A. E. Ellis Essay - Critical Essays

Ellis, A. E.

Ellis is the author of Grand Manoeuvres, a play produced in London.

Grand Manoeuvres [is] a piece of no great intellectual complexity or human depth or verbal dash, but one that does document some perennially interesting facts in a painstaking sort of way. The author, A. E. Ellis, has clearly done his homework, and no doubt lain awake at night brooding about the subject; and it is hardly his fault if his dialogue, with its intermittent cries of 'the scales have fallen from my eyes' and 'an innocent man now languishes on Devil's Island', is customarily rather less than Shakespearean….

Now, I've nothing against nutshells, though they tend to be empty, and no objection to documentaries, though they can be drab and dull. Unluckily, someone at the National Theatre does not share my tolerance. Perhaps it is … Mr Ellis himself, or (more probably) a fell conglomerate of director and author; but what we actually get is a frantic series of efforts to disguise that anything so ordinary is onstage. The play's unpretentious skeleton has been daubed and beribboned and fitted out with a funny moustache, like a relic on display at some parody of the mass….

Anyone who saw Oh, What a Lovely War! or one of its numberless derivatives will recognise the style. The question is whether, without freshness or imagination or satiric sharpness, it can enhance its subject. In my view, the effect is all subtraction. So barefaced is the conspiracy to distract us from them that we're actually made the more aware of the paucity of the characterisation and ideas; and, in any case, the ring-a-roses style militates against the smallest subtlety. What, after all, is being said about officers who appear with pink plastic masking their eyes except that they're unfeeling, inhuman? Or about parliamentarians who prefer pillows to words except that they're childish? This sort of drollery is only a means of avoiding the trouble of tackling the truth. It makes convoluted issues look as straightforward as sandpies, and amiably shrugs off dangerous men as ninnies and noodles. It editorialises, which is annoying, and trivialises, which is worse. (p. 872)

Benedict Nightingale, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), December 13, 1974.

The world premiere … of A E Ellis's new play Grand Manoeuvres about the Dreyfus Affair, was for me a double disappointment. As history, it offered no new facts, no original interpretation nor even an individual statement about events which are still controversial and politically sensitive, at least in France. As theatre, it never rose above the level of a run-of-the-mill documentary about the manoeuvres of bombastic generals and mediocre officers in the French army. This dual failure is all the more striking, given the dramatic potential of the subject matter and its political relevance as a 'foregleam of the 20th century'. The contrast with Jean-Claude Grümberg's Dreyfus—a moving and highly imaginative treatment of the same events from a totally different standpoint staged in Paris earlier this year—was painfully evident.

A playwright with flair could hardly have asked for a richer and more varied collection of 'dramatis personae' than the class-conscious generals, the ironical Major Picquart, the sinister Colonel Henry, the luckless Dreyfus, the enigmatic Esterhazy and the frenzied mob baying for the blood of the Jew and singing hosannas to the real traitor! Instead in A E Ellis's play we are laboriously taken through the complex labyrinth of the judicial case with its staged court-martials presented to us as a comic pantomime. There is a superfluity of dry fact and pedantic detail, a minimum of dramatic illumination: plenty of vulgarity and abuse but none of the moving eloquence which transformed an individual miscarriage of justice into the Affair of historical fame….

As with everything else in the performance, the antisemitism of fin-de-siècle French society is baldly stated, without any finesse or insight into its paradoxical nature and deeper causes. Dreyfus is presented simply as the victim and fall-guy of a military conspiracy. The unpleasant sides of his character, the vanity, ostentation, 'parvenu' zeal and boastfulness are ignored. The result is that we never understand how an inoffensive, model officer and a French superpatriot to boot, only too anxious to please his superiors, could ever provoke such antipathy. (p. 26)

[Wherever] Mr Ellis seems on the verge of telling us something important, the flawed characterisation blunts the message. We remain bogged down with [a] pompous, self-important clique of officers guarding their petty national secrets and entrusted in their stale upper-class prejudices.

Furthermore whenever the play ventures out of the furtive world of counter-espionage, it falters into slapstick and comic opera…. Mr Ellis's dialogue is too hollow to sustain our interest.

But there is a much more fundamental imbalance in Grand Manoeuvres which in my opinion distorts its whole picture of the Dreyfus case. Mr Ellis has offered us a France without the Dreyfusards, dominated by an arrogant military caste. Was this really so? Can one give an intelligible version of the Affair in which the judicial case is so completely severed from political conflicts and moral choices?…

We are surfeited with the racial mystique of antisemitic nationalism but the Dreyfusard mystique of integral justice is glossed over completely. Grand Manoeuvres by-passes all the dramatic high-points of the actual Dreyfus Affair from the Esterhazy and Zola trials to the Dreyfusard campaigns, from the clashes between republicans and clerico-royalists, socialists and anti-semites, to the threat of a military coup d'état. One is scarcely aware of the mounting public pressure which brought Dreyfus back to France in 1899 and ensured his rehabilitation despite the verdict of the military judges at Rennes. From Mr Ellis's play it is incomprehensible how the 3rd Republic ever survived the sordid corruption exposed by the Dreyfus Affair.

Stripped of its political confrontations, its moral fervour, its poignancy and pathos, even the Dreyfus case can become a tiresome and insipid story. Marx says somewhere in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that all great events in history are doomed to occur twice: the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce. (p. 27)

Robert Wistrich, in Plays and Players (© copyright Robert Wistrich 1975; reprinted with permission), February, 1975.

Grand Manoeuvres is a pointlessly busy production, frequently straining for effects that are probably not worth achieving….

It is not immediately obvious why Mr Ellis should have chosen to write a play about Dreyfus at this juncture. As far as I know, nothing fresh has come to light recently about the Dreyfus Affair, an extremely complicated cause célèbre…. How could the innumerable facts of so involved a story be adequately represented in a stage-play lasting three hours? The answer is that they cannot; they have to be drastically simplified. But a dramatic simplification of a known sequence of historical events is only justified if it brings out some incontrovertible truth in a proper aesthetic balance, or presents some new insight. Mr Ellis fulfils neither of these conditions.

What he gives us at the centre of the play is a powerful presentation of Dreyfus's suffering. We see him unjustly accused by his bullying superiors, publicly degraded after his unfair conviction, exposed to appalling physical and mental cruelty on Devil's Island and attending the second, public trial as a dignified but prematurely aged man. Our hearts bleed for him, as they should. This is more or less his own account, as he gives it in Cinq années de ma vie (1901), with impressive composure and a more scrupulous regard for detail than is shown in the play. (p. 44)

The historical Dreyfus may have been rather less appealing in certain respects than Mr Ellis's character. Some people found him prickly and unattractive. But he was undoubtedly a hero, sustained, strangely enough, by his sense of honour as an officer and his unshakable French patriotism. It is one of the weird ironies of fate that so convinced a Frenchman should have been accused of treason as a Jew. If I remember rightly, he never once mentions his Jewish origin nor refers to the Jewish question in any way. It was the insult to his honour and his patriotism which kept him going and, for instance, made him take the admirable decision to initiate no conversation with his jailers during the long years of his captivity. Although there may be something Talmudic in his constant emphasis on legality, he appears, mercifully, to have had no sense of being a Jewish scapegoat.

Mr Ellis turns him into one by transforming the Legion of Honour, which is eventually bestowed upon him by the President of the Republic, into the Star of David. This is justifiable to the extent that Dreyfus was objectively a Jewish scapegoat, although he was unaware of the fact, or more probably chose to disregard it, and might indeed have objected to Mr Ellis's insistence on it. Certainly, he would have wanted all the details … to be exactly right, whereas the play takes certain misleading liberties with them…. Since Mr Ellis has chosen to use the fashionable mode of dramatic caricature for the bulk of the play, all Dreyfus's persecutors are presented as sadistic buffoons; they strut and posture, and even dance to comic music. Colonel Henry's death is incomprehensible, Esterhazy and Du Paty de Clam are grotesques, and General Mercier is a villain from a melodrama. But if "wicked" people are dehumanised in this manner, they cannot be taken seriously as moral beings. There is no point in feeling indignant about their behaviour; and the spectacle of Dreyfus's suffering, instead of providing a moral stimulus, becomes a mere accident of the universe. Or, to put it the other way round (in terms of religious mythology), on this showing, Dreyfus is a secular parody of Christ; he is a being of a unique kind, sacrificed for inscrutable reasons by God, through the agency of men who are no better than animals. Even the Dreyfusards are made to look ridiculous in the parliamentary and social scenes, as if the great moral debate which divided France for years had no worthwhile content. Grand Manoeuvres (the French expression grandes manoeuvres means "spring or summer manoeuvres") must be meant—but one wonders why—as a generally ironical title; all the manoeuvres are petty.

The question is a delicate one, and I feel I may not be expressing myself very tactfully. What I am trying to say, I think, is that the play, consciously or unconsciously, exploits anti-Semitism as an obvious source of pathos, without taking any pains at all to show how it fitted into the social pathology of the France of the day, which was not necessarily the same as the social pathology of the Germany of the 1930s. Yet surely, when evil and suffering are the result of collective aberration, accuracy of fact and tone is an indispensable form of intellectual and artistic hygiene. Besides, not to be accurate is to show a certain disrespect for the truth of the suffering. (p. 45)

John Weightman, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), March, 1975.

A. E. Ellis's Grand Manoeuvres … is a restatement of society's capacity for irrational tides of hatred in terms of the Dreyfus case. It is a play about which it is possible, indeed necessary, to have many reservations, but the tone of irrational hatred with which it has been widely greeted is in itself a remarkable illustration of the play's point. Much is made in the piece of the anti-semitism which inspired most of the anti-Dreyfus conspiracy. It is mercilessly caricatured; and the play was dismissed so venomously that a stranger might have thought many of London's critics themselves anti-semitic, however unconsciously.

For reasons not clear to me, Grand Manoeuvres has been generally referred to as a plodding documentary, though it is obviously nothing of the kind, but rather a semi-expressionistic series of scenes, each designed to illustrate society and its component types in the throes of an emotional crisis, of that mass hysteria which does from time to time sweep through a community or a country and lead to what is now generically known as a witch-hunt—and was admirably exemplified by the general critical response. The play is not, and cannot have been intended as, a plain restatement of the story…. The actual facts of the Case are in a sense no more important here than the actual facts behind Shakespeare's history plays, though Mr. Ellis sticks a good deal closer to his sources than did Shakespeare. Grand Manoeuvres is the retelling of a myth, an embodiment of recurrent poisons in the collective unconscious. (pp. 40-2)

J. W. Lambert, in Drama, Spring, 1975.