28/6/12, Mint Theater, NYC
A 1946 play about women war correspondents written by two women war correspondents, Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles, involving lots of sub-Hecht and MacArthur wisecracking and some execrable English accents. A
fascinating period piece.
Set in a temporary press camp a few miles behind the front line in Italy, where the British are running the show for a largely American contingent of hacks who seem intent principally on stealing one another's stories, it reminded me of Flare Path, but without the luminous, transformative performance of Sheridan Smith. Indeed, though perfectly competently done, for me it never quite took off.
In many respects it was of its time: three act structure, slow to start, elements of farce, stock characters (ditzy British ENSA chanteuse; hard-bitten mid-Western hacks; stuffed shirt British officer), slightly cavalier attitude to realism (we're told several times that it's bitterly cold, and some of the jokes turn on the fact, but then people wander round quite happily in shirt sleeves and there seems to be a constantly open door to the outside world at the back of the set), allusions to some of the problems war correspondents have always faced (notably military censorship). But the modern journalistic trade's fascination with the ethics of the whole business was largely missing, probably because in the immediate wake of WW2 everyone still had a pretty black and white view of the war and everything connected with it.
It was also highly autobiographical. The unscrupulous but charismatic correspondent to whom one of the correspondents was briefly married, and under whose spell she once again falls when they meet up again, who stole all her scoops on the pretence that he was protecting her from danger, is Ernest Hemingway, to whom Gellhorn was for a time married. The uptight Yorkshire squire and major given the thankless task of acting as PR to the correspondents is Aidan Crawley, the upper middle class Brit who helped found ITN and who Cowles married.
A lot of the comedy turned on the assumption on the part of the special men in their lives that both the women needed protecting not only from the risks of their chosen profession but from any kind of adventure or paid work, and should really be at home knitting socks. Satirising such attitudes seems unexceptionable now, but thinking back to the general state of society in the 1940s I imagine the women in the audience nodding inwardly, but biting their tongues as their menfolk laughed heartily at the absurdity of women riding jeeps to war.
We were about the only people in the theatre who didn't belong either to a huge gang of teenage girls (they
loved it, especially the comic Yorkshire servant with a Midlands accent -- not that they'd have known that -- and the love scenes, which they found hilarious) or to the party celebrating the wedding of what we took to be one of the theatre's trustees, who was sitting with his new husband in the front row. the pair of them looking dapper in matching dark suits and white button-holes (don't know what they thought of the love scenes).
One of the leading ladies was a substitute: the wonderfully named Heidi Armbruster was presumably indisposed. She seemed a pretty adequate substitute.