Sir James Barrie was master of two types of moment in the theater. He excelled at expressing the poignant, as in Wendy’s goodbye in Peter Pan, and Mr. Dearth speaking to his daughter Margaret for a single night in Dear Brutus. His other great skill was to catch self-important people making fools of themselves, as in The Admirable Crichton, and The Twelve-Pound Look.
Barrie provides both in The Old Lady Shows Her Medals. Mrs. Dowey, a Scots charwoman in London, pretends to her friends to have a son fighting in France in WWI. There is no son, but she carries the charade further, writing to a soldier she has picked at random at the front. He comes angrily to look for her while on leave, and the moment they meet is quite touching.
But first, we watch Mrs. Dowey and the other charwomen making fools of themselves over tea. They are discussing the war and its conduct as if they were knowledgeable in such matters. It would be merely silly if it were not so reminiscent of the comments sections that I encounter online today. Oh yeah, and also the journalists asking questions of politicians; and talking heads doing political commentary. Whenever we make pronouncements about the war, most of us would do well to remember this scene:
Mrs. Twymley is sulking. Evidently some one has contradicted her. Probably the Haggerty Woman.
MRS. TWYMLEY. 'I say it is so.'
THE HAGGERTY WOMAN. 'I say it may be so.'
MRS. TWYMLEY. 'I suppose I ought to know: me that has a son a prisoner in Germany.' She has so obviously scored that all good feeling seems to call upon her to end here. But she continues rather shabbily, 'Being the only lady present that has that proud misfortune.' The others are stung.
MRS. DOWEY. 'My son is fighting in France.'
MRS. MICKLEHAM. 'Mine is wounded in two places.'
THE HAGGERTY WOMAN. 'Mine is at Salonaiky.'
The absurd pronunciation of this uneducated person moves the others to mirth.
MRS. DOWEY. 'You'll excuse us, Mrs. Haggerty, but the correct pronunciation is Salonikky.'
THE HAGGERTY WOMAN, to cover her confusion. 'I don't think.' She feels that even this does not prove her case. 'And I speak as one that has War Savings Certificates.'
MRS. TWYMLEY. 'We all have them.'
The Haggerty Woman whimpers, and the other guests regard her with unfeeling disdain.
MRS. DOWEY, to restore cheerfulness, 'Oh, it's a terrible war.'
ALL, brightening, 'It is. You may say so.'
MRS. DOWEY, encouraged, 'What I say is, the men is splendid, but I'm none so easy about the staff. That's your weak point, Mrs. Mickleham.'
MRS. MICKLEHAM, on the defence, but determined to reveal nothing that might be of use to the enemy, 'You may take it from me, the staff's all right.'
MRS. DOWEY. 'And very relieved I am to hear you say it.'
It is here that the Haggerty Woman has the remaining winkle.
MRS. MICKLEHAM. 'You don't understand properly about trench warfare. If I had a map----'
MRS. DOWEY, wetting her finger to draw lines on the table. 'That's the river Sommy. Now, if we had barrages here----'
MRS. TWYMLEY. 'Very soon you would be enfilided. Where's your supports, my lady?' Mrs. Dowey is damped.
MRS. MICKLEHAM. 'What none of you grasps is that this is a artillery war----'THE HAGGERTY WOMAN, strengthened by the winkle, 'I say that the word is Salonaiky.