Friday, February 24, 2017

LESLEY STORM, Great Day (1945)

This play, by the author of the earlier hit Blitz drama Heart of a City (1942), was recommended to me by Grant Hurlock when I was working on my World War II Book List quite a while ago, and it has taken me this long to get round to it. (And though I have a copy of Heart of a City, and was planning to wait until I'd read it so I could discuss both together, I still haven't quite managed that, so I'm making do with a short post about this one.) 

I don't read a lot of plays, for some reason, although I often find that I quite enjoy them when I do. In fact, I don't think I've ever written about one here before. But Great Day was certainly worth the effort of tracking it down, and I thank Grant for suggesting it.

The play is set late in World War II, and follows the action as members of a village Women's Institute frantically prepare the village hall for a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt, about which they are told only one day in advance. It has dramatic undercurrents, but there's plenty of humor as well, as when a rather shallow young wife is sharing her anguish over being called up for service—or else getting pregnant in order to dodge it:

VICKY (Staring tragically into space). Geoffrey—which would you do. Have a baby or go into industry?
GEOFFREY. I wouldn't have much choice.
VICKY. You see I've no experience of whether or not I like children . . . . I used to adore kittens but then when they grow into cats I couldn't be bothered with them.
(She thinks this over. GEOFFREY getting on with his work. She is more or less talking to herself.)
Suppose I felt the same about a baby? . . . . . It would be too shattering for the poor little brat.
GEOFFREY (Casually). Why don't you give up introspection and let nature take its course.
VICKY (Startled). Nature? Oh darling! I couldn't have nature sneaking up on me.

There are various other plot strands: a soldier home on leave who discovers his sweetheart engaged to a local farmer; the farmer's sister who worries she won't be wanted anymore once he's married; the local diva who fancies she should greet Mrs. Roosevelt with a rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, and the other women's attempts to suppress it; a woman whose son has been missing in action for a month; the little girl who is supposed to greet Mrs. Roosevelt but has no decent dress to wear; and the espousal of various political positions and the gentle pointing out of their contradictions. All of which forms the backdrop for the women's frantic preparations for Mrs. Roosevelt.

It's enormously entertaining from beginning to end, and makes a perfect companion to Marghanita Laski's novel The Village—not to mention the television drama Home Fires (based on the book Jambusters: The Story of the Women's Institute in the Second World War, by Julie Summers). 

It's a bit sad that there seems to be little interest in retrieving and reading plays by women (or, in most cases, apart from the very biggest names, even by men), as there are undoubtedly more little treasures like this one to be unearthed. There is undoubtedly some extra effort involved in reading plays, as all the fleshing out and visualizing that would normally take place on the stage must instead take place inside the reader's head. But I wonder if part of the reason more readers (including myself) don't often engage with plays is simply because they're so difficult to track down now.

I'll share one more exchange between two of the women, which is humorous though not hilarious, but one can really clearly see this conversation happening in numerous real life settings all during the war:

Miss FISHER. Where is the eggless cake you made, Mrs. Tracy?
MRS. TRACY. In the kitchen . . . . I put one egg in it to make it look better.
MISS FISHER (Shocked). An egg ? Then you can't call it an eggless cake.
MRS. TRACY (Patiently). It is. It's the eggless cake recipe-with just one egg added for a special
occasion like this.
Miss FISHER. The idea was to demonstrate to Mrs. Roosevelt a good cake entirely devoid of eggs.
MRS. TRACY. The idea was to make an eggless cake-to which I added one egg for appearance sake.
Miss FISHER. Then the cake becomes a deliberate deception.
MRS. TRACY. I beg your pardon.
Miss FISHER. (Ruthlessly logical). A fake.
MRS. TRACY. I beg your pardon, Miss Fisher.
Miss FISHER. (Stolidly). An eggless cake with an egg in it is nothing else than a whited sepulchre, Mrs. Tracy.
MRS. TRACY. Really, Miss Fisher! (Very testy). I've never heard of such an illogical attitude.

By the way, in addition to being a stage success, Great Day was immediately turned into a film, also from 1945, starring Flora Robson (who also had roles in Wuthering Heights, Black Narcissus, and an Ingrid Bergman film called Saratoga Trunk, for which she received an Oscar nomination) and Sheila Sim (best known for A Canterbury Tale and as the wife of Richard Attenborough), alongside many others whose names don't ring any bells, though I'm sure I would recognize some of the faces, at least, from other films. 

There was, however, one cast member, both in the play and the film, whose name appears on my Overwhelming List. Irene Handl, who later published two novels of her own, played the role of Mrs. Beale in the stage production, though her character in the film is credited (according to IMDB) only as "Lady serving tea in tea stall." Perhaps some of her part ended up on the cutting room floor! Sadly, the film doesn't appear to be much easier to track down than the play itself.
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