Armageddon – Theatre of the First World War

In the resource ‘Theatre at War’, we explore the way in which theatre was used in the trenches and the army camps of the
First World War. Back in Britain, the war was influencing theatre in different ways, as this review from the

When he describes the scenes in Hell as influenced by Blake, the critic is referring to the 19th century poet and artist William Blake, who portrayed
Hell in images like this one, showing Satan.

  • Why is the play titled ‘Armageddon’?
  • Why do you think the opening and end of the play are set in Hell?
  • What might the role of Satan be in this play?
  • Why do you think the shell that kills the Germans is described as ‘instand but painless’?
  • Do you agree that this scene is ‘true enough to fact’?
  • What does the critic mean by saying that the scene is ‘not any the more acceptable to the aesthetic sense’?
  • Why do you think the playwright includes a scene with the Director of the German Press Bureau?
  • What do you think is the significance of the scene between the allied commanders arguing the case for revenge?
  • How does the audience’s reaction strike you?
  • What do you think the critic means when he says that German brutality is ‘tedious when familiar in advance’?
  • Judging from the style of the first paragraph, what do you think the critic’s opinion of this play is?
  • What do you think this critic believes is the role of the theatre in war time? How
    similar or different is this to the beliefs of the author of the play?

“Armageddon” – Mr Phillips’ War Play at the New Theatre

Various and typical aspects of the war, presented on the kaleidoscope or haphazard play, and expressed alternately in
blank verse which never fails in smoothness and in prose which seldom, if ever, approaches distinction. There is a prologue
in Hell, with a “decoration” that seems to have been inspired by Blake, and a debate of the fallen angels, which is, of
course, Miltonic in origin if nothing else. Satan (Mr Martin Harvey), a nearly nude figure with black wings very deftly
managed, goaded by his discontented subjects into exhibiting some form of activity, summons the shade of Attila, and
sends him forth to bring war and rapine upon the Planet Earth. Then a view of Reims bombarded by the Germans with pictures of German barbarity and “frightfulness”-
prisoners shot, women insulted, interceding priests (Mr Martin Harvey is the leading abbe) mocked at, and so forth.
German sentiments about world-power declaimed over draughts of Champagne by the commander (Mr Charles Glennay).
An asphyxiating shell, which causes instant but painless death, puts an end to the Germans and to the scene,
an inevitable scene in any English war-play, true enough to fact of course, but not any the more acceptable to the
aesthetic sense for being true. Contrasted scene: a peaceful English orchard, according to the playbill, but a very
theatrical orchard with apple-trees like oaks and no evidene of pomocultural skil. It is, however, the background of a
sincere emotion – the repressed grief of a mother on learning the death of her soldier son, expressed with the unmistakable
feeling of a poet by the author and nobly rendered by Miss Mary Rorke. This short but poignant scene is the best thing
in the play.

With a shake of the kaleidoscope you return to prose, and remarkably prosaic prose, in which the Director of the
German Press Bureau dictates to his minions picturesque lies about the miserable state of England. By an unlucky accident,
however, a single word of truth has intruded among his lies, and for this blunder, he is dismissed by an envoy of the Kaiser.
Mr Phillips’s irony is of the easy and obvious order and the scene, though actually short, seems too long.

Next scene: one of those anticipations of victory also inevitable in every war play, the Allies have entered Cologne,
and through their generals (Mr Edmund Saas and Mr Fisher White) France and Belgium argue with the English commander
(Mr Martin Harvey) the case for revenge. The Englishman is against until he is infuriated by the news of the death of his son
and mutilation of the corpse, but a vision of Joan of Arc (Miss de Silva) restores his better frame of mind. The typical French,
Belgian and British views are fairly and forcibly represented in the argument – forcibly rather than poetically. There was a
poetic notion, no doubt, in the Joan of Arc vision, some idea of spiritual beauty, but this germ hardly developed into full
fruition on the stage last night. Incidentally, you were shown the allies’ respect for women and for a moral law. It is worth
noting that the audience testified its concurrence in the humane policy settled by the English commander.

Epilogue: in Hell again. Attila reports what has happened, but admits virtual defeat, which he attributes to some
power of goodness which he cannot understand. Satan is enraged, but a beam of light from above falls upon him, and he
cowers, stricken, to the ground under wings now limp and ragged. On the whole, a medly rather than an organisation,
a serious variety entertainment or revue on the theme of war, with rationcination in lieu of songs. German brutality,
so horrible in face, becomes tedious when you are familiar in advance. Of art really fine you note for remembrance the
Blake-ish effects in Hell, the bereaved mother of Miss Rourke and, perhaps, some of the debate at Cologne. At the fall
of the curtain Mr Harvey had to make a speech of thanks to a house which it was good to see crowded, as the whole
proceeds of the night are to be handed over to the Wounded of the War Committee.