London’s Secret Call To Arms
In March 1941, there occurred one of those odd little footnotes in history that most people have now forgotten about.
Winston Churchill needed to prevent public morale from sinking. He knew the Germans were about to retaliate by hitting London and they did – on May 10 the city suffered its worst raid, with 2,500 fires started, 1,500 people dead and the House of Commons burned to the ground. But what would catch the public imagination and give them hope?
In New York a strange little play had opened and closed within a week. New York itself was surprisingly isolationist when it came to wartime Europe. Its residents did not want to know about a faraway war that might involve them. Even the usually brilliant Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times theatre critic, was dismissive. Joseph Kennedy’s pessimism finally forced him out of power after his appalling ‘Democracy is finished in England’ speech.
The play in question was by Robert Ardrey and was called ‘Thunder Rock’, directed by Elia Kazan. It was an eerie call to arms. It concerned an ex-political journalist who’d run away to a lighthouse to live with his ghosts, until they force him to confront his fears and get involved with the world once more. The play crossed the pond and opened in a small fringe theatre in Kensington with Michael Redgrave in the lead.
It quickly became a symbol of resistance, and transferred to the Globe Theatre in the West End. Audiences saw themselves reflected in it and flocked in droves. This overlooked American play became the symbol of the resistance and the biggest hit of the war years. It was filmed and awarded again and again.
What people didn’t know was that the War Office had seen the play and used its treasure to fund its transfer to the West End. They needed a piece to reflect the views of ordinary men and women, and this fitted the bill perfectly. Their involvement was kept an official secret.
‘Thunder Rock’ has subsequently been performed all over the world, its message fitting ideological battles everywhere. But in the country where it first became such a success it has been totally forgotten.
Between this and my recent piece on patriotism you might think I’m researching. You’d be right. My latest reading pleasure is Joshua Levine’s terrific ‘The Secret History of the Blitz’.