Well, this is Guy Fawkes Day (or Bonfire Night) here in Britain. I am hearing the fireworks exploding as I write. Last year, I dragged Tallulah Bankhead into the Popish Plot; but it really seems an occasion to handle something explosive. To write about war and propaganda, or the war of propaganda, for instance. Bonfire Night coincides with the third anniversary of my move to Wales. So, I might as well write about something relating to the Welsh. And since this 5th of November is also the first day of the WGA (Writers Guild of America) strike that is intended to cripple the television and motion picture industry in the US, I might as well express my solidarity by turning a deaf ear to overseas media and lend a keen one to the voices of Britain. Propaganda, a Welsh Prime Minister (pictured), and a group of famous authors including H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, and Arnold Bennett—“Seeing It Through” promises nothing less.
“Seeing” is the latest radio play by Neil Brand—last seen here in Wales accompanying The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918). Dining with the writer, I remarked that, these days, the BBC seems most interested in airing biographical or historical drama. No exception is today’s Afternoon Play on BBC Radio 4, Tracy Spottiswoode’s “Solo Behind the Iron Curtain” (starring Robert Vaughn as himself, caught in revolutionary Prague anno 1968, and reviewed in my next entry into this journal). What sells these days are purportedly true stories, opportunities to eavesdrop on prominent, eminent or at any rate historical personages.
If it is to fly, the drama of the air is expected to have weight, especially now that such texts are generally being relegated to the footnotes of popular culture. Those in charge of allotting time for aural play try to salvage a dying art gasping for air by turning recorded sound into sound records and reducing storytelling into a substitute for oral history. A footnote-and-mouth disease is contaminating the airwaves, a corrupting influence in the theater of the mind for which there exists no talking cure. For the record, Brand has not so much caught the disease than braved it.
Cinematic in its architecture, in its designs on the mind’s eye, “Seeing It Through” opens like a house of worship, resounding with a hymn whose words are based on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, written in imprisonment: “He who would valiant be / ’gainst all disaster, / Let him in constancy / follow the Master.” The music gives way to the sounds of a crowded auditorium and the words of one of the most famous British writers of the late 19th and early 20th century. None other than the man who invented The War of the Worlds: “You know me. My name is H. G. Wells,” the novelist addresses a conservative crowd and is very nearly booed off the stage, clearly not the master of his domain.
Wells was hoping to lend support to Charles Masterman, a liberal politician to whom we are introduced as he tries to promote welfare reforms. A gifted orator, Masterman disappears from the public stage to become the mastermind or mouthpiece of the newly established War Propaganda Bureau, Britain’s response to German duplicity. “There is no such thing as a clean war,” future Prime Minister David Lloyd George warns the radical idealist. “Then, Masterman replies, “we should create one.”
Rallied to aid him are the leading novelists of the time, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Hardy, Galsworthy and Bennett. As Wells is heard expressing it: “The ultimate purpose of this war is propaganda, the destruction of certain beliefs, and the creation of others.” Unlike the radio propaganda penned by US playwrights, poets, and novelists in the 1940s (as discussed here), their activities in publicizing an unpopular war was being kept a secret until well after armistice was declared.
As is revealed in a well-soundstaged scene symbolizing Masterman’s struggle to navigate the moral maze of a publicly invisible office, the alcoholic in charge gets lost in the structure he is meant to control. Trying to find his way, he relies on the guidance of a suffragette who once dared to toss pig’s blood in his face and whose brother is facing a breakdown on the front that she assisted in putting up: “I’ve learned,” she tells Masterman, that “there is no truth where war is concerned, except one: that the greatest cruelty is to let it go on when it could be stopped.” She, too, operates under the influence, hers being Frances Stevenson, personal secretary, mistress, and future wife of Lloyd George, a woman Wells calls the “sphinx that guards the labyrinth of Whitehall.” It is in this nexus of oblique channels and hidden agenda that the lives of thousands are rewritten and expended.
That this is not merely a war of the words is demonstrated in noisy reports from the front and driven home in a sequence reminiscent of Howard Koch’s adaptation of Wells’s science fictional War: as London faces its first air raid, the weaponizers of words, Wells among them, look on and listen in the dark, Masterman speechless, his master’s voice overmastered: “If they’re smart, [the British public will] never trust any of us again.”
“Seeing” is a challenge to the audience. Instead of recounting an old if little known story, Brand puts listeners right a history in the making, thereby inviting us to draw parallels between the so-called Great War that was and the nominal anti-terrorism of the present, a war that some demand we see through while others struggle to see through it. Trying to make sense of the spin you will find yourself in, the acts of betrayal and false assurances you will overhear, you may feel yourself in need of another voice “Seeing [You] Through.” As in all history lessons that matter, this voice will have to be your own . . .