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.

9 comments:

  1. This sounds like a very interesting play to either read or see preformed. I have read plays by at least two members of your list: Dorothy Sayers, when I went to a fair amount of effort to find the play version of Busman's Honeymoon, so I could see how she adapted it for her novel. It came in a combo volume with Love All, a drawing room comedy which played for a very short time in 1941. I admit I don't remember much about Love all. I also read her radio drama The Man Born to be King. And I have read several of Agatha Christie's stage plays (and several books adapted into novel form from the plays after her death by other authors). On the whole, I enjoyed the plays themselves, but didn't think much of the modern novelizations. I have also had the good fortune to see at least a couple of Christie's plays preformed by little theater companies, and enjoyed them a lot. Thank you for mentioning plays, it made me think and remember.

    Jerri

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    1. Jerri (et al) juyst last week I saw "Haunted Honeymoon," the film of Sayers' play (obviously with a more "catchy" name. It starred Robert Montgomery and Constance Cummings. Well, now how I see Peter and Harriet. BUT an interesting note here: because the 1940 film was made by MGM-British, they bought the rights s- which they have never relinquished, and that's why there has never been another filmed or televised version.................need I add that the movie, though amusing, was not a patch of Miss Sayers' work! Tom

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    2. P.S. P.S!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      That was supposed to read "NOT how I see...."
      My apologies! Obviously, not enough caffeine!
      Tom

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    3. There is though a fairly recent BBC radio version of Busman's Honeymoon, with Ian Carmichael reprising his role as LPW. It stands up well, even though Carmichael was in his 80s when it was recorded. On radio you can't really tell. Haunted Honeymoon is, I think, dreadful. Robert Montgomery and Seymour Hicks (Bunter) are mis-cast and the tone is all wrong. I do have a soft spot, however, for Robert Newton as Frank Crutchley. I have always wondered why the title was changed from Busman's Honeymoon to Haunted Honeymoon. Is the latter phrase familiar in the US?

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    4. I do have a volume of Christie's plays, which I read and enjoyed. I don't think it included the three that were later novelized, which, as you say Jerri, were underwhelming. I also have some of Josephine Tey's plays, which I haven't yet read. But I'm afraid I've missed out on the (apparently rather dubious) joys of Haunted Honeymoon...

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  2. Fascinating! I particularly love the second excerpt.

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  3. I love reading plays, and I quite agree that there are many utterly neglected ones that DO exist in published form and are worth tracking down.

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    1. Thanks, Patrick. Let me know if you have any particular recommendations!

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