X=0 by John Drinkwater (1917)
John Drinkwater, playwright and poet is perhaps most famous for his play Abraham Lincoln (1918). A year before he moved to London to achieve his national success with that play however, he wrote and staged a powerful and provocative short play about the First World War.
The palywright and poet John Drinkwater.
X=0 was first performed in a triple bill at Birmingham Rep (where Drinkwater was manager) on Saturday 14 April 1917, alongside the new play ‘Everybody’s Husband’ (a fantasy by Gilbert Annan) and preceded by Harold Chaplin’s comedy ‘Augustus in Search of a Father’. It was revived twice at Birmingham Rep later that year and in May 1919 it was performed in London in aid of the Housing Association for Officers’ Families. After the war it was also regularly revived by amateur groups and as a radio drama, although there is a notable absence of productions recorded during the Second World War.
The WhitLit festival, now in its second year, was the ideal venue in which to explore this play and on Sunday 17th May 2015 a rehearsed reading of X=0 was given by two actors from the School of Arts at the University of Kent. It was produced/directed by a recent Kent Drama graduate, Rebecca O’Brien. After the reading Helen Brooks (Senior Lecturer in Theatre History, University of Kent) and Emma Hanna (Senior Lecturer in History, University of Greenwich) joined the actors and director for a discussion about the play’s content and context. With the diverse perspectives offered by bringing these different expertise together the discussion could easily have run beyond the 20 minutes available and it a great example of how productive and enjoyable cross-disciplinary work can be.
Some particular topics we explored included why the play was set in the Trojan War. As we discussed, the frustrating and costly war on the Western Front reflected the long and drawn-out siege of Troy. In addition, by using the ancient setting we wondered whether Drinkwater was ensuring that he could safely introduce anti-war elements without being seen to criticize the war being waged at the time.
Emma Hanna also suggested that Drinkwater’s membership of the group known as the ‘Dymock Poets’ and his close friendships with Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas were a direct influence on the writing of the play. Brooke died shortly before the Gallipoli landings in April 1915 and exactly two years later Edward Thomas was killed in action at the Battle of Arras. Drinkwater was greatly affected by the deaths of his friends and Emma suggested that the ‘two poets’ mentioned in the play may well in fact be Brooke and Thomas.
That the play was revived in the middle of 1917, and then later that year, was also worthy of note. At this time the British Expeditionary Force was seen to be making great progress in the war against the German forces who in the spring of 1917 had retreated to their defences in the Hindenburg Line. The Allied offensives at Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai signalled a return to more mobile forms of warfare not seen since the autumn of 1914, but these successes were achieved at a very high human cost.
The scenes read at WhitLit describe night-time raids on the opposition, and the description of these would have been familiar to the soldiers who carried out this type of covert mission in the trenches 1914-1918. For example, Siegfried Sassoon was known as ‘Mad Jack’ for his fearless approach to leading night-time trench raids on German positions. Indeed, Drinkwater may have had in his mind the role of soldier-poets in the First World War as it was being waged. As Martin Stephen outlined in The Price of Pity (1996) at no time since Troy had poets been so active in the writing of history.
Historical sources tell us a great deal about the time in which they were written, and X=0 is no exception. Will it get another performance any time soon? Watch this space!
2 July 2015