On composing Girlfriends

Girlfriends was written in 1985-6. At that time a women’s peace group were staging what turned into a 19-year protest outside the perimeter of the US Air Force base at Greenham Common (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenham_Common_Women’s_Peace_Camp). The underlying assumption of that very well publicised campaign was that there was an issue of gender connected with belligerent behaviour, particularly – in this instance – with the bombing of civilians. Whilst most educated people would agree with the historical assessment that men by and large start conflicts and that women by and large try to stop them, I wanted to examine this assumption a little further by looking at the role of women in quasi front-line positions in WW2 to see what might be learned from that experience. In reading the research material provided to me by the RAF museum archives I discovered that – as one might expect, the picture was a confused one, with many women torn between the damage they were undoubtedly inflicting upon other women and their families in other countries, and their duty to stand up against a bloody tyrant and his allies who had abandoned any pretence of morality or ethics in pursuit of their desires for world-domination. They were aware that a pacifist or appeasement stance adopted by the population as whole would likely have led to the Nazi occupation of Britain.

In France ordinary people imagined that fighting the Germans again would have been a re-run of the First World War and decided that nothing was worth repeating that for (France lost over one million men in the first war). Very soon they discovered in the aftermath of their defeat that maybe fighting would have been better than what followed, after all, but they weren’t to know this for sure at the time the Vichy regime made its pact with Hitler. The British had seen what occupation was doing, not just in France but all over Europe, and were horrified at what it meant in reality (deportations, slave labour, pillage, torture, separation and dispersal of families, impoverishment, deprivation and widespread human rights abuses). Because of this, many people who before the war had held pacifist opinions revised them in the light of events; there are many insightful and moving accounts of, for example, religious teachers who had campaigned vehemently against military intervention before the war who went on to write testimonies declaring that the evil being faced was so great and so unprecedented that they believed it was acceptable to suspend their previously-held moral positions.

Their moral dilemmas were acute, and I was immensely impressed and humbled by the intelligence and integrity with which they faced them. I wanted to reflect the multitude of feelings and moral positions that co-existed amongst people fighting for the Allies in that war, to get beyond the – undeniably compelling – moral certainties of the Churchill speeches.

What was so striking about the women who volunteered to join the WAAF is that six or so weeks before doing so they were ordinary young people who suddenly, with very little training, preparation or build-up, found themselves at the front line of history’s most frightening, industrialised and barbaric confrontation. These were not trained military personnel who had had months of brainwashing, nor were they modern people who could see TV reports, surf the net or read detailed news journalism before they arrived on an airbase. They were relatively innocent and open-minded, and yet they rose to the challenge of the enormous contradictions and difficulties they faced with stoicism and inner strength.

It is essential to understand that for the whole 1941 period of the action of Girlfriends, many if not most people in Britain suspected that they were outgunned and outnumbered by their enemy and that they were heading for a crushing defeat. And so it was their mental attitude, alongside their military courage and improvisation, that must have pulled them through as much as anything else. What they thought about what they were doing was therefore of critical interest to me. Whilst I felt it imperative to put Jasmine’s traumatised perspective in to the mix, therefore, I also felt it was unfair to the historical context if her view ultimately prevailed. The view that did prevail was that the execution of the war was grim but the lesser of two evils: unlike some of the men in the forces, I came away from the research believing that almost none of the women – if any – had actually enjoyed the mechanics and ‘thrill’ of the battle.

The circumstances of the period of the writing and composing of the piece are not those we live in now, and the messages that different characters convey in Girlfriends will also sound and feel different when performed now. In the great history plays of William Shakespeare, he takes as his settings the events and characters of, say, the Roman occupation of Egypt, the Battle of Agincourt, the Wars of the Roses, but really he is talking about Elizabethan England. However, I have never felt as a member of the audience at one of these plays that Shakespeare has already made up his mind with what or with whom we are supposed to agree. He presents the exercise of power as a series of moral human dilemmas, the solutions to which are multifarious and often contradictory. He makes us see that all leaders, like all of us, are flawed and that even a good intention can lead to a bad outcome. He asks us to imagine what we would do given the same circumstances or problems. This is how ideally I would like an audience at a performance of Girlfriends to be treated.

Prospective directors and performers of Girlfriends might like to read H.E.Bates’ superb wartime novel Fair Stood the wind for France, which tells of an RAF bomber crew’s experiences after being forced to crash land in Occupied France. Bates himself served as an RAF Squadron Leader during the war. Another fascinating source is the 1993 Vincent Ward film Map of the Human Heart/La Carte du Tendre (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Map_of_the_Human_Heart) about a Canadian Inuit who becomes a pilot in WW2. In it here are some stunning, haunting images that are relevant to Girlfriends. One of these is a scene with some WAAFs and a barrage balloon, another where the film’s protagonist makes love to his sweetheart inside the dome of the Royal Albert Hall whilst an orchestra rehearses on stage far below and an air raid threatens above. The most powerful and shocking scene of all is when he takes part in the bombing of Dresden (and gets shot down into the inferno). However, the source with which I began was All the Brave Promises, The memories of Aricraftwoman 2nd Class 2146391, an autobiographical account published in 1966 by American volunteer Mary Lee Settle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Lee_Settle) of her experiences of joining the WAAF in 1942. From its candid pages the polyphonic, contrapuntal sound of 12 independent women’s voices began to emerge.

Key information:

Text: Howard Goodall

Première: May, 1986, Oldham Coleseum Theatre: (cast included) Maria Friedman/Jenna Russell/Carla Mendonca

Availability: Performance materials available on hire from Faber Music (hire@fabermusic.com); rights licensed by Faber Music Copyright Dept (copyright@fabermusic.com)