Black ‘Ell is, in my view, a masterpiece of drama and one of the finest works of First World War literature. The play quickly and efficiently depicts the conflict’s horrific and gory mass scale destruction and reduces it down to a single household, bringing that scale down in order to show its impact upon a small group yet showing how this is repeated across the entirety of the war and across the trenches as the suffering is on both sides. There are other elements also at work in the play, but it is this that I will focus on here.
The opening of Malleson’s Black ‘Ell shows the torturous experience that loved ones of those of the front confronted almost daily during the conflict – the fear of losing the one, or ones, they care for at the front. For Mr. and Mrs. Gould this someone is their son. The opening action sees the couple having a quiet and loving breakfast together, and the subtle actions and sounds between them work to show to the audience that they have been together a long time: “(The affection is unconscious and unobtrusive – the result of twenty-five years and about nine thousand breakfast together.)” (35) This peace is however then savagely broken by an everyday occurrence – “a loud double knock at the front door, followed by a violent ringing”. Malleson instructs the couple in how disturbed they should be by this event as he writes that “it is as if they had both been hit unexpectedly” (35). This then unravels the mirage of calm that was presented over breakfast, as both husband and wife instantly panic that it is the news that their son has been killed. For them it is not a fear that he will one day possibly be killed in action, but that it’s guaranteed to happen. This is shown in what Mrs. Gould says: “Oh, Fred, d’you think it’s… can it be that, at last?” (36). Mrs. Gould does not leave it at “be that”, but adds “at last?” showing their sense that it will ultimately happen.
A few pages later the despair is finally lifted with the news that their son has not died, but is in fact returning on leave. The peace of this scene though is then once again ruined when they discover that not all the information is in the telegram – “this is all you’ve heard? All? You haven’t heard anything more? More? … Eric, there’s nothing… he’s not hurt?” (41). Hearing that there is more to be heard they instantly again fear the worst, that he has either been physically or psychologically wounded. The reality, though, is that he is returning as he’s been recommended for gallantry and a D.S.O – Distinguishes Service Order and returns a hero with his name and photo in the newspaper under the title ‘Another Young Hero’. Naturally his parents and Jean, his lover who arrives at the house to share the good news, are besides themselves with pride and relief that he is ok and that he has come home. Everybody else also wants to share in the moment, shown by Margery Willis coming round and asking when everyone can come and congratulate him.
The idyllic revelry of his return is shattered however when he actually does return.
Not wishing to stay in the throng and fuss of the station he, Harold, avoids it and gets a taxi straight to the house. This bypasses his family who are at the station waiting for him and he instead first meets Jean who stayed behind. Jean is naturally thrilled to see him back and for them to be alone together: “She advances towards him, ready to move close into his arms to take him back to her – if he had opened them to receive her. But he does not. And as, closer to him now, she looks into his eyes, something in them begins to frighten her.” (50) The scene between them progresses to the stage where it is apparent that Harold believes he can see and communicate with dead people, people he has known in the war.
[He has gone to her as if for protection] Jean. [Quieting him as she might one of her young brothers.] There…my dear… there isn’t anything to be frightened of… if you’d only tell me… what is it that’s between us… I don’t understand in the least what you’re talking about. I want to help. Won’t you tell me – quite quietly?
Harold. It’s all muddled – the beginning… out our trench into theirs… where they were… and men coming at you… their face quite close… and shooting at them… and the hellish noise and the shouting… and our men with bayonets… and somebody screamed… it went right into him… and then… him. [ He pauses as if trying to recall the details to his mind] (50/51)
Following this comes an emotional and gritty descriptive monologue from Harold where he details with anguish a scene where he kills a soldier when they grapple and fall together. Harold’s knife sinks into the man and Harold is cut up over the pain clearly visible on the man’s face so he attempts to kill him quickly to end the suffering and was transfixed in horror as he watched the life die out of the man’s eyes. (52/53) In these moments between life and death, the man thrusts into Harold’s hands a locket saying a girl’s name “and the pain all went out of his eyes, and he looked, like you [Jean] look sometimes, loving and longing and hopeful… I opened it, and I thought I was looking at you, and I realized it was his you… and he’s out there thrown in somewhere with a heap of others, with some earth scrambled over them… and she’s there waiting…” (53). For me, this monologue is one of the most moving depictions of the war in literature. It takes the vast numbers of killed men, on all sides, and brings it down to one individual. Showing how with each death there was a man, and a story. And that with each soldier killed there was in all likelihood a loved one at home waiting for them and that, ultimately, each soldier was being told to kill his kin – someone who, when broken down into events and not details, has a life much like their own.
This is reinforced by Malleson as breaking Harold’s monologue is Ethel, the maid, who enters not expecting to see him and who, crying, tells Jean that her own sweetheart has been killed in action. In her pain and anger she spits out that “I ‘ope them wot killed ‘im is dead themselves by now.” Harold quickly cuts her off saying, “Don’t say things like that, Ethel… they’ve all got homes of their own – and lovers…” (54)
The play’s final scenes are a showdown of sorts between Harold and his family who have returned to the house. In these scenes Harold condemns not just the war, but the whole of society’s setup, including, directly, his own family and parents. He condemns a society where he should return and be rewarded, celebrated even, for having killed men. For once, rather than a concluding paragraph from me I shall end with Harold’s words as it is his monologue’s that make this play one of my favorite pieces of First World War literature. The emotive power of his words, and the gritty and real depiction of suffering:
Oh, I know, I know. You all think I’m mad – looking at me like that. [He has completely lost control of himself; his words rush out in an ever-growing crescendo.] But there are millions doing it – millions. The young ones doing it, and the old ones feeling noble about it… Yes, Dad feels noble because I’ve killed somebody. I saw him feeling noble… and you all look at me, because I tell you it’s all filthy… foul language and foul thinking and stinking bits of bodies all about… millions at it.. it’s not me that’s mad… it’s the whole world that’s mad… (63/64)