WELL-KNOWN actor and playwright Michael Mears brings his one-man play, This Evil Thing, about conscientious objectors in the First World War to Stratford’s Kempe Studio this Sunday. The play marks 100 years since conscription was bought in in 1916, here Michael tells Herald arts about the play and his inspiration for writing it.
How would I describe This Evil Thing? It’s the compelling and rather shocking, and also inspiring, story of the First World War conscientious objectors (COs) in Britain, which has rarely been told or even talked about. In this period of commemoration of the war there’s a lot of focus on the battles, but I knew there would be plenty of material on that and wanted to write about something else. My grandfather fought in the First World War and my father in the Second but I don’t seemed to have inherited the genes, I’m a pacifist — so it seemed appropriate to focus on that.
I didn’t know much about conscientious objectors and then by chance I came across the story of a young Yorkshire schoolteacher called Bert Brocklesbury. As I read more about him, the more I became fascinated by him. I discovered all these things — like there was an organisation of young men of all political and religious opinions who got together once war was declared to try and prevent conscription being bought in; because that was the real crisis point in 1916. Up to that point, volunteers, of which there were hundreds of thousands, came forward, but obviously, as casualties increased, it was clear the government were going to have to bring in conscription in order to get enough men to send to the front. These young men, who were passionately against war because of their political or religious beliefs, organised themselves to resist conscription and to help young men claim exception if at all possible, and then to assist them and their families if they were subsequently punished and treated brutally, which some of them were.
Bert Brocklesbury, who is a protagonist in my play, was an absolutist, which meant he wanted nothing to do with the war — some of the other COs took jobs as medics etc, on the grounds that they weren’t willing to kill but would help with the war effort. So there were divisions in the CO movement.
I wrote ‘war is illogical’ on my pencil case aged 15, for which I was mocked at my north London school. Like Bert, pacifism is just in my DNA. Bert just didn’t have an aggressive personality; it’s not like he lacked testosterone, I mean he played rugby! He was a Methodist, so he did have a religious belief. My play was originally called Thou Shall Not Kill, the Sixth Commandment…
So many interesting things happened while I was putting the play together… Bert wrote a memoir and I read it at the Quakers’ HQ in London, which has a wonderful, small specialist library. Reading it I was inspired to write about him. The play uses verbatim pieces; I use Bert’s words and testimony spoken by COs and others at the time, including philosopher Bertrand Russell. Once I started writing the play I realised I would need to get permission to use these extracts and the library said: ‘We haven’t got the copyright you will need to contact with the family’. Serendipitously I went to an International Conscientious Objectors Day event — which is held yearly on 15th May – and one of the speakers was Bert’s granddaughter, Jilly Gibbon. I told her about writing the play and she was thrilled and immediately gave me permission and a photo of him.
The other thing that happened, I was up at Richmond Castle, where Bert and some of the other COs were sent. They were called up, applied for exemption, were refused, then arrested and taken to barracks anyway… and Bert was put into a cell in solitary confinement and I was able to visit it. On the walls he’d drawn graffiti of his girlfriend, a man struggling under the weight of a cross and some Latin words.
One of the most horrific stories I heard about how COs were treated involved a young lad who was taken to barracks where the sergeant tried to break him. Soldiers tied a rope around him, dragged him around a field and dunked him in a pond full of sewage eight or nine times. He gave in — I don’t blame him I would have given in. Others were taken to the point where they thought they were going to be executed, although none actually were. Around 70 died in captivity through illness and poor conditions.
I always try and find humour and comedy in my plays… although in this there is less. Although Bertrand Russell features, who is amazing — he gave up all his academic work to become an administrative dogsbody to the No Conscription Fellowship. I’ve used some of his writings words and letters, and they are often very witty, and so they offer a bit of levity. There’s a bit in the play, based on a true story, where he is swimming naked in a lake at an Oxfordshire estate and emerges to find himself face-to-face with Prime Minister Henry Asquith.
The format of the This Evil Thing is like high-octane storytelling. I play about 52 characters — some of them only have one line and I can hear them in my head at night going ‘can’t you build up my part?’!
John Prescott loved the show… I took This Evil Thing to the Edinburgh Fringe last summer and the response was very moving. A lot of Quakers came to see it — whose involvement in CO movement was so significant during the First World War. After the penultimate performance a rather elderly man came down and grabbed my hand shaking it, saying that was tremendous — it was Labour politician John Prescott — he’s 78 now and looks smaller and older than you might imagine. He confessed he thought being a CO was an intellectual struggle and had no real idea what they went through until he saw my play; he was amazed about what went on. And that’s been a usual reaction: surprise at the bravery of the COs and what they went through.
It’s hard to imagine a huge war with appalling casualties that would involve conscription in modern Britain. But one thing I ask myself in the play, via the audience, is would I have the courage to be a CO if I’d been born 100 years ago? Would I be courageous enough? I don’t know…
WHEN AND WHERE: This Evil Thing is at the Kempe Studios at The Studio, Waterside, Stratford, on Sunday, 15th January, at 5pm. Tickets are available from the Stratford ArtsHouse or from www.rudolfkempesociety.or A talkback session follows the performance.
The plays is also on at Sibford School, Sibford Ferris on Friday, 3rd February. The performance will take place from 3.05pm to 4.15pm, and Sibford is extending the audience to include a limited number of free seats that are being made available to the general public. Anyone wishing to attend should contact the school’s community development officer, Ali Bromhall, on 01295 781216 (email firstname.lastname@example.org).