WELL-KNOWN actor and playwright Michael Mears brings his one-man play, This Evil Thing, about conscientious objectors in the First World War, to The Bear Pit on Wednesday, 25th October. The play marks over 100 years since conscription was bought in 1916, here Michael tells Herald arts about the play. Book tickets here
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 seem 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.
There were divisions in the CO movement. 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.
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.
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 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, who is amazing, features — 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?’!
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…