Here’s a bit of Second World War literary and theatrical history I had no idea existed. T S Eliot’s main theatrical collaborator was the actor and director E Martin Browne, who was the first to produce Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral (1935), about the murder of Thomas à Becket, and The Family Reunion (1939) with Michael Redgrave in the leading role. Browne and Eliot worked together for twenty years, with Browne being most famous for his revival of ‘poetic drama’, with a strongly religious leaning.
During the Second World War Browne and his wife, the actress and playwright Henzie Raeburn, led a touring company called the Pilgrim Players around Britain, presenting religious plays in village halls and pubs. Henzie’s book about those years, Pilgrim Story (1945), is the most unusual account of war work I’ve ever read, so soused is it in the theatrical culture of the day, exuding the spirit of Larry Olivier in the blackout. Henzie wrote this memoir after the war was over, but the Pilgrim Players continued to tour until 1948, while Henzie seems to have tried out screen acting, in film and, later on, TV.
The actors were paid very little on the road (each member of the company was paid the same democratic amount, with an emergency fund for essentials like a new warm coat). Henzie’s descriptions of their war work are coloured by green-room earnestness, struggles with rations, eccentric land-ladies and unreliable cars, and the company’s practical Christianity. This seems to be a kind of High Anglican staring into the middle distance while intoning, draped in elegant austerity curtaining to denote medieval costumes.
Henzie’s narrative voice is rather grand, as was the norm for her profession (the kitchen sink style didn’t become mainstream drama until the 1950s). She and Browne clearly had some private income, as their sons stayed at school at Marlborough College while they worked their way up and down the UK on the same basic wage as their Pilgrim Players colleagues. Their social background offered compensations while on the road, such as being able to stay in many comfortable houses of ‘old friends’ when the company was passing through the area, rather than roughing it in horrible lodgings. There are so many of these ‘lovely’, ‘charming’ visits in the memoir as to give the impression that either the tour was designed from the Brownes’ address-book, to follow a route that ensured them good digs from their personal circle, or that many less happy visits have been left out of the narrative. The book has an overwhelming air of a patriotic theatrical cocktail party, though there is also a great deal about the work of rehearsals and devising props and costumes from basically nothing, made harder than usual while that ‘nothing’ was rationed.
This stiff upper lip suggests fairly strongly the Brownes’ natural conservatism. The theatre critic Peter Billington calls them reactionary and conservative, as no doubt they were. Small remarks by Henzie, such as having to overcome the group’s ’mixed political views’, reinforces this impression. The endeavour of the Pilgrim Players, as an artistic experiment to fulfill a genuine social need and to contribute to the war effort by raising morale, is admirable, but I distrust the clipped establishment narration that filters out a lot of the experience. I’m also left puzzled by the assumption that the reader knows all about the Pilgrim Players from the outset, and the economics of a travelling theatrical company: maybe contemporary readers did, but this is such an unusual example of travelling theatre, I wish Henzie had felt able to explain how wartime rationing and shortages worked with a shoestring budget.
An important secondary theme of this memoir shows rural and isolated communities enduring the war under privation, desperate for distraction. It dovetails neatly onto the middlebrow-woman-at-war memoirs that were so popular a few years ago. Those memoirs usually have the leading character staying in one place because it was simply too difficult to move around wartime Britain, what with travel permits and petrol rationing and restricted areas. This memoir shows us what it was like to negotiate all those hurdles, even with the goodwill of the authorities. Henzie makes sure we know – and with good reason – when the County Commissioner or other regional bigwig bestows approval on the Pilgrim Players for keeping his villages and barracks entertained and educated by hearty, solid Christian theatre that no-one could get upset by. The underlying inference, that isolated communities needed such distraction badly, is under-explored, and begs the question of what might happen if order was not maintained, if local orders were not obeyed.
Henzie and E Martin Browne, Pilgrim Story (London: Frederick Muller, 1945)