Finest Hour 156
By Fred Glueckstein
On July 9th, the Beckett Theatre in Manhattan was filled for a reading of Churchill at Bay, presented to complement the summer-long exhibit, “Churchill: The Power of Words,” at the Morgan Library. The play’s principal characters include Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, Lord President of the Council Neville Chamberlain, Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Minister without Portfolio Arthur Greenwood, who together made up the coalition War Cabinet. Other historical personages are the Italian Ambassador to Britain Giuseppe Bastianni, Churchill’s liaison with the Chiefs of Staff General Hastings Ismay, French Premier Paul Reynaud and Churchill’s private secretary John Martin. Fictionalized soldiers at Dunkirk include a French major, an English captain and privates Thompson and Brown of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) who, separated from their units, are trying to reach the coast.
The script, inspired by John Lukacs’ Five Days in London, May 1940 (Yale University Press, 1999), follows the War Cabinet’s historic debate when Lord Halifax, apparently supported by Chamberlain, wants to accept Bastianni’s offer to have Mussolini intervene with Hitler for a conference to end hostilities. Doing so, Halifax believes, will forestall an invasion of Britain and preserve her independence. These are desperate times: Germany has overrun Czechoslovakia, Poland, Austria, Luxembourg and Holland, and the War Cabinet has been informed that Belgium has capitulated, with France on the verge.
Churchill, prime minister for scarcely a fortnight and not popular in his own Conservative Party, is faced with agreeing to the Halifax proposal or opting to fight on, in all likelihood alone, except for the Empire and Commonwealth. Churchill suspects that this might cause Halifax to resign, and perhaps Chamberlain, resulting in the fall of his government. The play portrays Churchill’s momentous political decision to fight on, come what may.
While the play is by and large historically accurate, it takes some liberties with fact. For example, Churchill, in an effort to deflect Halifax, decides to brief the larger Cabinet on events. The Cabinet opposes any negotiations, WSC returns to the War Cabinet with this news, and asks each member to decide for himself. To the surprise of all, Chamberlain says he too believes that the time is not right to seek peace terms.
But a vote by the War Cabinet was not referenced in Lukacs’ book, or other accounts of this dramatic time. After meeting with the Cabinet, Churchill did return to the War Cabinet for a brief dis- cussion—but only of Reynaud’s proposed appeal to Roosevelt (which Churchill thought premature). As Lukacs wrote: “That was the end of it. He had worn Halifax down.”
The portrayal of Churchill is disconcerting. He seems at times disoriented, confusing, for example, Ismay’s report on Dunkirk with the Norway opera- tions. Later he asks what the situation is in Gallipoli, an allusion to the failed operation of World War I, and a map Churchill and Ismay are studying turns into a map of Gallipoli. Over operations in Norway, Churchill is haunted by his “Black Dog” (FH 155:28): “Go away, you brute, go away. Leave my sight.” John Martin walks in and Churchill asks his private secretary “Are you black?” This is dialogue built on mythology.
The play’s Churchill is clearly subjected to poetic license to augment the drama. As a result, the audience receives a combination of accurate and inaccurate history, and a portrayal combining truth and fiction. These historical inaccuracies could easily have been avoided if the script had been vetted by a knowledgeable Churchill historian.
To its credit, the play was presented by fine actors: Brian Murray (Churchill), Richard Easton (Halifax) and Jim Murtaugh (Chamberlain). Producer Bob Crothers says the next phase en route to the New York stage will be regional theatre performances to raise the $3 million needed to finance the production. Wherever the play is seen, it would be better served if advertisements stress that it is a fictionalized account—or if the script makes a few adjustments needed to render it completely accurate. The drama of those days needs no augmentation.
Mr. Glueckstein is a New York writer and frequent Finest Hour contributor.
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