A few years ago I wrote – but didn’t publish – a review of a production of Lloyd George Knew My Father, which I thought was being badly misunderstood. It seemed to me that the issues of history, remembrance and performance which the play raised had been smothered by critics keen to see it as a cosy piece of Olde England foolery, when it actually had the potential to make us ask awkward questions about our past and the ways we perform or commemorate it.
More than thirty-five years after its first performance, William Douglas Home’s Lloyd George Knew My Father still has the potential to entertain and even to challenge audiences. Whether or not it will depends on careful theatrical translation from one era to another, and the reactions to a recent revival demonstrates how quickly and easily we can misunderstand drama from a few decades earlier. The play, which revolves around the intention of an elderly aristocrat to kill herself if the plans to build a bypass across her land are carried out, is currently touring England, starring Helen Ryan and Edward Fox. With its eccentric gentry, bright younger generation, ancient butler and self-conscious vicar, Lloyd George Knew My Father is in serious danger of being ranked as a charming tale of the England of long ago, the theatrical equivalent of a tin of shortbread with a picture of a wooded glade painted on it. The Berkshire Review suggests that this play “should cause the viewer to ponder the past, and whether we should allow the future to replace or destroy certain aspects of it, while at the same timing provoking a satisfying amount of laughter”, and the Malvern Gazette felt that it “depicts the British aristocracy at their most charmingly eccentric as they make a stand against the destruction of the English countryside”.
This kind of attitude does a serious disservice to Douglas Home’s talent, and to the potential of revived plays to produce any impact beyond a gentle meditation on how much less pleasant the world is now. When Peter Hall set up the ensemble that would become the Royal Shakespeare Company, he didn’t do so because he believed in a Merrie England where villagers had danced round maypoles whilst the squire looked on benignly – his vision was of an Elizabethan era which saw massive state oppression and the beginning of radical ideologies which would result in a dead king and an armed revolution. We should stage old plays not because we dislike our own world, but because we feel these old plays have something to say. I cannot believe that William Douglas Hume would have been impressed by the idea of his play, which Harold Hobson described as “steel which looks like velvet” being touted as the quaintest, gentlest night out in town.
The Scotsman hit the nail on the head, whether intentionally or not, when their review complained that Lloyd George Knew My Father conforms to the unfortunate view many people have of theatre, “the red plush curtain rising on the image of a Home Counties drawing-room, with French windows open to the garden, and everything as it should be, in a world caught permanently in the age of Bertie Wooster.” Whilst I disagree that this is what the play actually offers, it’s what a lot of the audience probably saw. Certainly the first twenty minutes of the performance failed to get much rhythm going with the audience, and uncomfortable tittering kept breaking out and then stopping, when the dialogue didn’t come up with the kind of sallies provided by a Wilde or Coward play. They could hardly be blamed. After all, the curtain rose on the drawing room of a Berkshire mansion which could easily have found its way into a P.G. Wodehouse novel, or one of the “Loamshire” plays which the Angry Young Men of the fifties raged against. Put the first scene of Lloyd George Knew My Father alongside any of the above, and you could be forgiven for confusion. That confusion would be a mistake, however, since taking the play out of its theatrical context reduces it to just another play about charmingly barmy aristocrats. To understand the work, to give Douglas Home his due, and to give the play a chance to work as any other than a second-rate frothy comedy, we need to understand its place in theatrical history.
It was written in the aftermath of theatrical uproar of the late sixties, after Kenneth Tynan had become the first man to say “fuck” on British television, John Osborne’s A Patriot For Me had exposed the tortuous hypocrisy of the theatrical establishment, and the 1968 Theatres Act had abolished the requirement of all new plays to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain. Coming from this theatrical atmosphere, Lloyd George Knew My Father takes a very different approach to subversion from Hair or Oh, Calcutta! and perhaps for that reason still carries its potential charge. After a brief flurry in the first scene about how early in the day one might say “damn!” (ironic echoes of Tynan…) a whole sequence is given over in the last act to a parodic run-through of a commemoration, including a performance of the Last Post, which is disrupted at the very end by the character who was supposedly its subject.
The comparison with blasphemy and nudity, which were just beginning to appear more freely theatre in this era, are worth considering because the Last Post is similarly impossible to act. Or rather, acting it is the same as doing it: an actor who takes off all their clothes is not just “acting” naked, and the difficulty of drawing a line between the body of the character and that of the actor at such moments is underlined by the fact that nude scenes are often spoken of as a significant and discrete category in drama. As is widely discussed, some actors will do them and some won’t. In this theatre differs drastically from prose: there are a hundred different ways to write about the naked body which determine exactly what it means for the reader at that moment, but onstage, the physical thing will always threaten to overpower whatever is being said about it in the dialogue. In the same way, a description of the Last Post in a novel, or even in a script, can be flippant, grave, charming, sentimental, whatever the author happens to fancy. But making an audience sit there whilst the bugle calls go out and all the characters stand to attention forces them to undergo an process which they cannot so easily shrug off or reinterpret if they suspect this ought to be “a funny bit”. The audience are impelled to go through the same sensations which they experience every year during Remembrance Day, and the use of the whole piece ensures that this is not just a “quotation”, but a replica of the experience.
Within the play itself, an appropriate contrast could be made with comedy, specifically the telling of jokes. It is easy to tell when a joke in being told in the play, and when it is being acted. A story about the hungover major trying to read the lesson in church is told, more or less, to the audience: they wait until the punchline and then laugh, drowning out the responses of the other characters onstage, to whom the joke is supposedly being told, but who are really just for a pretext for it. On the other hand, the line, about a clerical scandal, that “It’s the rector that does the living!” is mainly funny because of the elaborate laughter of the General after he makes the joke, and the embarrassment of the vicar. This joke is acted rather than being told – the difference is instantly obvious in performance, because the laugh comes later and “develops” along with the General’s facial expression. But the bugle calls, though we are aware that they are coming from the comedy butler, refuse to be “acted” so easily.
With this theatrical moment in mind, another look at the play’s jokes suggests there is something more to be considered here. Why do so many of them involve people being dead? Might there be more than a throwaway laugh in the line that the General’s career was founded on “killing people and being paid to do it”? It might be wise to look twice at any frothy comedy which was first staged during the height of the Vietnam War, and includes a lengthy scene in which the protagonist tells a clergyman that killing herself is far less sinful than sending thousands of young men off to die for a cause they don’t understand. Taken out of its context, sections of the play could certainly read like Wodehouse-esque silly-ass comedy, but that can only happen by wilfully ignoring some of the play’s finest moments, such as the continual repetition of the words “Lloyd George knew my father,/ My father knew Lloyd George” to a hymn tune, as characters leave the stage one by one. This particular scene ends with the heroine replacing the nonsense couplet with the song’s original words as she contemplates suicide: “Onward Christian soldiers,/ Marching as to war…”
The misreading of dramatic moments like this can perhaps be blamed on William Douglas Home’s subtlety. Crafting a quizzical and fascinating play from the materials of the “Loamshire” comedy seems to have damned him to being misunderstood by audience who think he simply couldn’t write such funny stuff as that fellow Coward. But judging Lloyd George Knew My Father without an appreciation of theatre history is like giving a copy of Bridget Jones’ Diary to a nineteenth-century book reviewer who had never heard of chick-lit. One can imagine the review: “This volume, a satirical fantasia in the manner of the Savoy operettas, purports to take the movement for enfranchisement of women at their word, and presents the reader with an alternative London in which young women pursue careers, roister in public houses and grow estranged from their families. The work has a largely moral emphasis, demonstrating how such a mode of life would necessarily coarsen and deprave the natural springs of womanhood within these unhappy characters.” It’s certainly a coherent reading of the book, but I think most of us would agree that it misses the real value of Bridget Jones’ Diary, and the pleasure it can provide.
If audiences want froth, they can get it better somewhere else: trying to make Lloyd George Knew My Father fit some idea of how much gentler and nicer England used to be will satisfy no-one. It certainly wouldn’t have pleased its author, an eccentric aristocrat, who went to jail for refusing to lead his men in an attack which he knew would kill civilians. In the theatre, as elsewhere, a sense of history is vital.