BIOGRAPHY, general biography, WW1
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Dawn

One hundred years ago today, the armistice was signed that ended the First World War. The guns fell silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

I don’t normally duplicate or copy information from Basil Rathbone: Master of Stage and Screen to The Baz. They are two different sites, and should therefore have different content. However, the centennial anniversary of the end of the First World War is a special occasion, and Dawn, the play that Rathbone wrote at the end of the war has never before been published. It deserves to be on both sites.

Basil wrote this play at a time when his emotions were raw, having witnessed so much death and destruction. According to Silver Screen (November 1938), Rathbone recalled that when he learned that the war had ended, he cried out, “Thank God it’s all over! I hate war!”

Following the end of the war Rathbone wrote a short play about a young German soldier seeking to escape the slaughter. This play reveals the remarkable empathy that Rathbone felt for the German soldiers. Although they were the enemy, he realized they were also young men, like himself, terrified and horrified by the fighting and killing.

Since this play was written prior to 1923, it is in the public domain. The original typewritten copy is in the Howard Gotlieb Archive of Boston University.

SCENE: A barn—somewhere in Occupied France during the German retreat of the Autumn of 1918. A large shapeless heap of straw is vaguely outlined by moonlight which shines in upon it through a shattered roof. The barndoor at the back is open but barely discernible in the semi-darkness.

(NOTE: A curtain or flats may be used with the barndoor set in to either, as everything is in heavy shadow, almost in darkness with the exception of a little light from outside the door and plenty of light coming straight down onto the heap of straw. It is not necessary to use a practical roof. And so production can be cheap, but effective.)

TIME: Just before dawn. An August morning, 1918.

CHARACTERS: Marguerite — about twenty-five years old;  Pierre, her father — about sixty; and Manfred — a German soldier, about seventeen or eighteen.

(At the rise of the curtain there are discovered Marguerite and her father. Marguerite is lying on the straw, partially covered with an old blanket. Her father sits beside her, and a little down-stage from her. His knees are drawn up, and he clasps them with his hands. His head rests on his knees. He is absolutely motionless, and might be asleep but that his eyes are open and stare out into the darkness before them. Distant intermittent shelling and machine-gun fire are insistent through the first part of the Scene, and may be used where dramatically valuable during the remainder of the Scene.

Hold the silent opening as long as dramatically possible. Then suddenly in the barndoor there appears a figure. It breathes heavily. After a swift look back into the night it lurches forward and falls upon the heap of straw. It is Manfred. He is fair, with blue eyes — a boy, with only a few months’ active service to his credit.)

MANFRED

Oh, Christ, don’t let them find me! — Don’t let them find me —

(He cries like a child. Marguerite turns her head, and listens, otherwise she makes no movement. Pierre continues to stare before him. Manfred’s crying becomes stifled — followed by several short sharp gasps.)

MARGUERITE

Who is it?

(Pierre does not answer, but after a slight pause, he rises. It is but a step to the shuddering body of Manfred. He stands over the boy, reflectively.)

PIERRE

Hun!

MARGUERITE

Wounded?

(Marguerite cannot see Manfred. He has stopped crying now. His terrified, tear-stained face looks up into Pierre’s.)

MANFRED

Are you alone? … Why don’t you answer me? … Are you alone?

(Pierre nods his head in the affirmative.)

If anyone comes here and asks for me, say you don’t know anything about it or I’ll kill you — I swear to God I will!

PIERRE

Say I don’t know anything about what?

MANFRED

About me — about there being anybody here but you.

PIERRE

Who are you?

MANFRED

What do you mean?

PIERRE

I mean — what are you doing here?

MANFRED

Getting lost.

PIERRE

Lost?

MANFRED

Yes, for ever I hope.

(A long pause before Pierre continues.)

PIERRE

Where is your regiment?

MANFRED

I don’t know.

PIERRE

And you don’t wish to know — is that it?

MANFRED

Yes — oh God, it’s too horrible — if only I could forget.

(He starts crying again, like a child remembering a bad dream. Pierre watches him.)

PIERRE

Get up! — Get up!

(Pierre kicks the boy. He stops crying and looks up.)

Get up!

(Manfred rises slowly; they stand facing each other.)

I am a Frenchman. You are a Hun. I am old, you are young. But I am not too old to kill you, nor you too young to die.

(A long pause.)

MANFRED

You must be mad to talk like that.

(Pierre shakes his head.)

PIERRE

If you live you will go home again one day, and the beast in you will procreate more beasts to ravish France again.

MANFRED

No, no — you’re wrong! It will never be like this again, never, never. We should all go mad … quite mad.

PIERRE

You would forget, and your children would never know. And when the little beasts grew into big beasts the spirit of your Fatherland would make them hungry for revenge.

MANFRED

Revenge?

PIERRE

Yes, revenge for your defeat. Although my home is completely destroyed, and my wife lies buried beneath its ruins; though my fields are poisoned and pockmarked by your shells so that no living thing will grow in them, my loss is not as great as yours. Because you and yours have put back the right course of things by a hundred years.

MANFRED

Don’t look at me like that! Oh, for God’s sake, don’t. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to go. They made me. What was I to do? What could any of us do? We didn’t start it. What has being French or German got to do with it, when boys, just boys, stand up and shoot each other to death?

(Manfred breaks down again and cries hopelessly. Outside is heard the tramp of marching men. Manfred stops crying and listens intently. There is a mad fear in his eyes. Pierre is listening too. After a moment’s pause, he moves noiselessly to the barndoor and looks out. The steady, heavy tread of marching feet continues.)

PIERRE

Every step you take leaves the earth behind you free to breathe again — you filth!

(From where Manfred now is he can see Marguerite. Their eyes meet. Marguerite’s eyes are filled with an inexpressible suffering. Slowly the suggestion of a smile creeps over her face; she beckons Manfred to come to her. He moves toward her, never taking his eyes from hers. He crouches beside her, their faces almost touching. She raises a hand, touches his face; then gently strokes back his hair.)

MARGUERITE

Poor boy! — I understand.

MANFRED

Who are you?

MARGUERITE

His daughter.

MANFRED

How strange.

MARGUERITE

Poor little boy.

MANFRED

Are you ill?

(Marguerite shakes her head in the negative.)

MARGUERITE

Just a little weak, that’s all. A few nights ago I bore a son — my father killed him. My lover was a German, like you. May I tell you about it? — It might help us both.

PIERRE

(Still at his place by the door) More beasts. Some of them can hardly drag one foot after the other. Better hurry, beast, or you will all be buried under French soil, and that would be too bad! (He chuckles) (Then with a change of thought) … Too bad! — 20 — 30 — 40 — 60 — Sixty graves where there should be an acre of barley sown next spring. Hurry! — hurry! — hurry! — hurry beasts!

(She speaks quite slowly, as if searching for the words, and is a little wondrous at how much they mean to her as she finds them.)

MARGUERITE

I didn’t think of him as being German. He thought, and talked and looked just like most of the men that I had known before all this. — Frenchmen and English, too. Only his smile was a little different, and something of me was his and something of him was mine before we ever met, and that made him different from all the rest so that I knew that I loved him and that he loved me. — It’s a little more than a year ago now. His regiment was stationed near us for a time — springtime, it was. I would slip out when father was asleep and meet him in the orchard. It was strangely beautiful — like as if God was there with us. Before summer came he was gone. But later, last winter, he came back again, just when the pain of thinking of him had grown so that I would hardly dare to remember his dear face. It was then he loved me most and that I belonged to him.

MANFRED

Where is he now?

MARGUERITE

Asleep — somewhere out there.

MANFRED

Oh, how cruel!

MARGUERITE

Our home was destroyed soon after the war began. My mother is buried beneath it. Then father and I came here to live, and it was here that I knew him.

MANFRED

Here?

MARGUERITE

There was a house once adjoining this barn. Some of your officers took it for quarters; so one day my father burned it to the ground. They never knew who did it or they would have killed him.

PIERRE

(Still at the door, looking out.) Flames — leaping into the air — hungrily, — how they burn those houses on the ridge. Tongues of flame screaming to God for vengeance. But God won’t hear them. He’s asleep.

MARGUERITE

If my boy had lived, he would have looked like you — his hair was yellow silk, and his eyes were blue like robin’s eggs.

(A long pause)

Where is your home?

MANFRED

Near Coblenz.

MARGUERITE

And your mother?

MANFRED

She is dead.

MARGUERITE

Are there no more to your family?

MANFRED

Only a brother. But he was killed last week.

MARGUERITE

Poor boy — poor little boy!

MANFRED

What am I going to do?

MARGUERITE

I don’t know yet — are you so very much afraid?

MANFRED

I could never go back — never!

MARGUERITE

And if the war ends — soon.

MANFRED

I could never forget.

MARGUERITE

You think so now, but later perhaps —

MANFRED

Never — never! — I have seen too much. It’s horrible — horrible. Sleeping or waking there is no peace from these things that I have seen.

(He shudders, hiding his face in his hands.)

MARGUERITE

Please — please, won’t you help me?

MANFRED

Oh, God, if I only could!

(Marguerite holds him now so that his head rests on her breast. She strokes his hair.)

MARGUERITE

Try to think you have been dreaming. If only you could sleep — then when you woke these things would have passed. I remember when I was a child how much the night frightened me, and how foolish my fears seemed the next morning. Don’t you understand? For you the night is over. In a short while now the French soldiers will be here.

MANFRED

They will not kill me?

MARGUERITE

No. You will be a prisoner of war. Then, before long, the war will be over and you will go home again.

PIERRE

Never.

(Pierre stands close beside them. He has moved slowly toward them during the latter part of their conversation. Manfred slowly turns his head, and looks up at Pierre.)

MANFRED

What did you say?

PIERRE

Outside there is large hole. I dug it with my own hands for German trash. It’s not yet filled. But you will make it full.

MARGUERITE

Father!

PIERRE

Be quiet!

MANFRED

(He rises to his feet, white with terror.)

You couldn’t mean — you couldn’t —

PIERRE

For years I have been waiting to kill you! Your blood shall be my sacrifice to the poor earth you have destroyed.

MANFRED

But I — I — no — no! — no!

(Suddenly, with a wild scream, Manfred leaps at Pierre, who, well prepared, strikes the boy a terrific blow which fells him to the ground. There is a brief pause. Then Pierre moves towards Manfred. Manfred draws a gun and covers Pierre.)

MANFRED

Stop! For God’s sake, stop!

(Pierre pauses as he sees the guns.)

PIERRE

You fool! — Put your gun away — it will do you no good to kill me.

MANFRED

Don’t move!

(Marguerite is watching them. She is paralyzed with fear. She tries to move but cannot.)

PIERRE

I will do it more swiftly than the soldiers would do it when they come.

(A long pause)

Well — well — what do you say?

(Like two animals, their eyes are riveted, one upon the other.)

It is only a matter of time and — oh, well, I can wait.

(There is a dead silence. Then, imperceptibly at first, but growing louder and louder as they come nearer, can be hear the tramp of marching men singing the Marseillaise. At last they reach the barn. A sharp command, and they stop. Pierre starts to laugh — a low triumphant, fateful laugh.)

MANFRED

(He hisses the words.) Stop that, you fool! — Stop laughing — do you hear me? Stop! — Stop! — Stop!

(His last “Stop” is a cry that is almost lost in Pierre’s laughter, and is only climaxed by the sharp crack of Manfred’s gun as he fires it at Pierre. There is a slight groan from Pierre; he sinks in a huddled mass to the ground. For a moment there is absolute silence again. It is broken by the sound of soldiers running towards the barn; then a voice outside:)

VOICE

It came from over here. Probably someone in the barn. Quick! Where’s the door?

(Manfred stands motionless, his eyes staring out of his head, his body rigid. Marguerite tries to move towards him but sinks back helplessly.)

MARGUERITE

Poor boy — poor little boy!

(There is a hammering on the barndoor, which Pierre had closed and bolted when he left it. The butt of a rifle crashes through the rotten wood, and a voice commands OPEN! Open!)

The curtain falls.

To learn more about Basil Rathbone’s experiences in the First World War, see these related posts:

The Horror of War

Armistice Day 2013

Interview with Richard Van Emden

Biography Week: Two Unidentified WW1 Letters

Also visit http://www.basilrathbone.net/biography/ww1.htm

And http://www.basilrathbone.net/potpourri/dawn.htm

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