April 17, 2013



Ms. Chenoweth is a science educator and historian for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and an accomplished musician, who earned a B.M. from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a B.S. in Natural Sciences from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She assisted on the forthcoming ISI Books edition of Great Contemporaries. We thank Dale Vargas and Harrow School for permission to publish Churchill’s play script


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Some critics denounced him as a consummate actor. If so, Churchill’s interests in and respect for the craft began early and were steadfastly maintained throughout his life.


Some critics denounced him as a consummate actor. If so, Churchill’s interests in and respect for the craft began early and were steadfastly maintained throughout his life.

Laying bricks, raising butterflies and painting landscapes were not Churchill’s only entrancing diversions; none lasted so long as his love affair with the stage—from the music hall to the legitimate theatre.

Some of the greatest writers in the English language have been playwrights, and their fondness for political drama did not escape the young Winston’s keen mind. Churchill knew their scripts. He meditated on sets and blocking while shifting figures on his toy stage, not unlike moving toy soldiers on a battlefield. At a time when political speeches were often delivered in rented theatres, perhaps Churchill already imagined himself on stage. The golden thread of this interest may be picked up and followed through his life’s labyrinth, because it never fades completely, even during the most intractable times.

Churchill evinced his connection with theatre as a young boy, in his autobiography, My Early Life. The book’s second paragraph describes with much excitement the arrival of a “long-looked for afternoon” in Dublin when he was to attend a pantomime. Alas, the performance, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, never occurred, because the gas-lit theatre burned down, consuming the theatre’s manager in the fire.[1]

In letters to his mother Churchill, as a schoolboy, reviewed performances he had attended and anticipated seeing more. A January 1888 letter told of an upcoming London performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. The same letter reported that he had been given a toy theatre.[2] These popular mini-stages, hand-painted and peopled with small etchings of characters, sold for “a penny plain” or “two pence hand-coloured.” Years later, Churchill would use these same phrases to contrast political colleagues in an article for the Sunday Pictorial.[3] His boyhood letters described the arrival of his toy theatre at Harrow in spring 1888[4] and requested equipment to improve it.[5]

That October, after studying three of Shakespeare’s plays, Winston placed fourth out of twenty-five competitors for the Lower School Shakespeare prize.[6] Two years later, on 27 June 1890, the esteemed Shakespearean acting duo, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, performed a rare and interesting stage-reading of Macbeth in the Speech Room at Harrow. The Harrovian reported that they “fitted up the stage so artistically with a temporary green-room, a background, foot and headlights, and surrounded it all with such a forest of palms and plants, that we hardly recognized the place.”[7]

Sixteen years later, Ellen Terry would write Churchill, asking him to support the establishment of a permanent memorial to Sir Henry Irving.[8]

Shakespeare moved him. “There is no English author,” Darrell Holley wrote, “whom Churchill alludes to as often as to William Shakespeare.”[9] Throughout his life WSC would burst into the Bard’s verses, which he knew so well that he often recited them without attribution, assuming his listeners or readers knew them as well. In his memories of 1939, after becoming First Lord of the Admiralty for the second time in twenty-five years, he invoked Richard II:

“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”[10]

n the north tower above the Speech Room at Harrow is a room accessible only by an iron ladder and trap door, where Winston once learned mathematics from House Master C.H.P. Mayo.[11] During his last year at Harrow, Churchill wrote his first and only published play on the inconveniences of this room.[12] In his four-act drama, a humorous tone artfully pervades the dialogue, revealing the stark truth that the space where the boys were expected to learn algebra was woefully inadequate (as if learning algebra were not difficult enough already). The characters, though short-lived, are lively, and Churchill endows them with colorful accents and even nicknames like “long-haired Mozartish boy,” who is afterward listed in the script as “L.H.M. Boy.” While in the end all of the boys break their necks attempting to climb down as the organ booms loudly, the script shows that many of the traits for which Churchill was later known manifested themselves at an early age, not the least of which was to treat weighty subjects with a light touch. 

From Sandhurst, Churchill enjoyed trips to the London theatre with fellow cadets. In a letter to his mother in April 1894, he lamented being unable to stand “two Sundays running at this place,” and told of his plans to visit the Empire Theatre of Varieties in Leicester Square.[13]

So began his association with a theatre soon to be at the center of a cacophonous nationwide debate over the requirements of virtue and the advisability of government regulation. This is also where his true “maiden speech” was belted out, over the rubble of barriers torn down in outrage, which had been erected on the promenade to comply with the new demands of the London County Council: “Ladies of the Empire! I stand for Liberty!”[14]

A lecturer and social reformer, the aptly named Laura Ormiston Chant, had testified in October 1894 before the Council’s Theatres and Music Halls Committee, urging it to deny what was ordinarily a routine request for renewal of the Empire Theatre’s license.[15]Churchill describes his effort over several weeks, working against the notorious “Prudes on the Prowl,” in a half-chapter of My Early Life. He wrote how he hurried to London to support the work of “The Entertainments Protection League,” organized by the writer of a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph.[16] Although an organization under that name was active in Britain by the 1930s, the pages of the Telegraph that autumn record only a letter to the editor recommending the creation of a “Public Amusements Protection Society,” whose author signed himself “Facta non verba.”[17]

Churchill presented this youthful escapade as a missed opportunity to marshal public opinion against the interference of the state in the “social habits of law-abiding persons” in such a way as to make it “so vigilant throughout the English-speaking world….that the mighty United States themselves might have been saved from the Prohibition!”[18] Controversies about licensing theatres and censoring plays persisted, and Churchill’s correspondence between 1906 and 1911 includes letters from colleagues, playwrights, and the esteemed Shavian actor Harley Granville Baker.[19]

Years later, in March 1941, Churchill wrote Harry Crookshank, financial secretary to the Treasury, to express his displeasure at Crookshank’s unwillingness to allow theatres to open on Sundays.[20] His interest in the stage was as powerful as ever. In April 1942, he wrote to Noel Coward, thanking him for a copy of his play Blithe Spirit.[21] Alan Hodge, assistant private secretary to the Minister of Information, wrote Churchill in 1942 about a request for him to star in a play.[22] The London revival of Terence Rattigan’s plays in 2011 reminds us that Churchill ventured to the theatre in January 1943, when Rattigan was an RAF Flying Officer, to view his play Flare Path at the Apollo Theatre. The prime minister greeted the cast after the performance, describing the play as a “masterpiece of understatement.”[23]

Churchill’s friendly or amusing conversations with actors and playwrights, from George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin to the dressing room of Richard Burton, are well-known.[24] Yet a recent discovery by Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre at Churchill College, Cambridge, has discredited a celebrated story. The famous exchange suggests that Shaw thought Churchill had few friends, while Churchill doubted Shaw’s play would survive opening night. (See “Datelines,” page 7.)

But in September 1949, a Mr. Tatham wrote to George Bernard Shaw seeking permission to publish the humorous anecdote—and received a hot reply: “The above is not only a flat lie but a political libel which may possibly damage me. Publish it at your peril, whether in assertion or contradiction.” Tatham then wrote Churchill, and received a confirming reply from his secretary, Elizabeth Gilliatt: “He considers Mr. Bernard Shaw is quite right in calling the incident to which you refer ‘a flat lie.'”[25] Unfortunately the story must now be put by the wayside.

Churchill excelled at drawing on the rich writings of playwrights to infuse his own books with depth and resonance. In The River War he included direct quotations from five Shakespeare plays and alluded to them in his singing lines of prose.[26] The scholar Paul Alkon likens Churchill’s descriptive imagery in his only novel, Savrola, to “pictures of a stage set framed by a proscenium arch,” noticing that “scenes are described in ways…akin to manipulation of lighting on stage during a play.”[27]

In the preface to his book of character sketches, Great Contemporaries, Churchill promises to present to the reader “not only the actors but the scene.”[28] In that book’s account of Boris Savinkov, the anti-Bolshevik revolutionary, Churchill relates his first impression: “I had never seen a Russian Nihilist except on the stage, and my first impression was that he was singularly well cast for the part.”[29]

From first to last in Great Contemporaries, theatrical metaphors abound: new lights are cast on events and “throw[n] from various angles”; there are “strangely-lighted episodes”; there are “glittering lights” and “unnatural lights.”[30] In an essay on Kipling we find the “light of genius” and “light unexpected” illuminating human actions.[31] And Churchill’s reader is invited to “observe how swiftly Fortune can change the scene and switch on the lights!”[32]

He remarks of Shaw’s play Major Barbara, to a revival of which he took his children:

Twenty years had passed since I had seen it. They were the most terrific twenty years the world has known. Almost every human institution had undergone decisive change. The landmarks of centuries had been swept away. Science has trans- formed the conditions of our lives and the aspect of town and country. Silent social evolution, violent political change, a vast broadening of the social foundations, an immeasurable release from convention and restraint, a profound reshaping of national and individual opinion, have followed the trampling march of this tremendous epoch. But in “Major Barbara” there was not a character requiring to be re-drawn, not a sentence nor a suggestion that was out of date. My children were astounded to learn that this play, the very acme of modernity, was written more than five years before they were born.[33]

Churchill described the shedding of light on the world stage when he wrote in Great Contemporaries of Arthur Balfour’s death: “…I felt also the tragedy which robs the world of all the wisdom and treasure gathered in a great man’s life and experience, and hands the lamp to some impetuous and untutored stripling, or lets it fall shivered into fragments upon the ground.”[34] Finally, on the death of the Earl of Rosebery, Churchill summoned the power of a theatrical metaphor once more: “The curtain is pulled down and the gleaming lights extinguished—and now, alas, extinguished for ever.”[35]



1. Winston S. Churchill, My Early Life (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1930), 1-2.

2. Chartwell Papers (hereinafter CHAR), Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge University, CHAR 28/14/56A-56.

3. “Philip Snowden,” Sunday Pictorial, 2 August 1931, 855 (number 2 in a series of twelve personality sketches).

4. CHAR 28/15/4-5.

5. CHAR 28/14/59.

6. Jim Golland, Not Winston, Just William? (Harrow: Herga Press, 1988), 8.

7. “Mr. Irving’s Lecture,” The Harrovian, 3:6, 6-7.

8. CHAR 2/27/69.

9. Darrell Holley, Churchill’s Literary Allusions (Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland, 1987), 74.

10. William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2, set in quotation marks but without attribution to Shakespeare in Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (London: Cassell, 1948), 339.

11. Dale Vargas, The Timeline History of Harrow School: 1572 to the Present (Harrow: Worth Press, 2010), 73.

12. “Correspondence,” The Harrovian, 5:9, 112.

13. CHAR 28/20/15.

14. My Early Life, 71; Martin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill (London: HarperColllins, 1994), 24.
15. See Joseph Donohue, Fantasies of Empire: The Empire Theatre of Varieties and the Licensing Controversy of 1894 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005), 14, 24-26, 75-83.

16. My Early Life, 66-69.
17. “Prudes on the Prowl,” The Daily Telegraph, 19 October 1894, 3.

18. My Early Life, 70.

19. CHAR 2/26/78, 2/34/63, 12/3/37, 12/9/36-38 and 12/9/45.

20. CHAR 20/21B/177.

21. CHAR 20/53C/208.

22. CHAR 2/442.

23. Stuart Leeks, “A Masterpiece of Understatement,” in Flare Path program, Theatre Royal at Haymarket, summer 2011.

24. Richard M. Langworth, ed., Churchill By Himself (London: Ebury Press, 2008), 60.

25. CHUR 2/165/66, 68.

26. Winston S. Churchill, The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, 2 vols. (London: Long- mans Green and Co., 1899). A new, annotated unabridged edition by St. Augustine’s Press is forthcoming in 2012.

27. Paul Alkon, Winston Churchill’s Imagination (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press, 2006), 142.

28. Winston S. Churchill, Great Contemporaries, 2nd rev. ed. (London: Thornton Butterworth Ltd., 1938), 9.

29. Ibid., 125.

30. Ibid., 9, 23, 203, 382.

31. “Homage to Kipling” in John O’London’s Weekly and the Outline, 38:972 (26 November 1937), 341. Reprinted in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, 4 vols. (London: Library of Imperial History, 1975), III: 337. The Kipling essay will appear in a new edition of Great Contemporaries by ISI Books, one of five added essays that Churchill wrote in the 1930s. (The other four essays to be included are on H.G. Wells, Charlie Chaplin, Lord Kitchener and King Edward VIII.)

32. Great Contemporaries, 84.

33. Ibid., 51.

34. Ibid., 257.

35. Ibid., 28.

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