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...
(The entire section is 2,096 words.)