Vanity Fair, May 1915
HOME LIFE IN THE WAR ZONE
By P. G. Wodehouse
HAVE you a little spy in your home? Don’t answer with thoughtless haste. Don’t say “No, I have no little spy in my home, because there is nobody home but my wife, the Swedish cook, and the rubber-plant,” for, in that case the place is in all probability a hornet’s nest of spies.
We know, because we have just seen “The White Feather” and “Inside The Lines,” and the two households depicted in those plays are simply congested with spies. There is practically nothing in those two dramas, from the hero to the potted rubber plant up-stage, which does not turn unexpectedly into a spy. Your wife may—we do not say she is, but she may—be all right: but the cook is probably No. 1934 from the Wilhelmstrasse and the rubber-plant is not so much a rubber-plant as a nest for dictagraphs, or whatever they call those affairs which the prosecuting attorney introduces as exhibit A in your divorce case.
Yes, you have guessed it. “The White Feather” and “Inside The Lines” are War plays,—the advance guard of the main body, the first drops of the great storm of War plays which will shortly descend upon Broadway. From the rock-bound coasts of Maine to the Everglades of Florida earnest young men are everywhere writing War plays. The above-mentioned plays have had the luck to get there first, and, after visiting them, our faith in human nature is completely shattered and we would not trust the wife of our bosom with ten cents.
The rule in the War play seems to be that you can be either a good spy or a bad spy, but you must be a spy of some kind. A bad spy is a German spy. A good spy is an English spy who spies on the German spy.
To give a simple instance of what we mean, Captain Woodhouse in “Inside The Lines” is not really Captain Woodhouse. He is an English spy posing as Captain Woodhouse in order that he may pose as a German spy posing as Captain Woodhouse for the purpose of spying on a German spy who is posing as a faithful Indian servant for the purpose of spying on the people in whose interests the man who is posing as Captain Woodhouse is posing as a German spy. It is not so simple as that, but that will give you a rough idea of the thing.
IF this sort of play has a drawback, it is that, after ten minutes, you decline to believe that any of the characters is what he represents himself to be or is speaking any of his lines without a hidden meaning. If Lord Kitchener were to come on and talk about his army, the audience would shake its head knowingly and nudge itself in the ribs and whisper “Watch that chap. I think he’s going to turn out to be a German spy in the next act.” There were moments during “Inside The Lines” when we were convinced that Mr. Sherman, the stranded American tourist, was going to give the high sign to the English general and say “Tonight’s the night,” to which the general would reply “Auf wiedersehen. Der Tag. Hoch der Kaiser.” It did not happen, and we came away feeling that Mr. Earl Derr Biggers, the author, had missed a good chance. There is not an incident in “The White Feather” which might not actually have happened last August. At the present stage of the war German residents in England presumably have a less free hand, but seven months ago their potency for harm was rather ridiculed, and they could make pets of carrier pigeons without exciting the slightest alarm.
OF the two plays, “The White Feather” is the more plausible. “Inside The Lines” holds you with a strong grip while you are actually in the theatre, but there are holes in it which become manifest in retrospect. It duplicates the famous “Under Cover” trick of fooling the audience, and the revelation that the so-called Captain Woodhouse is really working against the German spies cancels all the meaning of what were the big situations of the play. For instance, where the general and Major Bishop suspect the good Captain and try to trap him.
It is thrilling at the moment, but what would have happened if they had trapped him? Presumably he would have made his explanation, just as he now does at the end of the play, and all would have been well. “The White Feather” has not this defect. There is a definite reason why Christopher Brent could not reveal the fact that he was an English secret-service man. If he had done so, the excellently drawn old fool of an English M. P. would certainly have confided the information (over a cigar and high-ball) to young Sanderson, the leader of the German spies.