Review: Peace in Our Time Is a Play For Our Time

Noël Coward's fascinating play imagines a Nazi occupation of England.

By Michael Hardy September 30, 2014

Peace in Our Time
Thru Oct 19
Main Street Theater–Rice Village
2540 Times Blvd.

In September 1945, four months after Nazi Germany’s surrender, Allied soldiers searching the Berlin headquarters of the Reich Security Police found a booklet listing the names of 2,300 people the Gestapo had planned to round up in the event of a successful invasion of England. Included on the list were prominent politicians, members of the nobility, and writers like Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West and—perhaps surprisingly, given his reputation as a writer of light-as-air comedies and gossamer-thin songs—Noël Coward. (“My dear,” West wrote Coward after learning of the so-called “Black Book,” “the people we should have been seen dead with!”) 

Needless to say, Germany never tried to invade England, limiting itself to pummeling the country from the sky during what became known as the Battle of Britain. That battle was one of the turning points of World War II—“Never was so much owed by so many to so few,” as Churchill famously observed about the RAF fighters who gave their lives in the struggle—but what if things had gone the other way? What if Germany had succeeded in destroying the British defenses, launched a ground invasion, and occupied the country like it had occupied nearly all of Europe?

That’s the premise of Coward’s post-war play Peace in Our Time, which has been revived by Main Street Theater in a superb, must-see production. Inspired by Coward’s visits to occupied Paris, the 1947 play imagines how ordinary English people might have reacted to Nazi occupation. How many would join a resistance movement? How many would continue about their lives as if nothing had happened? How many would become collaborators?

Coward’s characters represent a microcosm of English society—a newspaper editor, an author, an actress, a few old pensioners, a secretary—and, since this is a microcosm of English society, the entire drama is naturally set in a London pub. The Shy Gazelle, as it’s called, is in fact the Platonic ideal of an English pub, with a horseshoe-shaped bar (designed, along with the rest of the marvelous set, by Claire A. Jac Jones), around which the regulars sit, discussing the increasingly dire events. We quickly learn that Churchill has been executed, the royal family has been taken prisoner, and the Isle of Wight has been turned into a concentration camp.

Chorley Bannister, the newspaper editor (Joel Sandel), has struck up a friendship with SS officer Albrecht Richter (Fritz Dickmann), who begins popping into the bar to keep tabs on public sentiment about the occupation. When Bannister and Richter are away, the other characters grumble about the indignity of foreign occupation, including food and drink rationing—the bar’s steadily dwindling stock of alcohol provides an index for the deprivations, as well as a much-needed source of comedy. (Peace in Our Time is one of Coward’s few dramas, and you can sometimes feel the playwright straining to maintain his dramatic sobriety.) 

The pub’s regulars are forced to take a more active role in the resistance when a badly beaten man stumbles into the pub one evening, having recently escaped a prison camp. The bar’s owner Fred Shattuck (Rutherford Cravens) and his wife Doris (Hannah Krieg) agree to hide the fugitive, who later makes contact with the growing underground resistance movement. As that movement spreads, SS officer Richter—who is played with such reptilian menace that a member of the audience actually hissed him at the performance I attended—grows more and more suspicious of the pub and its regulars, leading to a series of dramatic showdowns.

Coward volunteered to write propaganda for England during WWII, and toured the world giving performances for Allied troops, which is likely why (in addition to his more or less open homosexuality) he made it into the Nazis’ Black Book. Some of that propagandistic tone inevitably creeps into this post-war play—there are a lot of fine speeches about the indomitable English spirit—but it’s tempered by the presence of collaborationists like Bannister who seem only too happy to betray their country for access to better clothing and booze. There’s even a remarkable scene in which the bar owner argues that it would have been worse if England hadn’t been invaded:

“We should have got lazy again, and blown out with our own glory,” the publican declares. “We should have been bombed and blitzed and we should have stood up under it—an example to the whole civilized world—and that would have finished us. As it is—in defeat—we still have a chance. There’ll be no time in this country for many a long day for class wars and industrial crises and political squabbles. We can be united now—we shall have to be—until we’ve driven them away, until we’re clean again.”

This perverse longing for an invasion that didn’t take place may have been one of the reasons Peace in Our Time was a dramatic failure when it debuted two years after the war ended. And it says something about Coward’s politics that he seems to express a preference for foreign occupation over class war, industrial crises, and political squabbles. But now that all the topical concerns that may have hindered the play’s acceptance at the time have faded away, what we’re left with is a powerful exploration of a country under occupation. It’s a play about what happens when an arrogant foreign power invades a country whose culture it neither understands nor respects—about the humiliation and anger experienced by the occupied people, and the armed insurgency that inevitably develops 

In other words, it’s a play for our time. 

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