George Orwell’s First Play
IT’S not every day that a parent gets a chance to witness literary history being made at a school play, especially so if that parent’s son has a leading part in it. I recall attending a performance, eight years ago, of a play entitled King Charles II by one Eric A. Blair. In 1932, this Mr. Blair was working as a harassed 29-year-old schoolmaster at the Hawthorns High Schools for Boys in Hayes, a suburb of West London known mainly throughout the world as the home of His Master ‘s Voice. Mr. Blair did not have many good words to say about Hayes, and did not enjoy teaching all that much either. His real ambition was to write, but a chap’s got to eat, and teaching seemed like a not entirely uncivilised way of keeping the wolf from the door. It also enabled him to devote his spare time to his first novel, Down and Out in Paris and London, in which he described, from first-hand experience, the trials and tribulations of being poverty-stricken in London and Paris. Mr. Blair hoped that the successful publication of his work would free him from the shackles of trying to instill education into infertile adolescent minds.
During the course of his duties, Mr. Blair wrote and mounted a short play for the school’s Christmas celebrations of that year. The play was an historical piece of hokum which tells of King Charles II’s narrow escape to France after his defeat by Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Sir James Digby and Sir Edward Mortimer manage to fool one Will Hodge, a village idiot who happens to be Charles’ spitting image, into impersonating him, and thus aiding and abetting the Pretender’s escape. The poor blighter’s reward for being caught and sentenced to death was a purseful of money. At first this looked to Will like a good deal, which went sour as he gradually realised the true implications of his predicament.
Mr. Blair’s letters from that year wax eloquent about the hassle he experienced during the production of King Charles II. Unlike today’s producers of school plays, who work in teams, Mr. Blair had to do everything, including the costumes. Being set in the battle-weary England of 1651, that amounted to quite a feat, and he spent many hours after school working with ‘sheets of brown paper and pots of glue’, time which he would have given much more gladly to his serious literary ambitions. King Charles II was premiered in December 1932 at St. Mary’s Church Hall in Church Lane, Hayes. The entire school, all 16 boys, took part. 1933 came, and Eric Blair’s book was published under his brand new pseudonym of George Orwell. After that fame and fortune pursued Mr. Blair.
In the meantime, the script of King Charles II lay dormant for the next 60 years, during the course of which it found its way across the Atlantic Ocean to the USA. It was resurrected in 1992 through the machinations of Mr Fred Bennett and the Hayes Literary Society, who mounted a ‘George Orwell in Hayes’ 60th Anniversary Festival during April of that year. As part of the celebrations, the Society arranged for the ‘restoration’ of King Charles II, recreating as closely as possible the conditions of 60 years previously. A copy of the script was made available to the Society by one Mr Bill Blair (no relation) of the USA, who owns Orwell’s original typescript. On April 4th 1992, King Charles II had its second performance in the very same venue as the first. Hawthorns High School is now the Fountains House Hotel, but St. Mary’s Church Hall is still there, in much the same condition as it was in 1932, except that the stage had burnt down some years previously.
Apart from a makeshift stage at the other end of the Hall, everything was much the same as in Orwell’s day. John Sherratt of the Compass Arts Theatre, Ickenham, produced, and Neil Pankhurst, Head of Drama at the nearby Douai Martyrs’ High School, directed a 20-strong team of boys and girls culled from the school. Mr Bill Blair flew over from the United States specially for the occasion. The evening started with readings from letters, poems and other excepts from Orwell’s writings of 1932, an entertaining and revealing introduction to his Hayes period. These readings played an important part in making the play and its circumstances come alive, which was, in some ways, just as well. The play itself is no literary masterpiece, nor was it intended to be. This was evident as the slightly ludicrous story line unfolded. Its lack of literary merit was not lost on the young cast. There was some fine ham-acting to be seen, allowing for lean lines and sparse script, as well as some unscripted fits of the giggles when a dagger was drawn with such vehemence that it flew across towards the lighting engineer. This, and further similar lapses, nearly caused the play to stall on several occasions, and the valiant attempts of the cast to regain straight faces and keep going managed to set the audience off as well.
As a serious play, which to all intents and purposes this was supposed to be, these lapses would have been taken for lack of professionalism, but in this case they constituted a sort of spontaneous combustion, the spark that made King Charles II not so much of a play as a living event, and as such unexpectedly successful, with the youngsters thoroughly enjoying the moment and sharing the undoubted pleasure. I had the distinct feeling that Eric Blair was there in spirit, helping to send it all up, Hayes, the School, the System, et al.
In 1932 the cast would have been severely reprimanded backstage afterwards — and worse! But in 1992, backstage after the show, with beaming face and proud mien, I congratulated my 15-year old son, Jan-Christian, on his intense and — it must be said — giggle-free interpretation of Sir Edward Mortimer. I asked him how he felt about making literary history. Was his soul elevated to new heights of awareness? Did he feel the ghost of Orwell pervading the Hall? He replied that he hadn’t really given the history thing much thought, but it had all been a bit of a laugh.
Ah, the youth of today! Have they no soul? I was about to ask him whether the youth of today had no soul, when he was peremptorily whisked away to be photographed with a certain elderly Mr Geoffrey Richards. I did not realise the significance of this until I heard someone saying that Mr Richards played the original Sir Edward Mortimer in 1932.
That’s my boy, I could not help thinking. One day he will proudly show the photo to his son.
A commemorative plaque to George Orwell was unveiled on 22 April 1992 at the Fountain House Hotel, Church Lane, Hayes, Middlesex, formerly the Hawthorns High School for Boys, by Michael Foot, MP.
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