the only themes: the role of uniform and costume in defining masculinity, the transient power of wounding and disability in creating heroic identities and the appalling things that conflict does to warp both men and women were all powerfully evoked. In the end, I had so much to say that, had I seen you again I probably would have been no more coherent than I was on our first encounter. So all I can do is say thank you, to you and the rest of the cast, for creating a theatrical performance that had so many profound echoes of my own work and which forced me to think critically about questions of sexuality and emotion. And again to ask your forgiveness for one tongue-tied long-term fan who remains

Yours very sincerely,

Jessica Meyer

Men at work

Last Thursday, as well as being my birthday, was the date of the second in the Legacies of War seminar series.  Rob Thompson gave a fabulous talk on engineers at Third Ypres.

Superficially, this looked to be a relatively dull topic, but not the way Rob presented.  First of all, he is an excellent and highly engaging public speaker.  But more than that, he gave one of the best demonstrations I have seen of how cultural and military history can fruitfully be married to create a deep analysis of particular moments in the history of war.  He argued that by 1917 the culture of war had changed from a martial one fought by warriors to a civil one worked by civilian soldiers. He pointed out that most men serving in the BEF were predominantly labouring (building roads, digging trenches, mending things) rather than fighting (engaging with the enemy) and that the landscape was dominated as much by the roads, rails, trucks and trains of logistics (sights familiar from civil society) as the otherworldly eeriness of no-man’s-land.

Having outlined this cultural shift in the way war was being carried out, Rob went on to argue that the failure of British High Command to fully grasp the implications at an operational level led to ultimate failure at Third Ypres. The dominance of civil logistics was due to the rise of artillery, yet no provision was made at the front line for an increase in manpower to serve the needs of the engineers in building/rebuilding roads for the artillery to advance over the landscape it had decimated.  The result was poorly trained, exhausted soldiers doing this work badly with the result that the advance became bogged down in its own built-in inertia.

Rob’s arguments were highly seductive, particularly given his flair for dramatic and humorous narration.  The more I think about his arguments, the less convinced I am about the dominance of civilian work culture as that of the war.  There were other cultures at play as well, notably the domestic culture which Joanna Bourke and I have both discussed and which had links to the structures of the regimental system, as discussed by David French.  There is also an entire social group being ignored by an analysis that focuses on the work cultures of manual labourers, namely the aspirational lower middle classes, the clerks and shop keepers and service workers, men whose experiences of work would no more prepare them for the heavy labour of the front than it would for hand-to-hand combat with an enemy.  This is a not-insignificant group of men, yet there has been little discussion beyond that of domesticity, as to how they retained a sense of civil identity in wartime.

There was also a question of morale that I am not sure was fully addressed.  From my own work on diaries and memoirs, the aspect of warfare that men found most morale-sapping was repetitive heavy labour and the feeling of being a cog in the machine, both aspects of this civilian culture that Rob identified.  Yet morale was maintained, even at the pinch-point of 1917.  Why the British Army did not mutiny even at the height of the manpower crisis is something that clearly needs a lot more discussion in light of this analysis.

So there are many questions still to answer, not least, for me, the effect of the manpower crisis on the RAMC in 1917.  I am starting to wonder if I might not be able to challenge Mark Harrison’s assertions about the centrality of 1916 to the RAMC and its effectiveness, arguing that from a personnel, rather than organisational, stand-point 1917 is more significant.  It certainly has given me some useful ideas to work on.

And, as a bonus, the talk served as a useful reminder that engineers didn’t spend their entire time (or even most of it) digging tunnels.  It is always good to have a few assumptions demolished occasionally!