I had a chance to see the play Three Days in May this week in London. It is very refreshing to see an entertainment with a historical theme which presents ideas in conflict with a surprising fidelity to history. The play concerns the three days in May of 1940 when France was about to fall to the German onslaught and the fate of the British Expeditionary force on the continent which would be evacuated to Dunkirk was still in doubt.
Britain's War cabinet must make momentous decisions about the war. The Germans at this point had conquered Poland, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Paris was about to be occupied.
Churchill had only become Prime Minister, succeeding Neville Chamberlain a few weeks before the plays' action takes place. Neville Chamberlain, the great appeaser of Munich, was still serving in the British cabinet. Lord Halifax, who was Chamblerlain's preferred successor as Prime Minister (not to mention the King's and most conservative MPs), was now serving as foreign secretary. Clement Atlee ("a sheep in sheep's clothing" as Churchill described him), the labor MP and future PM, was serving in the government of national unity.
Britain seems to be thoroughly whipped. America is in the throes of extreme isolationism and will not help oppose fascism. The Soviets led by Stalin have joined forces with Hitler in a non-aggression pact and a cynical partition of Poland. Soon France will fall and Britain will stand alone against the might of a triumphant Germany. Senor Mussolini, who thinks the war is already won, is threatening to join Hitler in order to gobble up British possessions such as Gibraltar, Malta and Egypt.
Lord Halifax makes an eloquently reasoned case for a negotiated settlement with Hitler to be brokered by Mussolini. Britain cannot possibly win against the overwhelming strength of the Luftwaffe. Her army is trapped in France and desperately fleeing for the coast. England's cities are vulnerable to German bombers just like Warsaw and Rotterdam before them. Britain might as well try and secure the best terms possible and preserve Britain's independence.
Churchill appears to wobble from his notoriously hawkish stance. Maybe Halifax is right? Peace is preferable to war. A vast number of civilian casualties loom ahead. The war cannot be won. Will Britain "make a deal" with Hitler?
The surprising resolution to this drama takes shape with the emergence of a most unlikely hero. It is not Churchill, but rather Neville Chamberlain who is the ultimate hero of this piece. He sides at first with Halifax in the defeatist camp. Churchill, in private meeting with Chamberlain, must threaten his own resignation to avert an attempt at a negotiated peace. Chamberlain recognises that he was made a fool of by Hitler at Munich. He will not take "that man" at his word again. Chamberlain is a dying man determined to do what is right with what remains of his life after so many grievous errors.
Churchill, the old warhorse, is trying to build a consensus. Of course he will not accept a negotiated settlement with Herr Hitler. He would rather die fighting a Nazi invasion in the streets of London than give in.
Three Days in May has no female characters, no sex appeal. All its actors are dead white males. Suspense is lacking because the audience already knows how the war actually turned out, unlike the play's protagonists. It has no remarkable stagecraft or pyrotechnics. Why, then, does it succeed at drama in a way that Spielberg's Warhorse does not?
What it does show is the excruciating process of making tough choices in regard to issues of war and peace. It shows sincere, reasoning men in conflict with each other and, to use Faulkner's phrase "the heart (Chamberlain's especially) in conflict with itself." The focus of this play is on thought rather than raw feeling. It is a triumph!