The crude little play may safely be recommended for licence — Examiner of Plays

In November 2015, I heard about a project to catalogue every play licensed for performance between 1914 and 1918.

It was being run by Helen Brooks, an actor turned theatre historian and author and Reader in Theatre & Cultural History at the University of Kent.

Helen needed volunteers to do research at the British Library, a place I had always held in awe and never been in. No previous experience required, training provided. It probably took me two seconds to decide to apply.

But the project had begun some time before, when research work of her students sparked the idea that Helen would write a journal article on plays set in the trenches.

Things got off to a slow start with Helen spending four months at the British Library where the performance licensing records from the Lord Chamberlain's office are stored. The cataloguing doesn’t include a description or subject so she had to look through every play individually.

In the event, things didn’t turn out as Helen had expected—thanks to the efforts of many volunteers, the article about 'trench plays' has now grown into a whole book covering theatre during the War. Helen explains:

It was out of necessity that the volunteer program began. I got funding to cover four people but I had no idea what the uptake would be when I put the call out for volunteers.

I was absolutely blown away! Within 24 hours I had had 20 people and within a week I had to shut it down because I had over 40 people apply!

With a bit of extra funding, in the spring of 2016 a team of just under 40 people started working their way through the collection in the British Library.

Each volunteer entered into a spreadsheet key information for each play they had been allocated. In addition to title, playwright and date, the genre, keywords, cast numbers and a word by word copy of the report of the Licensing Officer were all recorded.

Helen's enthusiasm was, and still is, infectious: "It reinvigorated my sense of how exciting it was and how lucky I was to do this kind of work.

"I've become really excited about the idea of doing what they call 'co-produced research'. The volunteer team has such a wide spectrum of people—actors and dancers, retired people, ex librarians, WWI enthusiasts, members of Western Front associations, and all different age ranges.

"It was fantastic, not only because we got through so much more material but every time people came [to the British Library] they had different questions and when they were reading the plays they had different insights that I wouldn’t have noticed."

I can't flatter myself into thinking I contributed anything insightful but I signed up for extra play texts, finding the research process addictive. Seeing pages of neat cursive script or a tatty sewn together collection of odd-sized pages was a touching reminder that the manuscripts were someone's creative effort.

Handling the sometimes fragile material, I got the same buzz as I get when I'm aware of walking in ancient footsteps. Finding the Holy Grail—a play set in the War—provided a kick and reading the Licensing Officer's comments often raised an eyebrow or a smile:

There is very little sense in any of their proceedings, which are no less preposterous than evil-disposed. They may, however, serve to interest quite innocently those able to enjoy primitive domestic melodrama; and the crude little play may safely be recommended for licence.