Which ancestor would you be prouder of? The one who led his comrades-in-arms bravely on the battlefield, was decorated for his courage and died in the act of serving his King and country? Or the one who, out of personal moral conviction, not only refused to fight his fellow working men but who also refused to accept any alternative employment capable of aiding the war effort, and who ultimately suffered atrocious mistreatment as a result, apparently abandoning wife and child in the process?
Precisely this dilemma faces one of the protagonists in the two-man play For Conscience Sake, presented on Saturday 22nd October at Amersham QMH by the 'Plain Quakers'. "Maurice" (played by Mike Casey), having long believed his grandfather to be worthy of veneration as just such a soldier, at first refuses to credit the discovery by a relative that it was in fact that soldier's brother, the conscientious objector, who was his actual grandfather
The tale follows in present time Maurice's gradual acceptance of the evidence tracked down by a cousin, and presented to him and us by "Albert" (played by Arthur Pritchard). It was written (by the two actors) in commemoration of the centenary this year of the Military Service Act, which introduced conscription into the messy mix of World War I. It was told with humour and a nice distinction through differing Yorkshire accents by Albert, the 'educated' one, and Maurice, the bluff, blunt and at times rather belligerent one.
The 'action' moves between the present day and the post-WWI period through the device of the discovery and reading of a Journal kept by "Willy" (the CO and real grandfather). Willy (played in a much more gentle voice than Maurice's by Mike) is heard making arrangements for his will, in which he leaves his Journal to his descendants in the hope that they - who seem to have virtually disowned him - will come to understand his actions during and immediately after WWI.
At this pivotal point Mike, as Willy, turns to the audience and reads from his Journal and the accompanying letter to his descendants. The Journal catalogues some of the horrors which faced COs in 1916. The 'absolutists', such as Willy became, were worst affected. As Willy in his gentle voice recounted his sufferings and his reasons for having to seek a living abroad after the war, apparently abandoning wife and child, not one member of the 30-strong audience stirred, so moving was the delivery. As ever, I was left wondering at these instances of man's continuing inhumanity to man; surely - unless perpetrated by an actual psychopath - a case of Lord of the flies syndrome, where a group acts collectively in horrifying ways which individually none would venture upon.
Maurice's attitude to his forebear is modified by the reading of the Journal, and a degree of family reconnection and reconciliation is finally achieved. Along the way, Albert has also found occasion to lament the insidious and apparently increasing level of military involvement in schools today.
We in the audience marvelled at the versatility and sheer memory-power displayed by the two actors (who brought all their 'props' with them), sustaining this riveting and very moving presentation over more than an hour. Ingeniously, transitions from present to past time in the action were marked by Arthur taking up his clarinet and tootling on it a tune of the appropriate period.
A short Question-and Answer session followed, during which similar and later experiences were aired. Amersham Friends paid no fee to 'Plain Quakers', reimbursement of their travelling expenses being all that was required. Donations made went to the charity Peace Direct.
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