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In the drama ‘The Long and The Short and The Tall,’ the playwright Willis Hall convincingly uses the characters and their reactions to their situation to effectively reveal the theme of war.
The play centres around seven soldiers in the First World War, who have become separated from their platoon and are stuck in the Malayan Jungle with only weapons, a minimal food supply and each other. The first part of the play concentrates on how the soldiers relate to each other in this isolated and pressurising situation, and we find out what kind of people they are.
Later on though, they find a Japanese soldier and have to let him live with them in their hut. However, they must decide how to deal with him in the long run and in the end, after many arguments and changes of heart, an example of the harsh reality of war is demonstrated – they kill him, surprising themselves as much as anyone. The play finishes unpredictably, with all of the soldiers but one being killed after leaving the hut.
This soldier, Johnston, surrenders to the Japanese, and what is going to happen to him is foreseeable.
The first important aspect we see which influences the characters and shows the idea of war is the setting. The setting is described to us before any dialogue takes place:
“A short burst of heavy gunfire is heard in the distance – and then silence. A pause and then we hear the chirruping of crickets in the jungle.
This would seem a rather strange setting for a war, and an equally strange place for sounds like gunshots to be heard, as it would seem to contrast to the peaceful setting. However, here Hall is conveying the idea that war affects everything, and that the soldiers are in a very isolated, claustrophobic place.
Being confined to a small hut in the jungle makes the soldiers feel tense and causes their emotions to be magnified and brought out on each other, resulting in their arguing and mocking. An example of this occurs quite early in the play, where the soldiers are already starting to feel the effects of isolation and two, Bamforth and Evans, are having an argument. Bamforth is mocking Evans:
“Get back to Wales, you Cardiff creep. Only good for digging coal and singing hymns, you crummy lot.”
This helps to reveal the theme of war because individuals do not usually mock people unnecessarily and due to the isolated situation he is in Bamforth may be resorting to this to hide his own fear, or even for want of something better to do.
The use of escapism is a second indication that the drama is set while a war is taking place. Earlier on in the play, the soldiers spend a while discussing personal matters like their families and houses:
“Did you do any gardening, Smudge, before you came into the army?” enquires Evans of Smith. Smith answers by describing his garden, ending with:
” I suppose the kids have racked it up.”
This seems somewhat strange as a garden appears a bit of an odd thing to be worrying about in the middle of a war. It also feels rather odd to the readers, as we know that it is highly unlikely that Smith will ever see his home and family again. Also, it shows that the war has an effect on people’s feelings, making them think more about their homes and families and appreciate them more. Discussing families serves as distraction to the men, who are just ordinary people needing a way to escape from the horror of their state of affairs.
Private Evans has a women’s magazine, “Lady’s Companion and Home.” Although at first he is teased about this, the soldiers eventually engage in a debate about one of the topics, again helping to take their minds off things. This leads to a further discussion about families; we learn about the soldier’s girlfriends, wives and children. It is noticed, however, that Bamforth mentions nothing at all about his personal life, revealing a nature that does not wish to share individual stories, or is possibly jealous.
One further example of escapism comes when Whitaker is seen darning his socks for: “kit inspection Saturday morning.” This is something that is not expected of the men, revealing a ‘soft’ side not incorporated in the typical ‘image’ of a soldier. This again reveals the theme of war by showing it meddles with people’s emotions – the men unintentionally show their tender sides whilst doing anything to take their minds of the depressing situation that is war.
The soldier’s reactions to their radio, which is broken and so consequently useless, helps to take the theme of war further. Bamforth refuses to get excited when Whitaker thinks he hears something during his attempts to contact the rest of the platoon:
“Bamforth: So what’s the use.
Whitaker: I got something through, I’m telling you.
Bamforth: That’s your story, boy. You stick to it.”
Evans is not convinced either, saying: “Perhaps you just imagined it, Sammy boy.” This shows that war depresses people, and causes them to have negative attitudes, as they do not want to build their hopes up and be let down.
However, when Whitaker tries a second time, both Evans and MacLeish think they have heard something as well, though Bamforth again refuses to let it get his hopes up:
“Bamforth: Ah, so what.
Evans: I heard voices, Bammo!
Bamforth: So what does that make you? Joan of Arc? Could have been any of the mobs up the jungle.”
We can see that he does not wish to get excited about something that may turn out to be unimportant, in order not to disappoint himself. However, when he realises that no one is behind him he resorts to taunts and sarcasm to stop him feeling defeated. This comes back to the theme of war in that it brings out pessimism and negative attitudes in people, and that it causes conflict between the soldiers who are suddenly bundled together in a confined space.
Whitaker tries the radio a third time, and finds that although he picks up a small amount of sound, the radio fades due to a dead battery. Johnston gets irritated then, thinking that the dead battery could have prevented something important coming through: “Damn duff equipment. Whole damn issue’s duff.” It is the fault of the broken radio, which was issued by the British Army, that the men are in this situation in the first place. This shows that the men are at the mercy of those in control, indicating they have been placed there to do duties in a war that is not theirs, but their government’s. Johnston and Mitchem smoke to calm themselves – this scene shows the fear and frustration that war causes.
Meanwhile, Whitaker is still trying to tune into the radio. After four tries, the radio bursts into life at long last, and a Japanese voice is heard. The soldiers react with sarcastic, forced humour: “Bring on the Geisha girls!” This again shows the topic of war because it demonstrates the soldier’s fear – the forced humour is their way of dealing with it.
As the Japanese army approach, the soldier’s reactions to this reveal further the war theme. At first, Evans acts as though he is not concerned because he feels that they are too far away to pose a threat: “It’s twenty miles at least!” However, he could just be trying to convince himself, and signs of worry and anxiety are certainly showing among the other men:
“Whitaker: It was as clear as a bell! They could be sitting right on top of us!
MacLeish: I’ve got my brother posted out there!”
MacLeish continues this worry over his brother further into the play, and his naï¿½vety is displayed; he clearly knows nothing about how British prisoners of war are treated, and after they find the Japanese Soldier he goes to question Mitchem on the matter. At the same time he tries to convince himself that his brother will be treated fairly:
“MacLeish: You hear so many stories – you know, on how the Japs treat P.O.Ws.
Mitchem: Pretty rough, they reckon.
MacLeish: I’m not so sure. You hear all kinds of things, as if they’re almost…animals. But this bloke seems a decent sort of bloke.”
The approach of the Japanese is making him wonder if his brother has been made a prisoner. This shows the theme of war because it shows war makes people think more about their families. Mitchem, rather than comforting MacLeish, adopts a realistic approach and shows good leadership, as he knows his men must be prepared.
One further aspect that reveals the theme of war is the soldier’s reaction to the Japanese Soldier they have come across. The soldiers struggle to decide whether or not to kill the soldier in a battle of survival versus rules – Mitchem reckons the soldier has to be sacrificed in order for them to survive, while the Geneva Convention stands to prevent them doing this. As we can see from the above, MacLeish sympathises with the soldier, and is not hostile towards him, displaying the idea that war is between governments and not individuals (although he changes his opinion later on.)
He is kind to the soldier, trying to convince himself that if he treats this one soldier well, the opposing soldiers will be treating his brother well, should he have been made a prisoner of war. However he finds it hard to hold on to his morals – this is shown in his changing attitude towards the soldier. When a British cigarette case is found, he thinks again of his brother but in a different way. This quick change of opinion reveals the theme of war by showing that war produces instinctive reactions.
Most of the other soldiers react as we would expect from what we know of their personalities – Johnston is an aggressive, power-hungry bully who hates the enemy and is eager to kill the soldier, having no doubts from the start: “Stick it in! Don’t stand there tossing the odds! Just close your eyes and woof it in!” He is not really thinking about what he is doing – he just sees the soldier as the ‘opposition’, not a person, who has to be killed because that is, in his opinion, the way war works. Again this demonstrates the idea that the war is between governments, who tell their soldiers what they expect from them and this has to be carried out.
Evans, whom Johnston is addressing at this point, finds himself unable to kill the soldier, which doesn’t surprise us because he is quite a soft, kind-hearted person. This highlights the fact that in situations like war ordinary men are put in impossible situations, again helping to reveal this theme.
One reaction to the Japanese soldier that comes as a surprise is that of Bamforth. Although he comes across as rather a violent, sarcastic joker without any detectable sensitive side he defends the opposing soldier and is friendly to him, and even goes as far as to make a joke attempt to teach him English: “I said, get your fingers up on your head! Like this! See! Flingers on the blonce! All light?” At the very end, where all the other soldiers appear to have unanimously decide to kill the soldier Bamforth sticks by him loyally.
He raises the question of morality in war, asking himself and the others if it is right to kill someone just because he is wearing the wrong uniform. He sees the soldier as an individual, like them, realising that he too has a family, which would be left without a husband and a father, should he be killed. It sometimes seems that Bamforth does not want to be there, – he refusal to kill the soldier may even convey the fact that he is against the war all together.
In the end, it is Whitaker – the youngest and most vulnerable soldier in the patrol – who clumsily shoots the soldier and leads his troop to discovery and death. This is ironic because he has consistently been the most timid member of the group. The incident clearly shows the negative effect of young and badly trained soldiers being placed in horrendous situations like war. The fact that it is Johnston, the most violent member of the patrol, who should survive at the end of the play is also ironic, as after constantly telling his own patrol to kill the enemy that was the opposing soldier, he himself surrenders to the Japanese.
In conclusion, I find that Hall’s message about war is successfully conveyed through the characters. Each character reacts differently to the circumstances, illustrating that war concerns everybody and has many different effects. Through some of the characters, especially Bamforth and his bonding with the Japanese soldier, Hall illustrates one of his most important messages – war is between governments, not individuals.
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