Sometime around the early 1960s, it became safe, even fun, to speculate about Britain (and indeed the world) under the cosh of Nazi occupation. This popular counterfactual featured on film in It Happened Here, and in novel form – the likes of Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, and later, Robert Harris’s (60s set) Fatherland. But it was the erudite wit and father of wartime escapism, Noel Coward, who was first out of the blocks with Peace in Our Time, a play that debuted and closed in 1947, landing for both audiences and critics like a V2 missile at a christening.
Why did contemporary audiences hate it? After all, it’s a rousing story of festering British patriotism and resistance, doing its best to break out while Hitler’s stooges keep a watchful eye on a Petticoat Lane pub full of conquered locals. This is not victory denied but victory deferred; a play that suggests that invasion would have only have galvanised our allies to mount a D-day-like offensive to liberate us when military advances on the continent permitted, aided by shrewd internal defiance from Brits with an unconquerable spirit.
Perhaps the problem was that Coward’s speculative fiction, with the moral quagmire of occupied France as its spur, inevitably had to deal with the certainty of collaboration in some quarters, resignation in others.
Chorley Bannister, pub regular and debonair editor of Forethought, a new periodical, represents a kind of intelligentsia, very much prevalent before the war, suspicious of democracy and the corollary, a mass readership. He has a morally relativist, some might say, sociopathic indifference to the new arrangements. We infer he likes the idea of a society in which the lower orders are kept down by the bastions of high civilisation. Coward, bravely, writes the character as a peer, complete with Coward-like rhetorical flourishes. Dominic McChesney, who occupies the persona completely in Phil Wilmott’s revival, even resembles Coward!
But a 1947 audience must have found the idea of opinion formers and friends to the governing classes as sympathisers, abhorrent. Though it should be noted, this was a perfectly reasonable punt on Coward’s part. How odd that journalists should have reacted to it like an anaphylactic shock.
Likewise, Bobby Paxton, listed in the dramatis personae as “an ambitious young man”, one of many wartime euphemisms, is a spiv who embraces the Germans with indecent haste, seeing the opportunity for social advancement. No amount of faith in what Nazi officer Richter mistakenly identifies as the middle class (the couple who run the pub and half their customers are working class); a confidence that Coward signals throughout the play, in little speeches that vouchsafe the imagined irreverence and moral certainty of the British character; can wash away the foul taste of that opportunism. One can imagine it was that possibility, not the deprivations of occupation, or the notion of being oppressed – as none of the characters are resigned to it, that sealed the original production’s fate.
In 2020, Peace in Our Time has a lot to tell us about post-war British identity. As the recent Brexit debacle played out over a period nearly as long as the war, it was the group that Orwell would describe as the proles – the hope, in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four, published a year after Coward’s play was performed, that was blamed for wrecking the nation’s prosperity and arresting its progress as an outward looking country.
In Coward’s play, there’s a sentimental affection for the just managing – embodied in the honourable Shattock family that run the boozer; the moral and spiritual heart of a gutted community. They represent, in the absence of a Blitz to induce Blitz spirit, a form of British resilience, underpinned by confidence in the country’s innate and superior virtues. This is an easy idea to mock, but there’s no questioning the sincerity with which Coward affirmed it, and no denying the contrast with modern cosmopolitan conceptions of the white working class, that see the Shattock’s grandchildren as degenerate and senseless.
Sasha Regan’s production is a fascinating historical curio, then, but also a fine piece of speculative drama, imbued with Coward’s gift for eloquence and waspishness. The inventive staging allows for the plain of action to shift with characters’ perspectives, which is a gift when presented with such a large ensemble, and the delivery is attuned to the verbosity on the page. You go to a Coward play to hear Coward, and he’s in fine voice at the Union Theatre. The morally ambiguous ending is guaranteed to occupy your thoughts long after the stage lights dim.