By Sears Eldredge
The POWs in Changi were now approaching the first anniversary of their defeat and surrender. Not a time for celebration, surely. But less they forget what had happened, two groups of entertainers produced shows that would remind them.
“The 18th Divisional Headquarters Players,” an all-Other Ranks’ Company, opened their presentation of R. C. Sherriff’s World War I drama, Journey’s End, at The Hippodrome on in early February. It was produced by Denis O’Brien and Stuart Ludman.
Sherriff’s tragedy takes place in a dug-out on the Western Front in March 1918, in the days leading up to the final spring offensive by the Germans. A group of British officers and men, led by a young Captain, are ordered by High Command to go over the top in what will clearly be a suicidal mission as the massive German attack begins. These events couldn’t help but remind the POW audiences of General Wavell’s orders issued before he left Singapore: “There must be no thought or question of surrender. Every unit must fight it out to the end and in close contact with the enemy.”[i]
From actor Donald Smith’s lengthy account of the POW production, it appears that the producers believed that Sherriff’s play promoted the idea that their lost cause created a special bond between the officers and men which ennobled them (which by implication so hadn’t the Battles for Malaya and Singapore). But Sherriff’s own attitude about the war in which he had fought, was much more ambiguous. The original 1928 production was also widely praised as an anti-war play that revealed not only the incompetence of the military leadership but the terrible wastage of human life.[ii] This ambiguity would affect audience response to this POW production as well.
After several highly successful performances before British officers and men, the performers faced their first audience of Australians. Rain started to fall during Act I, which did not help the mood of the audience forced to sit in the wet and watch. During Act II, catcalls and jeers from the audience began to be heard—the Australians were proving to be “not very tolerant,” wrote Smith. By Act III, when Smith was about to make his first appearance, the rain had stopped.
As I made my brief appearance as the German prisoner, there was a great roar of applause, and for a moment I stood, dumbfounded, wondering for whom this ovation was intended. Then I realized that it was intended for me! The sympathy of the audience had apparently gone over to the Boche. I was listened to attentively, and without comment. As the sergeant-major searched me and relieved me of my precious letters, much against my will, the audience growled and booed. As I made my exit, I was given another round of applause.[iii]
The context in which a performance takes place can greatly change how it is received and interpreted by its audience. The Australian POWs, identifying with the German POW, were having nothing to do with any attempts to mythologize the hell they had gone though in the battles for Malaya and Singapore into notions of “solidarity” or “nobility.”
The Admirable Dyeton
A day later [9 February] in the Command Area, the all-officer “Command Players” opened their adaptation of James M. Barrie’s 1902 “withering satire on the social order,”[iv] The Admirable Crichton, renamed The Admirable Dyeton. Barrie’s original play was about a group of worthless British aristocrats who undertake a voyage on a yacht to the South Pacific and end up shipwrecked on a deserted island. For two years they survive by the ingenuity and leadership skills of their butler, Crichton.
The POW version written by Digby Gates, 9th Gurkhas, and produced by W. Hogg Ferguson, made sure that their audiences would not miss the connections between the play and their own past experience. Act I takes place at “Divisional HQ on Jingalore Island, Night of the Capitulation” during which Corps Commander Lieut. General Sir Endimion Cholmondcley Featherstonehaugh plans to lead an escape party of Staff Officers and Administrative Other Ranks. Act II opens ten days later on a Desert Island where Featherstonehaugh and Company had landed by faulty navigation. And for the next two years, it is Sgt. Dyeton, an Administrative Clerk from Divisional HQ, who assumes command and saves the day (Act III).
In Barrie’s original final Act (Act IV), the characters have been rescued and have just arrived home again. Now the old order reasserts its rank and privilege, and the butler, Crichton, without complaint, resumes his “proper” former position. In Digby Gates’ version, the Officers are rescued and return to “Divisional HQ. Somewhere in India.” And there Dyeton, too, resumes his “proper” position as Administrative Clerk.
Padre John Foster-Haigh, for one, did not miss the connections to the past:
It . . . showed us in a most entertaining way how an orderly room sergeant was more fitted to command & had more strength of character than the commanding officer. It was great fun & a very clever play. It was really a play leveled against inefficiency & roused a good deal of comment among Senior officers.[v]
About this same time in Convalescent Depot’s outdoor theatre, McNeilly hosted the 18th Div. Celebrity Artists for a concert of “Light Music.” To get their stage ready, he took old sheets, dyed them, and then sprayed them with colored paint to hide the blood stains. “Not a bad effect,” he writes.[vi] This time there had been no intent to make a comment on the surrender anniversary, but in a way, it had—at least for us.
 Slang term for the Germans.
 This had to be a pointed allusion to the controversial escape of General Wavell and other Senior Officers to Australia before capitulation.
[i] Wavell’s Orders, AWM PR 85/145
[ii] Gassner, 693.
[iii] Smith, D. 62.
[iv] Gassner, 567.
[v] Foster-Haigh, Diary.
[vi] McNeilly, Notes, 3.
Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105
Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22