The TheatreguideLondon Review
The Conquering Hero
Orange Tree Theatre Spring 2012
The Orange Tree continues its admirable tradition of uncovering lost and neglected plays with this 1923 drama by the all-but-forgotten Allan Monkhouse – not a flawless masterpiece, perhaps, but a play of moving power and a strikingly original voice.
Monkhouse examines the recent Great War, and particularly the home front's attitude toward it, with a critical eye and, without condemning anyone, forces us to acknowledge that those who do not actually live in the middle of battle cannot possibly know what it is like.
In 1914 a typical posh family faces the war with patriotic enthusiasm. Father, a retired soldier, envies his sons the great adventure awaiting them, while the women in the family are already unconsciously gearing up to start handing out white feathers to any slackers. One soldier son marches off in glory, and only his two brothers have reservations.
The clergyman brother finds his religion pushing toward an uncomfortable pacifism, while the writer posits the possibility than an artist has a higher calling than cannon fodder. That he tends to be glib and supercilious in his questioning of everyone's assumptions makes him particularly unpopular, but it does allow Monkhouse to get some things said that it would have been very difficult to say at the time, and probably still nine years later.
Everyone does go off to war, most of them are killed, and the one who returns is so broken in spirit that the others are as confounded as they were by the pre-war dissidents. The only way they know how to think of him is as a hero, and his absolute rejection of that role makes clear that he and they can never understand each other.
Most of the poets of that war focussed on one horror, that young men – men that mattered, our kind of men – died. It is a revelation that long before Vietnam or Gulf War Syndrome, a writer spotted another story, that at least some in a generation of survivors were doomed to live the rest of their lives alienated from the culture they had fought for.
The play is talky, the prose gets a bit purple and the emotions a bit overwrought from time to time, and the assumption that this class's experience matters more than the common folks' doesn't sit as comfortably today as it might have in 1923. But there is a real and important debate being voiced, a real and touching human story being played out, and a real and comfort-shaking insight being revealed.
In a large and excellent cast, Simon Harrison stands out as the writer son, successfully manoeuvring the difficult path of being clever and iconoclastic while remaining sympathetic. Paul Shelley provides quiet strength as the father more open-minded than we expect, while Claudia Elmhirst is a worthy antagonist as the sister most trapped within the conventional values and assumptions. Auriol Smith directs with her usual sensitivity and her mastery of the Orange Tree's challenging in-the-round stage.
Review - The Conquering Hero - Orange Tree 2012
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