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The Literary Churchill

Author, Reader, Actor


Jonathan Rose


Yale University Press, 2014

Hardcover. xii+516 p. ISBN 978-0300204070. $35.00


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen




Incredibly enough, considering the vast existing literature on Churchill, a sufficient number of aspects of his life remain unexplored to enable a gifted author like Professor Rose to present us with this superb hefty volume. The central thesis of the monograph is contained in the subtitle: Churchill was first and foremost an actor of genius – an actor who had avidly assimilated both the great legacy of Western literature and the techniques of the melodrama as practised in his youth. All his life he kept a taste for the theatricality of the real stage (and, later, pantomime in silent movies, carried to perfection by Charlie Chaplin, on whom he wrote an essay full of admiration) as well as the metaphorical theatricality of human relations, with politics – including international politics, i.e. diplomacy – being the field in which the non-professional could best display his talents. For Rose, ‘all politicians are authors’, ‘all politicians are actors’ [x]. The underlying thread can best be illustrated by Churchill’s own famous phrase, ‘we are all worms, but I am a glow-worm’ : admittedly, all politicians can be seen as authors and above all actors – but for Rose Churchill is evidently a cut above the rest. Or at least a cut above the rest of British politicians of his generation, since he had his foreign counterparts, who in fact helped him rise to new heights in his theatricals:

In the grand drama of the Second World War, he played opposite an unforgettable cast. An earlier dull grey cadre of bourgeois politicians had by then given way to Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt, de Gaulle and Churchill, all of them dazzling actors who played off each other and exploited their own personal charisma. [xi]

Hence the justification for the central thesis of the volume:

This book, then, is not only a literary biography: it explores the crucial and under-appreciated role of theatre in both politics and armed conflict, by placing Churchill and his contemporaries in the context of theatre history. [xi]

The ‘literary biography’ aspect is in itself extremely impressive: it seems that Rose has painstakingly traced all the plays of the Victorian and Edwardian years which Churchill went to see, as well as the books by minor authors – now largely forgotten – which he read in his formative years. Churchill never kept a diary, but he was a keen letter-writer. Thanks notably to his correspondence with his mother, we know what he read and went to see – and also the books which he asked her to send him when he was away from the country, a frequent occurrence in the 1890s.

Churchill was acutely aware of the strange analogy between a playhouse and a military theatre of operations, as shown in a passage from his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, published in 1898, in which he explained why soldiers do not run away from enemy fire:

The courage of the soldier is not really contempt for physical evils and indifference to danger. It is a more or less successful attempt to simulate these habits of mind. Most men aspire to be good actors in the play. There are a few who are so perfect that they do not seem to be actors at all. This is the ideal after which the rest are striving. It is one very rarely attained. [41]

The Story of the Malakand Field Force, it will be recalled, is an account of Churchill’s experience as a young officer on what was then known as the North-West Frontier, that is the precarious border between Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan, under constant threat of armed incursions by fierce Pathan ‘rebels’. Churchill draws a contrast between these unconquered ‘rebels’ and the ‘natives’ faithful to the Raj and, Rose writes, ‘he perceived no dissonance between combat on the frontier and combat in the theatre, where some natives [e.g. the Pathans] were hostile but most were wonderfully loyal [e.g. the Sikhs]’ [43]. As he magnificently says of Churchill’s approach to the war in the Sudan in which the young officer participated a few months later, ‘Churchill compared the colonial venture to a transformation scene in a pantomime’ [58]. To understand this, we have to go back to the successful plays of the late Victorian stage, which systematically enhanced the role of the ‘good natives’:

Today imperialist melodrama strikes us as absurdly false, idealising the English and infantilising the colonised. But in 1897 [when Churchill wrote his first report from the North-West Frontier] British theatregoers (most of whom had never set foot in India) had no reason to doubt what they saw on the stage, which was consistent with everything they read in the newspapers and all that they heard from missionaries lecturing to Sunday School classes. [42]

Churchill pursued the analogy further between the achievements of the British Empire presented to the London public and the actual theatrical struggle to impose its unchallenged rule on its confines:

Remember that the great drama of frontier war is played before a vast, silent but attentive audience, who fill a theatre that reaches from Peshawar to Colombo, and from Kurrachee [Karachi] to Rangoon. [43]

Having thus established that Churchill deliberately and constantly blurred the lines between the ‘real’ theatre and the theatre of actual life from the early stages of his long career, Rose also introduces us to interesting elements of vocabulary which were entering the language at the time, with Churchill immediately seing how they would serve that career. Thus we learn that ‘public relations’, as a phrase in its current meaning, appeared in 1897. Likewise what we now know as a ‘literary agent’ began to emerge, though these terms were not used – one spoke of a ‘publishing broker’ [44]. Interestingly, Churchill and his mother employed one of the first practitioners of this new profession to push the sales of The Story of the Malakand Field Force, with great success. Churchill was now launched as a best-selling author.

After discussing The River War (1899), which narrates Churchill’s experience in the Sudan, Rose addresses a very difficult task, that of presenting his reader – who has in all probability never heard of it, let alone read it – with Churchill’s only novel, which ‘arguably ranks among the worst novels of the nineteenth century’ [65]: Savrola (January 1900):

Savrola was a knock-off of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, a best-selling novel of 1894… a tale of romance and political intrigue set in the mythical Balkan kingdom of Ruritania… Like many young and clumsy writers, he makes himself the hero of his first book. Savrola is an author/politician who agitates to overthrow… the tyrant ruler… [65]

Needless to say, the book is full of coups de théâtre – Churchill actually using the phrase in his narrative [68]. He may have been influenced by the fact that The Prisoner of Zenda ‘was staged as a West End melodrama’ in 1896 [66]. Another probable influence was a long-lasting one: that of Disraeli’s novels. Rose has traced allusions to Sybil, Coningsby, Endymion, The Young Duke and Tancred in Churchill’s writings from 1903 to 1930. Even though Churchill himself soon dismissed his novel as a complete failure (‘I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it’, he wrote in My Early Life (1930) [68]), it had in fact some success – it was even adapted for the Chinese public in 1912, after the 1911 Revolution, with the connection made explicit in the preface to the volume [71]. If Rose devotes a number of pages to one of ‘the worst novels of the nineteenth century’, it is because ‘Savrola offers a revealing summary of Churchill’s political ideology and his cosmic philosophy, which could be called ethical Darwinism’ [71] – and also of course because this later enables Rose to remind the reader that ‘[a]s the only important British politician who had written a melodrama, Churchill was uniquely capable of framing the [second] world conflict in such terms’ [292]. Here again Rose impresses his reader by the vast array of contemporary authors and thinkers who he believes may have shaped Churchill’s long-term ethos. And he sees at least one lasting virtue in the flawed novel: it was prophetic of Churchill’s immediate rejection of Hitler, who ‘so closely resembled the fictional villain he had created years before’, adding that in Savrola, ‘as Disraeli had done in Tancred, he described a political crusade that he carried out as Prime Minister forty years later’ [72].

The commercial success of Savrola induced him to take advantage of his fame as a hero of the Boer War after his spectacular escape to write a play: ‘scene: South Africa; time: the war’, he wrote to a friend [79]. But his mother pointed out that the public was in no mood for the realistic depiction of war which he envisaged with such gusto, and no more was heard of his ambition to become a playwright [79]. However, he was able to enjoy the same thrills when he entered politics, and Rose has an excellent quote from Lloyd George, speaking of his younger colleague in 1907: ‘The applause of the House is the very breath of his nostrils. He is just like an actor. He likes the limelight and the approbation of the pit’ [97] (in fact Churchill returned the compliment after hearing Lloyd George in the Commons in 1919 : ‘What an actor he would have made!’ [181]). He also cites the historian Ronald Hyam, who remarked on his ‘histrionic tendencies’ when at the Colonial Office (1905-1908) [107]. Readers familiar with the siege of Sidney Street (1911) or Churchill’s intervention in Antwerp (1914) have to concede that such vocabulary is probably justified. ‘He behaved in a rather swaggering way when over there [Antwerp], standing for photographers & cinematographers with shells bursting near him’, Frances Stevenson (Lloyd George’s secretary and mistress) wrote at the time [125].

Rose has a very interesting discussion of the rhetorical device then known as ‘claptrap’ – now a word of abuse. Reflecting that Austen Chamberlain denounced Churchill for resorting to it in 1914, he writes of its use on the stage:

As the play approaches its climax, the action pauses while the hero delivers a brief but fervent oration, proclaiming what he is fighting for, and hurling defiance in the face of the villain. This performance naturally obliges the audience to applaud furiously: they are fairly trapped into clapping… It was a trick used in…hundreds of…deservedly forgotten plays, and several more memorable Churchill speeches. [174]

One such example was the famous Budget Speech of 28 April 1925 – Churchill’s first, as the new Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Prime Minister, Baldwin, sent a long admiring description of the scene to the King, of which Rose gives copious extracts. Inevitably, Baldwin stresses Churchill’s multiple talents: ‘he soared into emotional flights of rhetoric in which he has few equals; and throughout the speech he showed that he is not only possessed of consummate ability as a parliamentarian, but also all the versatility of an actor’. Rose adds: ‘Two months later, in the course of the Finance Bill debate, Churchill’s hand gestures were so melodramatic that he accidentally smacked the face of the Financial Secretary’ [187].

Neville Chamberlain, then Minister of Health, also declared his admiration for the showman – but less for the politician, as he wrote to his sisters a year later:

Winston constantly improves his position in the House and in the Party. His speeches are extraordinarily brilliant and men flock in to hear him as they would to a first class entertainment at the theatre. The best show in London, they say, and there is the weak point. So far as I can judge they think of it as a show and they are not prepared at present to trust his character and still less his judgment.

Personally, I can’t help liking and admiring him more, the more I see of him, but it is always accompanied by a diminution of my intellectual respect for him. [189]

This was written in the wake of the General Strike, and Rose has excellent testimonies from other colleagues and opponents on Churchill’s ebullient management of the British Gazette, the official Government newpaper during the strike. Perhaps the best comes from the British Worker, published by the strikers, which spoke of ‘a melodramatic “stunt” on Sidney Street lines’ [188].

When the Conservatives lost the 1929 General Election, Churchill resumed his lucrative North American lecture tours and literary activities with increased eagerness. Rose magnificently documents the print runs and sales of his books on both sides of the Atlantic, largely – and rightly – drawing on Cohen’s previous work. But he also dug up contemporary copies of magazines and journals in which The World Crisis was reviewed after the publication of the fourth volume, The Aftermath, in March 1929. With that publication, he tells us ‘the reviews took a sour turn’ [205]. The reasons were not far too see, Rose suggests: the Americans ‘did not care to read Churchill’s multivolume vindication of Britain’s conduct (and his own) in that war’ [206]. Reverting to his central theme, Rose concentrates on the rivalry between two great manipulative authors: Churchill in The World Crisis and Ray Stannard Baker, President Wilson’s Press Secretary at Versailles, in Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement (1922). He argues that ‘The Aftermath had been written partly as a rebuttal to the most popular American acount of the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference’ – Baker’s [206]. We will of course never know how far Churchill was motivated by this, but Rose certainly adduces convincing evidence of the controversial nature of Churchill’s ‘rebuttal’ of Baker’s pro-Wilson scenario when he cites passages of The Aftermath in which Churchill compares it to a second-rate ‘Hollywood’ movie:

For this purpose the President is represented as a stainless Sir Galahad championing the superior ideals of the American people and brought to infinite distress by contact with the awful depravity of Europe and its statesmen. Mr. Baker’s film story is, in short, the oldest in the world… The plot is certainly sensational, but it scarcely represents what actually happened. [207]

Though Rose does not mention Savrola in connection with this discussion, it is clear that a past master of Manichean plot-writing like the author of that book could easily see through the similar devices used by ‘an audience-grabbing popular journalist’, as Rose describes Baker [206]. Examining Churchill’s standing in the United States in the inter-war years, Rose insists that we should never forget the difference in transatlantic attitudes then and after the war: ‘Today – when Americans warmly associate Britain with adorable rock stars, sexy spies, zany comedians, quality television, and bulldoggish war leaders – it is difficult to remember the intense Anglophobia of the 1920s and 1930s’ [212], and that Churchill was ‘misled’ by his ‘friends and fans among America’s financial and media elites’, who ‘flattered him into thinking that he was a household name in the United States’ [211].

As we now know, the Second World War was to make him ‘a household name in the United States’ – but not immediately, as the Isolationist movement had to found its policy of ‘keeping aloof’ on an equal rejection of aid to Britain or Germany, i.e. an equal rejection of Churchill and Hitler, another master of stage-management and, as Churchill himself was the first to acknowledge, a Leader with a ‘theatrical sense of history’ [237]. Rose has extremely well researched pages on Churchill’s rise to the Premiership in May 1940, with a wide array of testimonies left by the participants and close observers. One of them was Joseph Kennedy, the American Ambassador who misleadingly wrote to Roosevelt, against all later evidence, on 1 December 1940: ‘Mr. President, there is no doubt in my mind that Churchill has no particular love for the U.S. nor in his heart for you’ [297]. A few months later, however, Harry Hopkins, the President’s special envoy took the opposite view. Why? – because Churchill had shown that he was more than an actor and a master of rhetoric (Rose reminds us that his famous speech of 20 August 1940 on ‘The Few’ is ultimately derived from Henry V [333]): ‘he meant business’, as shown at Mers el-Kébir (Oran) [323]. And he had the population behind him, as the American press had to admit:

As Time magazine commented, Americans had once associated Britain with Stanley Baldwin’s campaign against Mrs. Simpson, and Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement. ‘But the country they ruled has changed. This England is different’. Churchill might be ‘a Tory, an imperialist, and has been a strike breaker and Red-baiter; and yet when he tours the slums of London, old women say “God bless you, Winnie” ’. [338]

Still, Churchill continued to talk in terms borrowed from the theatre, as superbly documented – and footnoted – by Rose’s research:

In this epic of ‘the world stage’ his other favourite tropes were drama and tragedy – the ‘Greek tragedy’ of the French fleet at Oran, the ‘squalid tragedy’ of Mussolini’s puppet government at Salo…, ‘Renaissance tragedy’ when he executed his son-in-law Ciano, ‘a tragedy within a tragedy’ when Partisans and Cetniks betrayed each other in occupied Yugoslavia. [332]

This enables Rose to write that Churchill ‘treated the Second World War as his greatest literary work’ and that he ‘was able to make his aesthetic and militaritic impulses work together’ [363], later adding ‘The Second World War is indeed a work of theatre’ [414]. For instance, he makes much of the notorious ‘percentages deal’ with Stalin (October 1944) over the future of Greece and the Balkans. Correctly noting that ‘[e]ver since, this episode has baffled historians’, he continues : ‘As diplomacy, it was amateurish. But as theatre, it was brilliant’. On this occasion, we have a long, systematic exploitation of the author’s chosen thread – perhaps its culmination in the whole monograph, in fact:

Churchill once again dissolved the boundary between theatre and reality: his script was his negotiating strategy, and to some extent he was more concerned with playing a role than with securing a workable agreement. In dramatic terms this scene was expertly constructed, a virtual monologue in which the ever-eloquent Churchill beguiles his audience with his grand bargain. There are perfectly timed loaded pauses, the longest when the whole cast and the audience gaze guiltily at the incriminating paper on the table. The laconic despot has nothing to say at all – except the mordant curtain line. He quietly waits for Churchill to walk into a trap of his own devising, which is sprung with devastating effect: the playwright understood the impact of a simple silent gesture. [384]

Likewise, Churchill’s literary agent told him after reading a draft of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples that ‘the narrative is more dramatic than any fiction’ [420]. This ‘monument of middlebrow history’, as Rose describes it, ‘was still relying on melodramatic devices’, with a Manichean distribution of roles between the ‘memorable villains’ like Richard III and the positive heroes like Alfred the Great or Richard I [423].

The final chapter offers an intriguing examination of President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the light of what he had learnt from his close study of the Appeasement policy in the 1930s and Churchill’s leadership then and during the Second World War – and also of the slithering into war in the years preceding 1914, as analysed in Churchill’s The World Crisis and in another book of ‘middlebrow history’ [440], The Guns of August (January 1962) by Barbara Tuchman, who admired Churchill as an ‘artist’ and like him ‘treated history as theatre’, in fact relying heavily on The World Crisis for her own narrative [442]. As Macmillan, the British Prime Minister at the time of the crisis, had also been nurtured by the lessons of his great penultimate predecessor, Rose feels able to lump them all into a kind of Churchill bloc which once more saved the Western world: ‘Between them, Kennedy, Macmillan, and Tuchman had drawn upon Churchill’s books to create a discourse of caution, which enabled the President to navigate an interval of extreme danger’ [447]. It is unfortunate that, in the circumstances, one cannot say that Rose presents Churchill as a sort of Russian doll, because this is exactly the kind of analogy that springs to mind, with every interpretation of the great man’s thought and action influencing those who had assimilated them, in turn spawning moves inspired from him among other protagonists. Not everyone will be convinced – but this bold hypothesis is of course temptingly seductive.

In fact the entire book is extremely seductive – and not superficially so. The press release tells us that Professor Rose is a historian of the book, and his impressive knowledge of the writings (in the widest sense) with which Churchill was familiar – including his own of course, and their impact on others – enables him, combined with his impeccable mastery of twentieth-century history, to present the reader with fresh viewpoints, making it possible to look at all the major episodes in Churchill’s long and eventful life from new angles. Many previous Churchill biographers mastered both the details of Churchill’s life and the chronology of his lifetime – however, Professor Rose adds a third, novel dimension to this complex, yet familiar narrative. The actors remain the same, the script also, but he offers a new mise-en-scène with new props, new lighting and new sets, to paraphrase him.

The book is not for newcomers to Churchill biography, but established Churchill scholars will find it a delight to read, and postgraduates who have to study the forces and men which shaped the twentieth century will find a lot of insightful remarks in all chapters. This most welcome addition to the canon of biographical writings on Churchill is unreservedly recommended for immediate acquisition in all University Libraries.



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