Written in 1918 by Letchworth author Maude Deuchar (under the pseudonym Herbert Tremaine) and performed by Flatpack Theatre, The Handmaidens of Death is a play about the lives of female munitions workers in the last months of the first world war. There is no record of it having been performed prior to 2004, possibly because it failed to pass the censors, but there have been several revivals of it since then.
For the five main characters of the play, the actual fighting is a long way away, and their concerns lie somewhat closer to home. They’re interested almost exclusively in finding themselves men – for marriage or a bit of fun. As a joke, they decide to put slips of paper bearing their names into the shells, to send their “love” to “Fritz” on the front lines. When a group of strange men arrive in the night searching for them, the full horror of the effects of their war work begins to dawn on them.
As a play, its value lies mainly in being a historical curiosity. The script consists primarily in a series of conversations between different characters moaning about the lack of men to go around. They do touch on other issues, such as whether the war has really broken down class barriers, which is interesting from a historical stance, as is the anti-war message. However, the boy-crazy characters don’t resonate all that well with a modern audience (even when it’s explained in a slightly patronising prologue that women’s lives were different a century ago). When something does finally happen in Act Two, it takes absolutely ages for the characters to figure out what the audience can guess from the start.
The script could use some editing or more imaginative staging to mitigate the long conversations, which are played quite statically in this production. While the opening video montage of World War I footage makes a strong start, the subsequent projections of backdrops are of low quality and completely unnecessary for setting the scene. The cast are enthusiastic and inhabit the minds of their characters well, but there are some pretty dodgy accents amongst them.
While it is nice to see a plays by historical female playwrights revived, especially when they include so many roles for women, it is unlikely that The Handmaidens of Death will be finding its way into the modern canon.