In the same week that Britain’s two eldest men celebrated their 110th birthdays, James Hugh Macdonald, in comparison a sprightly 91-year-old, saw his debut play, Happy Warriors receive its world premiere at the Gatehouse Theatre in London.
Having worked in both journalism and the Diplomatic Service before retirement, Macdonald took almost 10 years to write his first play. Based on the true story of Winston Churchill in the Second World War sending his son, Randolph, behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia with the writer Evelyn Waugh, Happy Warriors follows the fortunes of the two young men as they battle with themselves, the partisans that they have been sent to help, and with Zora, a belligerent University educated insurgent who reluctantly becomes their cook and housekeeper.
A product of the new writing programme at the Gatehouse Theatre, Macdonald’s script caught the attention of director, Andrew C Wadsworth who says the play shows, “A fascinating relationship between great British writer, Evelyn Waugh, and an over-privileged narcissist, Randolph Churchill”.
Macdonald took the time to reveal to The Reviews Hub’s Richard Hall what inspired him to write Happy Warriors and what it feels like in his nineties to have his first play professionally produced.
Congratulations James on having your first play chosen to be performed at the Gatehouse Theatre. How does it feel at the age of 91 to have achieved this significant milestone?
Like an octopus counting and counting and not understanding why he keeps getting to nine.
How have the Gatehouse and director, Andrew C Wadsworth, helped you to develop the play?
The play was written and first accepted five or six years ago. The bonuses now are to have a producer of grasp and determination, to have a director of great experience and distinction working with a highly talented cast, which accounts for the enthusiasm of the play’s reception, and thirdly to be Upstairs in The Gatehouse, a theatre I have long admired while in the audience, a theatre I always hoped to be produced in and one which offers a setting of charm in a generally pleasing venue.
Happy Warriors is based on a true story set in the Second World War about Winston Churchill’s son Randolph and Evelyn Waugh going to the aid of Marshall Tito and his supporters in Yugoslavia. How did you come across the story and what made you want to turn it into a play?
There is no shortage of memoirs covering the period, but when I read that Waugh and a companion grew so tired of Churchill’s bombastic behaviour that they manoeuvred him into undertaking to read The Bible in a week thinking that that would shut him up – and they failed, it did not shut him up – it seemed like a heaven-sent example of fact eclipsing fiction. That is the core of the play, but the rest is invented, sometimes based on research, but mostly not.
What do you think theatregoers will learn about both Randolph Churchill and Evelyn Waugh from seeing this play?
Not much. I ought to say, “Nothing I hope”. Happy Warriors is an entertainment. But we should remember that Churchill and Waugh had faced bullets in other theatres of war as well as Yugoslavia. Both were highly individual, strong-minded characters, never willing to give way and which is at the heart of the action of the play.
The play features a female character, Zora, a young university-educated partisan. What is her function and what effect does she have on Churchill and Waugh?
Zora is a complete invention. She has two functions. The first is technical. My view is that a two-person play must have a very good script indeed; but even if the script is good, after 40 or 45 minutes the audience begins to know the two faces too well. My view is that a third character is usually needed. So, enter Zora, offering contrasts in every possible way – female, so contrasting in voice and appearance, letting us see everything with different eyes. Zora continually shows bitter resentments at the way she is being treated; always longing to be with her comrades, in action, fighting, not cooking for two representatives of a way of life she has rejected. Women members of the audience have readily understood her position. Among three characters one cannot have a favourite – and Randolph and Evelyn are so beautifully portrayed I wouldn’t think of it – but I’ve seen the play performed seven times and seven times Zora has made me weep.
Is there any evidence that Waugh used this experience in his novels later on?
Yes, there is – in his wartime trilogy. Having steered clear of this book while thinking about Happy Warriors I don’t know it as well as his earlier novels, of which I’m an admirer. I think he is the great prose stylist of our era. How can the writing of prose produce uniqueness? Try all or any of Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, Scoop, Put Out More Flags and the uniqueness will instantly emerge.
Now that the play has opened how it does feel to see your play being performed in front of an audience?
What next? Do you have plans to write any more plays and if so what would they be about?
Three plays written since Happy Warriors are under serious consideration and the murmurs are good. I have every hope that one of them will appear before too long.
What advice would you give to anyone who has always wanted to write a play but thinks that they might be too old to do so?
First, age brings its own advantages. Next, I’m bad about giving and taking advice, but here goes. Many of us think of writing a play because each life is a drama and it seems that adequate material is at hand. Yes, that is so. But a play requires a certain structure. It has a trajectory, just as a missile does. At every point in a play, what is said and seen is the product of arrival at that point and will produce the remainder of the play’s course. Thus, the writing of a play makes demands that do not exist in writing, say, novels. Next, what then? When any writing is done it exists but has no public – for that step we need producers or publishers, which is where new problems begin. Hundreds of plays that exist cannot even find a reading. And a reading is only that. A play is nothing without a producer and the playwright must remember what every producer not merely wants, but must have – a product that will attract an audience. My advice would be to say, “do not start by writing a play”. In the first place, write about your own life but not in the first person – write it in the third person. Remember that writing requires work and be determined to carry on. At a certain point you will know whether you have the makings of a play. If not, you will still have an interesting piece of prose and it may be just the masterpiece that a publisher is seeking.
And finally, given that it appears we are quickly descending into another Cold War, is there anything that we can learn from what happens in Happy Warriors to prevent this from happening?
Yes. Be clear-headed. Don’t be dogmatic. Always seek out facts and make decisions from fact. And while you are doing it, be of good cheer. Be young and enjoy yourself with friends. Be glad to be alive.
Happy Warriors by James Hugh Macdonald continues at The Gatehouse until Sunday 22 April 2018. Tickets are available from the box office on 020 8340 3488 or online.
Image: Mitzi de Margary Photography